Oct 31, 2006

From the Archives

A New Generation of Adults Bends Moral and Sexual Rules to Their Liking

Do Americans share much common ground when it comes to defining appropriate moral behavior and attitudes? Most Americans say they are concerned about the moral condition of the country and the vast majority of adults describe themselves as moral people. But the nation’s residents have difficulty agreeing on what a “moral” life should look like – much less how to make ethical decisions or how to define moral standards. A new nationwide survey from The Barna Group examines one of the largest gaps in the moral persuasions of Americans: the difference between those in their twenties and thirties (an age group comprised primarily of the so-called “Buster” generation) and those over the age of 40.

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The new study shows a significant divide between the nation’s young adults and its older residents. The project analyzed 16 different areas of moral and sexual behavior and found that Busters’ lifestyles took a less traditional – some would say less moral – path on 12 of those 16 areas. The study also explored 16 different perspectives regarding morality and sexuality, finding that Busters’ views are less conventional than that of their predecessors in 13 areas. In none of the 32 facets of lifestyle or attitude were Busters more likely to possess a conventional moral position when compared with the older crowd of “pre-Busters.”


Perhaps no moral dimension has changed as much as Americans’ perspectives and behaviors related to sexuality. Among the 32 factors examined in the research, eight of them related to such topics as extramarital sex, pornography, homosexuality, and sexual fantasies. In all eight of these areas, Busters were significantly different from older Americans.

Some of these differences show up in the sexual activities engaged in during the past month. Busters were twice as likely to have viewed sexually explicit movies or videos; two and a half times more likely to report having had a sexual encounter outside of marriage; and three times more likely to have viewed sexually graphic content online.

But many Busters also defy sexual convention in their attitudes. For instance, more than two-thirds of the generation said that cohabitation and sexual fantasies are morally acceptable behaviors, compared with half of older adults. Most young adults contended that engaging in sex outside of marriage and viewing pornography are not morally problematic, while only one-third of pre-Busters agreed. Almost half of Busters believed that sexual relationships between people of the same sex are acceptable, compared with one-quarter of older adults.

Other Behaviors

Moral experimentation is often most evident at a young age. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Busters were more likely than older adults to say that in the past month they had used illegal drugs and had gotten drunk. (Smoking rates, however, were comparable between the generations.)

But on a deeper level, the new rules of morality affect how young adults interact with others, creating less civility, respect, or patience. Busters were twice as likely as their parents’ generation to use profanity in public, to say mean things about others behind their back, to tell something to another person that was not true, to do something to get back at someone who hurt or offended them, to take something that didn’t belong to them, and to physically fight or abuse someone.

Given their familiarity with and access to technology, the study also showed that young adults – especially twentysomethings – were ten times more likely than older adults to download or trade music online illegally. While some of that gap can be attributed to the relative comfort of the younger adults with the technologies involved, a considerable degree of the gap must be credited to the different moral standards of the two adult segments.

The lifestyles of young and old were indistinguishable in a few ways. Out of the 16 areas of moral behavior, adults across the generations were equally likely to have given someone “the finger” while driving, to smoke, to buy a lottery ticket, and to place a bet or gamble.

Views about Morality

People’s actions are guided by their values and the research showed that Busters’ opinions about morality were also distinct from those of their predecessors. Young adults were significantly more likely to accept gambling, profanity, intoxication, and illegal drug use as morally acceptable behaviors. Busters’ perspectives were no different from that of their elders on three issues: the acceptability of abortion, allowing the “f-word” on broadcast television, and deeming divorce not to be a sin.

However, other large generational gaps emerged when the survey explored how people decide what is right and wrong. Nearly half of all pre-Busters said they view moral truth as absolute, but only three out of 10 Busters embraced the concept of absolute truth. Two-thirds of those over 40 said humans should determine what is right and wrong morally by examining God’s principles; less than half of Busters felt this way. Instead, nearly half of Busters said that ethics and morals are based on “what is right for the person,” compared with just one-quarter of pre-Busters.

This mindset helps to explain why Busters are more likely to embrace a pragmatic, individualized form of moral decision-making. When asked to describe how they make moral and ethical choices, a majority of pre-Busters said they follow a set of principles or guidelines, while less than half of Busters (including just one-third of those in their twenties) said they follow such external ideals.

A Christian Distinctive?

To what extent does faith make a difference among Busters? The research shows that born again Busters – a group defined not based upon self-identification with the “born again” label but based upon their beliefs about Jesus Christ and regarding life after death – were different from non-born again young adults on some issues. Born again Busters were somewhat less likely to illegally download music, to smoke, to view pornography, to purchase a lottery ticket, or to use profanity. However, young believers were actually more likely than non-believers to try to get back at someone and to have stolen something. Moreover, on eight of the 16 behaviors, the profile of born again Busters was virtually identical to that of non-born again Busters.

The research also compared born again Christians across age groups. Born again Busters were much less likely to act in a “moral” manner than were born again adults over 40. On nine of the 16 activities, young believers were less conventional than older believers, while engagement in the other seven activities was indistinguishable between the generations.

In terms of attitudes, the typical pattern was for born again adults over 40 to be most closely aligned with biblical perspectives, followed far behind by other segments, including younger Christians. For example, just 33% of born again pre-Busters believe that cohabitation is morally acceptable. However, among born again Busters nearly twice as many (59%) agreed, representing a majority of young Christian adults. Among non-Christian older adults, 65% concurred, while 80% of non-Christian Busters felt cohabitation was acceptable. This same response pattern was evident when it came to gambling, sexual fantasies, abortion, sex outside of marriage, profanity, pornography, same-sex marriage, and the use of illegal drugs.

The director of the research, David Kinnaman, pointed out, “The research shows that people’s moral profile is more likely to resemble that of their peer group than it is to take shape around the tenets of a person’s faith. This research paints a compelling picture that moral values are shifting very quickly and significantly within  the Christian community as well as outside of it.”

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What It Means

When asked to put the findings about Busters in context, especially in comparison to the views and behaviors of Baby Boomers, Kinnaman explained that “the morality of Busters comes from a very different background. For instance, divorce, crime, single-parent households, and suicide were much more prevalent while Busters grew up. Boomers took moral experimentation to new heights, but Busters now live in a world where such experimentation is the norm, not the exception. Busters have a more disconnected, individualized, less trusting spin on morality. They are trying to create a sense of identity because they feel that shaping influences such as family, church, and community have failed them. Boomers experimented to overthrow the morals of their parents, while Busters live with a mindset of trying to survive.

“It is important for churches to understand the natural skepticism of Busters as well as their desire for spiritual and conversational depth,” he continued. “Young adults do not want to hear on-the-stage monologues about moral regulations. To earn access to their hearts and minds, you have to understand each person’s unique background, identity, and doubts, and must tangibly model a biblical lifestyle for them beyond the walls of the church.”

The California-based researcher also put the sexuality data in perspective. “It is rare to see such large gaps between population segments and it confirms a major shift in the way Busters think and behave sexually. Sexual experimentation is not new. But it is striking to see sexual behaviors and attitudes that were uncommon now becoming part of the accepted, mainstream experience of young people.” The Vice President of the Barna Group added, “We expect to see this mindset of sexual entitlement translate into increased appetites for pornography, unfiltered acceptance of sexual themes and content in media, and continued dissolution of marriages due to infidelity. It seems entirely possible that current events such as the Mark Foley scandal, instances of abuse by clergy, and the sexually oriented school shootings of recent months are not mere aberrations, but symptoms of a sexually unrestrained society.”

Kinnaman encouraged churches to help individuals grasp sexuality from a biblical perspective in ways that do not demean people’s personal struggles in the blunt and permissive culture we inhabit. “Young adults are deaf to the same old complaints and cautions typically offered up by church leaders, whether those conditions are biblically accurate or not. Busters have created their own music, language, media, technology and relational networks. For Christians to connect with Busters requires fresh ideas and connecting points to help young adults deal with overwhelming amounts of sexually charged media. The strategies that affected Boomers are falling flat among Busters. We need thoughtful means of intervention and discussion, a new emphasis on biblical counseling, and meaningful forms of accountability. Every church in America has a responsibility to provide its congregants with a menu of relevant and biblical resources that will help people live morally healthy and fulfilled lives.”

The research on Busters is described in greater detail in a new syndicated study written by Kinnaman, entitled The Buster Report: A New Generation of Adults Describes Their Life and Spirituality.   The in-depth report, based upon more than 22,000 personal interviews conducted nationwide, is designed to help organizations understand the changing generational landscape.

Research Details

The data in this article are based on interviews with more than 7000 adults from across the nation in seven separate surveys that dealt specifically with moral issues. The Barna Group conducted these studies through the use of telephone surveys, implemented from the summer of 2003 through October 2006. Each of those surveys was based upon random samples of people 18 years of age and older living within the 48 continental states. Each of the studies was conducted with 1000 or more individuals, providing a maximum margin of sampling error of ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In each survey, the distribution of respondents corresponded to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages.

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Busters” are those born between the years of 1965 and 1983. Currently, Busters are ages 23 through 41.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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