‘Moral’ young people put family first

Older generations valued religion and are seen as moral, but modern families remain important © Getty Images

Religion, broader society and even other relationships lose out in a new survey of teens and young adults – looking after family is seen as the best measure of morality.

When it comes to deciding whether someone is a moral person, a new survey has found that young people believe the way we behave towards our family is the best indicator. But religious observance isn’t seen as particularly significant – neither is whether we contribute to the society in which we live by paying taxes or being involved in the local community.

More than half of the 16 to 24-year-olds in the opinion poll, which was carried out for the BBC in the run up to a festival of debates about religion and philosophy, said they believed themselves to be less concerned with morality than their parents.

But when asked to define which were the most important moral issues, looking after family came out on top, with 59% putting it at the top of their list. The next most important, putting others first, was a long way behind, at 12%.

The nature of the modern family has changed dramatically within the last generation from the traditional model of the breadwinning father out at work and the homebound mother in charge of children. Now, families come in a variety of shapes and sizes. But it seems that teenagers and young adults see them as a valuable ethical anchor.

Traditionalists used to see the transformation of modern families as a threat: during his campaign for re-election in 1992, President George H W Bush famously said he wanted to ‘make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.’

But he lost the election, and a raft of commentators rushed to defend the Simpsons as the model of a realistically flawed but warm and loving family.

The new poll seems to confirm that however it changes, the family remains central to living a moral life. Flesh and blood trumps every other consideration, even other relationships. Only eight percent saw being faithful to a partner as the most important indicator of morality. And green campaigners will be disappointed to find that only five percent believe protecting the environment is the top moral issue, with just one percent thinking that choosing ethical products is most important.

Family or society

The results confirm the worst fears of religious and political leaders, who have already seen congregation and membership numbers plummet. Belonging to a religion scored only four percent, level-pegging with paying taxes and being active in the community. Some will argue that if young people believe family ties are so much more important than other aspects of morality, it demonstrates the weakness of the networks and loyalties that form the rest of the social fabric. Others will be encouraged that the coming generation takes family responsibilities so seriously – or at least that young people admire those who do.

You Decide

  1. Is your family more like the Waltons or the Simpsons?
  2. Should morality be about obeying society’s rules and expectations or about following your own individual moral compass?


  1. Make a picture or write a description of two families: one idealised, one a more realistic portrayal.
  2. Research the trends in how modern families have changed. The Office for National Statistics is a good place to start.

Some People Say...

“The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other.’ Mario Puzo, author”

What do you think?

Q & A

How could it possibly be a problem to see family as important?
It’s not! But people tend to rely more on the family if the rest of society becomes chaotic and lacks support structures. The worry is that this survey might show the erosion of broader shared values.
Why would that be sinister?
Well, in a very extreme version, if society breaks down, then the family changes from a loving set of personal relationships to a broader clan that hangs together as the only unit that can provide security and protection: this is the origin of many organised crime networks. The Italian mafia is known as ‘the family’.

Word Watch

The ability to tell the difference between right and wrong and act accordingly.
Those who believe in traditional values, practices and social structures. They often disapprove of behaviour that strays from the norms of the past.
President George H W Bush
41st President of the United States, a Republican, and father of President George W Bush, known as ‘Dubya’ to distinguish him from his father. Occupied the White House from 1989 to 1993.
The Waltons
A sentimental and very popular US television show from the 1970s about a large family living harmoniously with three generations of god-fearing folk.

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