Something to Think About: Why Are Young People So Cynical and What Does This Say About the Future?

Agree or disagree? “In today’s society, one has to lie or cheat at least occasionally in order to succeed.”

This is a fundamental and revealing question on our surveys about personal ethics and integrity. Most interesting is that the level of cynicism is closely related to age. In an online survey on integrity (with 16,000 responses) we found that 43 percent of the respondents age 17 and under (there were 862 of them) believe lying is sometimes necessary, 35 percent of those in the 18-24 age group agreed, and 21 percent of those 25-40 agreed. But the percentage drops sharply after that: 12 percent of those 41-50, and only 10 percent of those over 50, think lying is necessary to success. (By the way, the survey is available here if you want to take it yourself.)

It turns out that your answer to this question really matters. The more cynical you are about the efficacy of honesty, the more likely you are to justify dishonesty. In fact, those who agree with the statement are 2-4 times more likely to cheat on exams, cheat on taxes, lie to a spouse or boss or inflate an insurance claim.

So, are things getting worse? Or do you just have to live a while to realize how unnecessary lying really is? Maybe it’s a little of both.

Where do you stand on the question, and how would you explain the huge disparity based on age?

Comments 11

  1. I do think that there is a huge increase in the amount of people who manage to “succeed” quite well by lying, manipulation, and bullying. Until I reached the age of fifty, I was far more idealistic. Unfortunately, I have been the victim of dishonest, manipulative, bullying individuals quite a few times in the past 13 years and feel disillusionment over it. These were people whom I should have been able to trust, which made it all the more disillusioning. I believe that we have a wider acceptance of these behaviors in society and there is less accountablity, both in the secular world and in the churches. That said, I do not envy these people in the least. They are missing the core values that give one the ultimate contentment in life. I just wish that there weren’t so many people who victimize others…people who value material goods, worldly “success” and image over authentic relationships with and respect for others.

    1. Remember, the question is not whether liars and cheats can succeed – I think we all know examples of that. The question is can one succeed without lying or cheating. In other words, does being truly ethical preclude success. I think the answser is clearly no – it may be harder or even more rare but one can achieve their goals without dishonesty. It is, then, a choice, not a necessity.

    2. You said it all, you used to be “illusioned” then you learned the truth, and became “disillusioned”.

      The smart ones are cynical. The others are living in a dream world of their own creation.

  2. My first thought is that younger people were more honest, and unfraid to say what others could perceive as a veiled confession, or to admit to a less than flattering commentary on their generation.

  3. I agree the world has in general has become prone to lying and cheating to, “so call” succeed. It’s frustrating when you run into those who have little or no integrity. One of the advantages of succeeding and having integrity though is being able to open our mouths and speak up for what we believe and live by, whether the rest of the world likes it, and agrees or not. That takes courage in today’s world. Too many people are afraid of speaking up for integrity and values. It’s also important to pick your battles, some things are not worth the time or effort to argue against because we can’t change others. We can only change ourselves. It’s nice to go to bed with a clear conscience 🙂

  4. It is no wonder that generations of young people believe that lying and cheating “occasionally” will help them succeed. WE are bombarded with that very information everyday via electronic media…primarily TV. And it is not by accident. I firmly believe that a concerted effort is being (has been made and will continue so) to fundamentally change the moral character of people. If we can be convinced that moral character is irrelevant, that a belief that people must live honest, caring, responsible lives is passe or something for the past generations, then we are RIPE for a takeover that makes past dictators not even close. I’m not a conspiratorial-type person, but all one has to do is look around and listen long enough to begin to wonder about the moral compass of America and other parts of the world.

  5. Many may think it true, but that it does not describe them, i.e., do they own the thought themselves or do they think that many others own it even if they do not. The question is not worded to find out the difference.

  6. I am in the over 50 category and do not think it is necessary to lie in order to succeed but I sometimes wonder if those who do have a very different conception of “success” from mine. Success to me doesn’t mean I have piles of money, a fancy car, a huge home, designer clothes or exotic vacations. Success to me means being happy and finding joy and contentment in my career and with my friends and family and especially in helping others. I once worked for a boss who insisted it was necessary to lie and cheat to succeed in his business (he was over 50 too) and I was so happy to leave that job. Maybe for younger respondents their vision of success is still more based on the material things and as we age for many of us that evolves and shifts to where things like honesty and integrity become key factors.

  7. I believe there is no question that integrity is on the decline, as is honesty. Though the factors are complex; this is a natural outcomes of feelings based morality. The lack of clear, grounded, unchanging standards to serve as guides; always brings this outcome. We get what we deserve; it’s too bad our children are the true victims.

  8. Though you may be successful due to “occasional” lying and cheating; you are always loosing something of yourself when you do either. Not enough is said these days about the value of a person’s reputation being “of good integrity.” In a culture as relative and “understanding”, as accepting of poor choices, as ours is; honesty and integrity seem less important. Yet in our relationships, in our unconscious minds; there is an awareness of another persons “reputation”, and we make decisions about one another based on that. Certainly as we get older we will experience the importance of having established a “good reputation.” But beyond what we may gain materially in life from being a person of integrity(and the research is CLEAR; honesty is the best policy for lasting success), we gain so much more in healthy self-esteem, knowing we have passed up on easy and immediate success, for what has been earned honestly. The other benefit to the world; a role model of good citizens who make the world a better place!

  9. nonviolence – avoiding aggression – and nonsinning – avoiding harm to others – are all we mortals have in the end. build your wisdom – the answer to “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” – and honor – the means to carry out wisdom – on them. life is a grim enough fairy tale – do not make it worse. we can still save our constitutional republican mortal state and liberal democratic mortal society. truce from this little buddhist lady.

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