Generational divide in politics

Earlier, I described how an aging population has distorted US democratic politics, and that political conflicts of issues may have underlying causes in the differences in age groups.

A frequent explanation of intransigence of political differences is that people are increasingly self-segregating into echo-chambers that confirm preconceived biases.  People are not hearing arguments from the other side, including the best of the arguments that should be considered.

While it seems intuitive that there is a fragmentation of groups into isolated groups that restrict the contents discussed concerning certain topics, it doesn’t fully explain the inability to get good information shared among groups.

In particular, I see a barrier that separates the age groups, particularly between the so-called boomers and the millennials separated by at least one generation (such as generation X).   The two groups are not communicating, or at least they are not taking the other’s arguments seriously.

There is a generational conflict.

The older generation prioritizes policies to lock in their benefits, such as assurances of social security and medicare benefits, or the protection of investments such as controlling inflation.   The younger generation has priorities to give them their opportunities for successful lives, starting families, and enjoying the newer opportunities brought by modern technology that disrupts older business models.

However, I don’t think this conflict is completely irreconcilable.   The reason the debates never seem to get anywhere is because for a large part of the population, there is no debate at all.  People are not hearing the arguments of the other side, and certainly not to the degree of taking the opposing arguments seriously and listening for the full argument.

Some of this may be due to stubbornness and defensiveness, but I think a broader problem is a breakdown in sharing messages among all groups.   The groups are getting their messages from separate and disjoint sources.   These sources acknowledge the existence of their opposites, but mostly for the goal of ridicule.   The actual messages circulating are very different in the different forums.

I think this is involuntary.   Evidence of this is in the distinction of age-demographics between legacy media (newsprint, broadcast and cable TV, and radio) and new media (Internet based news sites, youtube channels, twitter feeds, etc.).    The median age of legacy-media consumers is fairly old, often in the late 50s or into the 60s.   The median age of new-media consumers is much younger, especially in context of using the new media as a news source.

The difference in age demographics does not fully explain the problem, though.   It is possible for both media to be circulating the same messages, but I don’t see this happening.  There is more going on than just the difference in audience.

I think the bigger problem is the relative demographics of the content creators and the content consumers.

Legacy media has content creators that are generally younger than the audience.

New media has content creators that generally older than their audiences.

From my aged perspective, the latter is more obvious.   I first noticed it on LinkedIn, and there it was quite explicitly stated.   The site persistently recommended following what it called “influencers”, and in that case that referred to already successful people.   Implicitly, the bulk of LinkedIn audience seek new employment opportunities so following influencers would provide a source of wisdom if not a chance at a reference to an new influencer.    At the same time, the influencers sought to have large numbers of followers, probably with the benefit of exploiting that communication channel to advance their own careers.

LinkedIn was my first experience in widely open social media.  Previous to that I used social media only for keeping in touch with people I already knew.   I dismissed LinkedIn because of the constant pushing of influencers, especially after reading the generally hollow content they provided, rarely elevating beyond common motivational speech.

LinkedIn biased me in terms of how I see the other new media, first Twitter and then YouTube.   When encountering a new content producer, I immediately frame them in the same category of my impression of a LinkedIn influencer.   The new media does have a wide range of ages for content producers, but almost everyone shares the quality of being impressive to a younger, less accomplished audience.   Within new media, there is a lot of lecturing, presentation of self as model to follow, or performing some form of entertainment.

I don’t think most new-media content producers deliberately set out to present themselves this way, although I’m sure many of them do.   The problem with new media is that it measures each individual contribution with counts of views, likes, shares, etc.  The larger these numbers, the more valuable the channel becomes.   It turns out to be easier to appeal to a large population of younger people because many will follow trends in the effort to remain relevant with their peers.

Several new media channels do appeal to older audiences, but these tend to have much larger numbers.   A reasonably successful channel appealing to older audiences may have a few tens of thousands of followers and maybe a few hundred thousand views per day.   In contrast, many successful channels appealing to younger audiences will have numbers 10-100 times as high.

In new media, the incentive is to appeal to younger audiences.   This in turn makes new media more valuable because the younger audiences are more prolific consumers.

In contrast, old media is measured in terms of subscribers, or ratings based on watching entire shows that typically consist of an aggregate of many different segments with different producers.    The older audience is attracted to variety and breadth, so the content of individual segments is not as critical as long at the collection is valuable enough to keep the audience’s attention for the full show (or full newspaper) or to encourage the audience to return for the next regularly scheduled episode.

It is inaccurate to separate the two forms as legacy versus new.   I think the represent two different markets entirely.

The new media consists of generally of individually customized aggregations of large number of individually produced content.  The goal of the new-media content producer is to make each individual creation qualify for as many feeds as possible.

The legacy media consists of globally aggregated content shared identically to each subscriber. The goal of the legacy media content producer is to complete the portfolio of content of each episode so that the episode as a whole captures and retains the loyalty of the subscribers.

The unavoidable problem is opportunity cost.  There is only so much time to spend consuming content and each modality tends to demand continuous attention to be spent on it.   In the case of cable news, for example, there is demand to remained tuned to the channel continuously to capture breaking news when it happens.   In contrast, a twitter or YouTube feed demands constant diligence to be immediately aware of any response to content or to a comment to that content.

The audiences are automatically isolated from each other.

There is also the problem of delivery.

Broadcast and Cable content is better suited for people with obligations in their careers or obligations.   Broadcast and Cable can be set to one channel it will provide consistent content continuously throughout the day as background while the consumer spends most of his attention on his work, looking up occasionally if something interesting shows up.   Even those with access to smart phones or pads will not have time to keep tapping on those devices to keep the content relevant.

Let to run automatically, new media will inevitably veer off to undesired content and if not caught soon enough that content will contaminate the algorithms about what content is interesting to the user.   New media demands constant interaction to keep it relevant.  Someone with an established set of duties and obligations does not have time to keep interacting with the platform that way.

In contrast, younger audiences who often are under-employed (either not employed or employed in jobs that do not very demanding) not only have more time to be interactive with a platform, but that interaction eases the boredom they would otherwise endure.

This discussion oversimplifies a much more complex dynamic, such as the desire for younger people to alert their networks to new material, and this is almost trivial with new media and very tedious at best for old.   The older people will seek leisure in areas where media is absent.

My point here is that the very nature of how different age groups get their information and how that information is necessarily filtered differently results in the populations getting incomplete information about controversial topics.    Meanwhile both groups have about parity in terms of political voice.

To get information shared between competing sides requires more than just encouraging people to share ideas in good-faith discussions.   We also need a technological solution to exchange information across the different platforms that are better suited for the different audiences.

The old option of face-to-face conversation, and in venues that have multiple points of view present.   In my mind, I see this in old movies with depictions of barroom discussions, or social parties.    We have counterparts today, but they discourage this level of discourse, or if they do, the participants are relatively homogeneous in political views or demographics.    Even if discussions are not discouraged, everyone has smart phones, and it is much more appealing to pull them out and browse online for updates.





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