by Katrina Foxe Myburgh
October 22nd, 2014

The fifth installment of Civility in America from global public relations firm Weber Shandwick and public affairs firm Powell Tate with KRC Research looks at civility through a generational lens to better understand what the future holds for society. Although Americans are unanimous about the bleak state of civility, the Millennial generation seems less convinced of a more uncivil future. Nearly one in four Millennials (23 percent) – two to four times the percentage of other generations – believe civility will improve in the next few years. In their relatively short lifetimes, Millennials have experienced more uncivil behavior than any other generation, yet they are America’s most hopeful adults when it comes to tomorrow’s civility.

“The Millennial generation – 83 million people strong – is an economic and game-changing powerhouse that outnumbers the generations that came before it,” said Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick. “The only adult generation to have grown up with cyber-bullying is also the only generation to have a native understanding of the power of a digitally connected world to change things for the better. Observing how Millennials overcome the challenges of eroding civility may suggest how our society can lay the groundwork for a more civil future.”

The Internet and Social Media: Leading Drivers of Incivility

There is a distinct divide between older and younger generations about what’s behind America’s civility problem. More than half of Millennials (56 percent) and Gen Xers (55 percent) say the Internet and social media are making civility worse, ranking them as the top sources of blame. Politicians, in contrast, top the list of incivility drivers for Boomers and the Silent Generation. Millennials and Gen Xers likely point fingers at the Internet because these are the cohorts that came of age during the formative years of the Internet and social media and by default, have been more exposed to both.

Seven in 10 Americans agree that the Internet encourages uncivil behavior. This view is held by all generations though Millennials are somewhat more likely to agree (74 percent). Millennials, the heaviest users of social media, are also significantly more likely than other generations to consider the medium uncivil. This is likely because they encounter more online incivility than others in an average week and are the biggest victims of cyberbullying.



Gen Xers


Silent Generation

The Internet encourages uncivil behavior (% completely/mostly agree)





Have personally experienced incivility online or cyberbullying





Average number of times online incivility is encountered in 7-day week





* = significantly higher than other generations

Standing Up to Incivility

By and large, Americans of all ages are more likely to do nothing in the face of incivility rather than confront it. Yet one-third of Millennials (33 percent) report taking a proactive measure the last time they experienced incivility, a rate significantly higher than those of Gen Xers (22 percent), Boomers (18 percent) and the Silent Generation (7 percent). Millennials were most likely to have defended the victim of incivility (16 percent), a possible trend that could grow in time.

Millennials also deal with incivility online. Approximately half have flagged or reported a comment or post as inappropriate (53 percent) and defriended, blocked or hidden someone because of uncivil behavior or comments (52 percent).

“The modest sign of ‘civility activism’ by Millennials is a refreshing finding from the Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate study,” said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. “If all Americans were to behave as proactively, we would be one step towards turning our nation back to a more civil environment.”

Millennials are Resigned to Incivility in Politics

Civility in America 2014 again finds agreement among Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike: the government behaves uncivilly and politicians are seen as the number one cause of civility erosion for the average American. One of the biggest generational differences when it comes to the civility of politics is that nearly half of Millennials (48 percent) – significantly more than any other generation – accept that incivility is just part of our political process.

“This study prompts several key questions,” said Pam Jenkins, president of Powell Tate. “Most importantly, can the tide be turned on political incivility, or is the damage to our political system irreparable? Millennials are the leaders of tomorrow, which means the power to shape the future of American civil discourse lies in their hands. Their optimism should give us hope, especially it if inspires them to overcome the acceptance of incivility in politics.”

Click here to view the Civility in America 2014 report and infographic.

Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross is chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick

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