Daniel Yankelovich is
the founder and President of Yankelovich, a polling firm based in Norwalk, Connecticut, and publisher of the Yankelovich MONITOR, an annual survey tracking American values.
He is the author of The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation and Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World. He is a co-author of Putting the Work Ethic to Work: A Public Agenda Report on Restoring America's Competitive Vitality; Beyond the Beltway: Engaging the Public in U.S. Foreign Policy; and The Rules of Public Engagement.
New River Media Interview with: Daniel Yankelovich
QUESTION: Throughout time there has been a connection, at least in the minds of most people, between being old and being dependent. How do we stand on that now?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: It used to be that being old was being dependent. Today that's changed completely. It depends, of course, on what you mean by old, but ordinarily we take age 65 to mean old. And people are independent today after age 65. They treasure their independence. The very word retirement no longer has meaning for most older people. Retirement means to pull back, to pull away. Older people don't pull back or pull away. They go on with their lives, and they treasure and cherish their independence. Amazing.
The reason older people are so independent is due to the combination of various sources of income. Social security is sort of the base. Then the 401(k) pensions are the next piece of that; and then the person's own savings and assets, the home and the like. And I think now there's a fourth piece, which is people want to do part-time work, not so much because they have to but because it's a way of keeping busy and making a few bucks on the side.
QUESTION: What are some of the demographic changes we see, with regard to the elderly?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: One of the most extraordinary changes in demography and people living longer that has been overlooked is not only are people living longer physically, but they're retaining their vitality for a longer period of time. Today's 79-year-old person is the equivalent of a 65-year-old person earlier in the century. In other words, at age 79 I'm no older, from the point of view of mental and physical vitality, than somebody was at age 65. So I think of that as the 14-year gift of life. From 65 to 79, for people in my age group and your age group, it's like we've been given that tremendous gift of this extra 14 years of life and vitality.
QUESTION: How is the psychology of older people changing?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: The psychology of the older person is very important and it represents a big change. One is the feeling that older people have that they don't have to be dependent on their kids and on other people, so that it gives their lives a dignity and a meaning that they just didn't have when they felt they had to depend on others for survival.
But also, there is a psychological stage of life that comes when you're older. There is in many ways a lessening of youthful narcissism and a concern for other people. I know one doesn't see it all the time, but the concern for others, that's one of the ways in which older people find meaning in life is to find ways of giving something back. The notion of giving something back is very important to people who can afford it.
Anything that contributes to the independence of older people, like 401(k) plans and pensions, does permit older people to be more compassionate, to reach out to others. You know, there's a great variety. Lots of people play golf or the equivalent, pull back into themselves. But that's very unsatisfying. The older people who are most satisfied with their lives are people who are doing something for members of their own family or for others. But it is a reaching beyond the self and a concern for other generations.
QUESTION: What is the effect of the rising stock market values?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: The rise of stock market values is one of the factors that is fueling the rage for consumption. I think that the seeming desire of Americans today to consume everything in sight is temporary. There is a pent-up demand. The period from the late 1980s until about 1995-1996 was a period where people felt poor, the opposite of the wealth effect. They are just beginning to enjoy the comfort of the trends that started in 1995, and we are now moving into a psychology of affluence where people are a little bit excessive and kind of digging into their savings and going into debt. So I don't think that this bulge, this excess, will - I think it'll taper off, but it will still be on the positive side as long as the economy is tracking positive.
I believe that the rise in the stock market does help make the economy grow faster, because two-thirds of the economy is driven by the consumer. And as long as the stock market is going up, the wealth effect is in place, people feel that they're pretty well off and their prospects are good, then they spend. And as they spend, that fuels the consumer spending, which is sort of the engine of the world economy at this point.
QUESTION: You have described something called the "wealth effect" - can you please explain this phenomenon?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: The term "wealth effect" is meant to indicate that people have an impression of how well off they are that may be an exaggeration, may not be an accurate picture of how much wealth they really do have. And, of course, one's perception of one's own wealth is affected by things like the stock market, by whether you expect to get a raise next year or not; if you're a homeowner, by whether the price of houses is going up or going down. So we are now at this moment in history have an exaggerated wealth effect in the sense that people, Americans feel that they are better off than they actually are. Because they have credit cards, they can use the credit card.
It used to be that saving for a rainy day was a fundamental American value, one of the supports for saving. Well, that's gone. And the reason it's gone is because of the credit card. The credit card is your saving for a rainy day. So people are not as burdened by debt psychologically as they used to be.
The rise in the stock market, if it goes on long enough, gives people the impression that it's going to go on forever, and that every dip in the stock market is not a warning that they should get out, but an opportunity to buy more stock. So dips are buying opportunities. Now, in that way the market goes along and people feel positively about it, because it's going up; has a little dip, people feel positively about it because it's an opportunity to buy. And so that goes on.
Now, if there's a crash or a sustained loss in the stock market, it will break that pattern. But that's a pretty good picture of the wealth effect of assuming that the stock market and its upward climb is a pretty good picture of how well off I am.
When people feel well off and feel optimistic about their economic prospects for the future, they're inclined to indulge their consumer needs, especially in this particular period, because from the late 1980's and early 1990's, people didn't feel that way. They held back. They were pessimistic about the future. And then the economic changes that started in 1995 have encouraged people, so we're still living off a pent-up demand that will go on maybe for a few more years. But with that hunger for good and with that feeling of optimism about the future, the wealth effect, that is fueling the consumer economy, which is two-thirds of our economy and in effect it's sort of driving the economy of the world.
QUESTION: Can you tell us about the rise of the opinion poll?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Maybe the biggest event in polling of this century was its dramatic beginnings in the election of 1936, where a magazine called the Literary Digest had been functioning for many years. And in every presidential election they sent out postcards and predicted the election. And they sent out hundreds of thousands of postcards, and they predicted that Alfred Landon would win by a landslide. And this young, newly minted Ph.D. from Iowa, George Gallup, did a study of just a couple of thousand people and predicted that Franklin Roosevelt would win by an overwhelming margin.
And when Roosevelt won, it was the end of the Literary Digest and the beginning of credibility for public opinion polling. You know, it was a marvelous event. But what had happened was that the Literary Digest sent its postcards to people who had telephones. Well, only about a third of the population at the time had telephones, and they were the wealthy people who voted for Alfred Landon. So it was not only the beginning of scientific polling but was a lesson about sampling that we have learned and maybe even overlearned in the past 50 years.
QUESTION: What does the term scientific polling imply?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Scientific polling means several things. One, it means that you can draw a sample, a cross-section of the public, a thousand, a few thousand people, that will represent the entire public, and then asking them unbiased, objective questions. The technology that has put polling on the map has less to do with the questions, unfortunately in some ways, as it has to do with choosing the sample, choosing these several thousand or thousand people to represent the entire nation. That still seems counterintuitive to most people. And I still regard it as somewhat of a miracle.
It's gone through several stages. In the early stage, when Gallup began, they used a technique called quota sampling in which, if Jews represented 3 percent of the nation, 3 percent of your sample were Jewish. If women were 52 percent, 52 percent. If there was 11 percent blacks, you got 11 percent black. So you had these quotas, and they worked reasonably well. But there was a technical difficulty to them, which is if you did sampling that way, you could not scientifically determine the degree of error in the poll that was due to the sampling method.
So after the 1948 election and the brouhaha about Harry Truman, the methodology began to change, and the technique changed from quota sampling to a technique called probability sampling, which is based on random selection. If you pick people in a purely random way, where random has particular scientific meaning, you can then calculate the amount of error due to sampling in the poll. And that is the standard operating procedure today.
QUESTION: What was George Gallup's contribution to this science?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: George Gallup's contribution was to carry this notion of quota sampling and very straightforward, objective questions, and established the idea that you could choose a cross-section of people scientifically and have a small number represent the huge variety and heterogeneity of the American public. Very often I'll have occasion to go back to the 1930s and 1940s and look at polls in that period, and I'm always surprised how well the Gallup polls stand up. Sometimes they seem very simple and straightforward to the point of seeming too simple. But when you go back to them in time, they hold up. They're objective. They're not biased. And they get to the heart of the matter in a simple way, and it permits you to track change in the United States to an extraordinary degree.
QUESTION: How did you become interested in polling as a career?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: I majored in philosophy and psychology at Harvard, and as a graduate student worked at the Harvard Psychological Clinic, where the head of the clinic had a project on healthy people, well-functioning people. And a lot of the work centered individual interviews that were complicated and probing beneath the surface, the psychological surface. And I was very impressed by that ability to find out so much about an individual by permitting that individual to open up and speak and sort of probe behind surface responses.
But then I became dissatisfied with individual interviews, because they didn't tell you enough about groups of people. And the key experience I had, I was an intern at Harvard and would see individual schizophrenic patients and be utterly bewildered by what had happened to these young people. The psychiatrists were extremely clever at interpreting each individual, but yet it somehow didn't add up.
And then I came upon a study of 200 schizophrenics and saw what was common to these 200 people, and then realized the power of looking at cross-sections as distinct from individuals. And it seemed to me that if you could combine those two methods, the insight into the individual but the ability to generalize and extrapolate that to cross-sections of people, that you'd have something very powerful. And then, some years later, when I decided not to stay at Harvard and the academic life, I found a job and gradually gravitated toward doing this work. I set up my own company in 1958, DanielYankelovich Incorporated.
QUESTION: Was this a large enterprise?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well, at the time it was just myself, but later [added] a couple of other people. And I decided to call it by my name for a particular reason. I was writing a book, in the middle of the book, and I had run out of money before I finished the book. So that's why I started the business. And I figured after I got it established, I'd go back to finishing up the book. And if I took that much time off, I figured if the firm was in some other name, then, you know, I'd have trouble with my associates. But if it was in my own name, they couldn't very well throw me out.
My work, hands-on work, was immersed in the 1950's. And when the 1960's began, early in the decade the Institute of Life Insurance asked me to do a study of what was happening on campuses. I did that study, and I was just astonished because I realized something quite revolutionary was going on, so that I had the good fortune of being able to look at that phenomenon of the change in the 1960's at the very beginning. And then we got an assignment from Fortune Magazine to study the phenomenon that was followed by a study for CBS News on the 'generation gap.' And then the John D. Rockefeller III Fund funded a series of annual studies, so that we had the opportunity to track the changes that took place on the nation's campuses and in the country from the 1950's, the early 1960's, and right through the 1960's.
QUESTION: What did you find on the campuses of the 1960's?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: What happened in the 1960's incubated on the nation's campuses. It was a social class phenomenon. The children of affluent people began to wonder about why they should be sacrificing so much of the self-expressive side of their life when economically it didn't seem necessary to do so. The essence of the change of the 1960's was the questioning of the need for sacrifice, particularly sacrifice of self-expressiveness.
Now, to the public the 1960's appeared in the guise of protests about the Vietnam War, so the initial impression was that the changes in the sixties were political, radical politics. And that was transitory and totally tied to the war. In fact, the young people involved in those radical politics treated women, for example, in the old way. They were there to serve coffee. And so they were - from a social change point of view, they were sort of retrograde. So they didn't reflect the wave of the future at all.
Underneath that surface was the woman's movement and the move into what became in the 1970's this preoccupation with self-fulfillment and the self. But its core was the questioning of the need for automatic sacrifice, the idea that the husband sacrifices for the wife and kids, the wife certainly sacrifices for the family, and the children sacrifice also for the family. And the sacrifice took the form of what was economically necessary. Maybe the husband wanted to be an architect, but you couldn't support a family that way, so he became a plumber or a contractor. That was the men giving up what they wanted to do most in their lives; the women giving up their own career aspirations for the sake of the family.
And the young people looked at their parents and looked at their fathers and said, "Hey, this nose to the grindstone way of life is not for me, and why should we do it, it isn't economically necessary." So the change was that the affluence of the country that began to root itself in the 1950's began to have an impact on the psychology of people, particularly the psychology of young people from affluent families.
QUESTION: Can you characterize the change in values that took place?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: When Marilyn Quayle gave that speech in which she said not everybody was into the counterculture, she was absolutely right. First of all, it was confined to the campus. Second of all, in the campus it represented about a quarter of the students on the campus. And I estimated at one time that it was about 2 percent of the population were involved.
The change in values that swept through the country revolved around the idea of more individual choice of lifestyle and less conformity, so that instead of going lock-step as your neighbors expected you to, you felt freer to choose your own lifestyles, to be more natural, to the idea of natural foods and looking more natural and not being as buttoned up was an aspect of it. The biggest change, of course, was in sexual morality, and the country shifted from Puritanism to a more open attitude toward sexuality during that period. But sexuality was only a small part of it. I would say the most important part of it, in choosing lifestyles, was with affluence the feeling that maybe we could live life the way we wanted in our own individualistic way.
I'd put it this way, Ben. At the beginning of the 1960's, we were political individualists, but social conformists, political individualists in the sense that, you know, we believed that everybody had the right to free speech, and political liberty as a birthright. But when it came to the social side, it was togetherness, keeping up with the Jones', being respectable in the same way the neighbors were respectable, owning a certain make of car, moving from the Chevrolet to up the General Motors line, in a highly conformist way.
By the end of the 1970s, we had extended our individualism to the social, cultural as well as well as the political. So in a nutshell, what happened in the 1960's and 1970's was we extended American individualism from the political to the social, cultural domain.
[Teddy White's] notion that politics is sociology in action I think is a valid point that if you broaden it a little bit, because it's sociology plus economics in action, and the changes in the country, if you want a concrete example of that, the best example I know is the impeachment trial of President Clinton. In an earlier era, Clinton would have been impeached for what were regarded as private sexual misbehavior and lying and the rest, because the country was not making the sharp sociological distinction between private and public, not to the same degree. And that was that distinction between the private and the public was very much at issue in the impeachment trial, and the American public turned out to be more afraid of Clinton's accusers than of Clinton, because his accusers personified for the public legislating social morality. That's a sociological concept.
And one of the heritages from the 1960's is we don't want social morality legislated by Congress and in the form of law. And that was the central issue that the President's accusers in the House symbolized for the public this notion of return to an older era of repressive social morality and of legislating social morality. And people were much more apprehensive about that than they were about the private so-called crimes of President Clinton.
QUESTION: Do you think the shifts that began in the 1960's were overall a good thing or a bad thing?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: My own attitude toward happened in the 1960's is ambivalent. I think that it accomplished several positive things. One of the most positive is that it gave the country a greater tolerance for diversity than it had when I was growing up. [During] my years of growing up in Boston, the country was very prejudiced, prejudiced against almost everybody, except for this elite WASP minority. The sixties contributed to an acceptance of diversity that has had extraordinary effects in terms of acceptance of other groups in the country: Jews, blacks, women.
Some of the most interesting surveys, tracking studies showed this - the increase of, from the 1930's to the present moment in one of the series is: "Would you vote for" - what was the nomenclature of the times - "a Negro for President, a Jew for President, a woman for President," and the lines go from way down here in sort of the 30 percent up to way up here in the 70 to 80 percent level over this 30 or 40 years.
Also I think that the '60s contributed to an awareness and consciousness of the environment and environmentalism that I think is a real contribution.
On the other side it seems to me that there was a kind of narcissism, preoccupation with self, a loss of moral centered-ness, and this hubris and egoism that I associate with the Yuppies. And that I think is also part of the heritage of the 1960's.
QUESTION: Can you comment on continuity and change in this century?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: The issue of how much continuity there is versus how much change there is, is something, a subject that preoccupies social scientists, because it's a question of learn and respond to change. I think of it as a pattern of lurch and learn, that what people do is they swing to the opposite extreme and then a process of learning takes place. perspective. And it's always difficult to get the right balance and the right perspective.
My perspective is that there is an enduring core of fundamental American values, and they do not change. Decade after decade there is that continuity in those values: equality of opportunity, political liberty, a certain kind of individualism, respect for others, the right to vote. There are about - depends on how you count - maybe a score or so of basic American values that don't change.
It's very difficult at any one moment to see the relationship of change to continuity, because of the way Americans
QUESTION: Can you comment on our theme of measurement in the twentieth century?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Senator Moynihan, now retired, used to say that what counts in American politics is what is measured. So that, if economists measure productivity and unemployment, those are the things we focus on. And he and others have always deplored the lack of social indicators, indicators that would give us the same kind of measure for our society that economists give us for the economy.
And this idea, this is a big country, heterogeneous country, very difficult to keep track of what's happening. And in this twentieth century we began to measure first the things that were easy to measure like in demography the census measures the number of people in the country, the number who are unemployed and the like. And then we began to measure infant mortality. And then from there we began to go to some of the more subjective factors of satisfaction, trust in government, some of the kinds of things that surveys measure.