Generational differences in attitudes to privacy

67.4 Traditionally, a generation was defined as the average interval of time between the birth of a parent and the birth of his or her offspring. Social researchers today, however, define a generation as a cohort of people born into and shaped by a particular span of time. For example, McCrindle Research has analysed Australian Bureau of Statistics data of birth rate rises and declines in order to delineate distinct generational groups. The social changes and trends affecting these groups provide context for their generational definitions.

67.5 Generational definitions are generalisations. There always will be individuals who do not fit the stereotype of a particular generation. Generational definitions, however, may help to reveal the key social drivers and expectations of different sections of the population.

67.6 In recent years, there has been much discussion about the attributes and attitudes of members of ‘Generation Y’—namely, the generation of people born between 1980 and 1994. Research into Generation Y does not tend to focus on privacy-related issues. Nevertheless, it helps to clarify how members of this generation conceptualise privacy by describing their experiences, needs and ambitions more generally.

Table 67.1: Australia’s Generations[2]





(% of Pop’n)


Before 1946









Generation X





Generation Y





Generation Z


Under 14



67.7 The members of Generation Y are said to share a number of key characteristics.

  • They are completely adept at using communications technologies, such as the internet, email, instant messaging and mobile technologies. They have grown up wit these technologies and their social worlds and expectations are completely integrated with the existence of these technologies because they have never known a world in which they did not exist.

  • They have experienced (directly or indirectly) split households and working parents. Accordingly, social networks are of vital importance to them and they keep in touch constantly through the use of communications technologies.

  • They live in a global village, where they can communicate with virtually anyone through a variety of instantaneous media, and are considered to belong to the most embracing, non-racist, non-gender biased generation yet.

  • They are optimistic and have high expectations, along with the confidence that they will realise these expectations. This can be compared to members of Generation X, who are said to be apathetic and pessimistic.

  • Due to their self confidence they are considered fickle and demanding, and willing to move quickly to take up new opportunities.[3]

67.8 It is often argued that the behaviour of young people can be attributed to youth rather than generational attitudes. If this were the case, however, young people today would be indistinguishable from young people a generation ago.[4] Currently, it could be argued that the dependence of members of Generation Y on social networks of friends is an attribute of youth as opposed to an attribute of a generation. Members of Generation Y, however, are said to be retaining their dependence on social networks of friends as they enter adulthood and are said to believe that their friends will remain friends for life.[5]

67.9 Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay studied the attitudes of 19 year olds in 1980 and in 2000.[6] His research revealed that attitudes among this demographic have moved from pessimism to optimism over this period of time. Nineteen year olds in 1980 were pre-occupied with the state of the world, the threat of nuclear annihilation, widespread terrorist activity, growing economic dislocation and recurring industrial trouble. In contrast, 19 year olds in 2000 were utterly confident about their own, and the world’s, long-term survival. Dr Rebecca Huntley suggests that, even after the events of 11 September 2001, the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2006 London bombings, today’s young adults have a sense of optimism and confidence, and are either more capable of facing the world’s problems or more effective at ignoring them.[7]

In Australia, Generation Y’s anger around [September] 11 was less about the event itself than the reaction of the United States government and its allies. Many young adults have reacted negatively to the media hype around the tragedy and the relentless and insensitive use of images of death and destruction to sell papers and increase TV ratings. And whilst this was Generation Y’s first exposure to international terrorism on a grand scale, most Yers were aware that in so many other places around the world this kind of stuff happens all the time. For many of them now, September 11 intensified their desire to enjoy life right now.[8]

67.10 While commentators can make generalisations about the attitudes of Generation Y, it remains unknown whether these attitudes are widespread and will remain with these young people as they progress through life.

[2] Table 67.1 is based on a similar table in McCrindle Research, New Generations at Work: Attracting, Recruiting & Training Generation Y (2006), 8. In the United States, the Builders are often referred to as the ‘Silent Generation’.

[3] See, eg, Ibid; R Huntley, The World According to Y: Inside the New Adult Generation (2006); N Howe and W Strauss, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000).

[4] McCrindle Research, New Generations at Work: Attracting, Recruiting & Training Generation Y (2006), 13.

[5] N Howe and W Strauss, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000), 214–219.

[6] H Mackay, The Mackay Report: Leaving School (2000), 26.

[7] R Huntley, The World According to Y: Inside the New Adult Generation (2006), 9.

[8] Ibid, 4.