CBS News Poll: In what ways has public opinion changed over 40 years?

As "CBS Sunday Morning" celebrates 40 years on the air, a new CBS News poll shows the marked changes in public opinion that have occurred over sensitive topics since the show made its debut in 1979.

Here are some of the issues that have seen major changes among the American public: 

Optimism and the Future

Americans are generally more optimistic about the future than they were back in 1979, though they are less optimistic today than they were a decade ago. 

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When asked about the future in 2018, 53% of respondents say they think it will be better for people generally, down from 61% in January 2009, right before Barack Obama assumed the presidency. 40% of those polled today believe the future will be worse, compared to 31% in 2009.

Still, optimism is much higher now than it was when this question was first asked back in 1979, when opinion was evenly divided (at 46%) as to whether the future would be "better" or "worse."

When divided by party affiliation, Republicans (61%) are more likely to believe the future will be better than do Independents (51%) or Democrats (48%).

Is There a Generation Gap?

The perception of a "generation gap" between younger and older Americans has jumped tremendously over the past 40 years.

Back in 1979, 60% of Americans said there was a major difference in the point of view of young people and older people. Now, 87% think so, including the vast majority of Americans regardless of their age. 

On November 4, 1979, Iranian student revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took a group of Americans hostage after Washington refused to hand over the toppled U.S.-backed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, for trial in Iran. The hostages would remain captive for 444 days, released just minutes after Ronald Reagan took his oath as President of the U.S. AFP

U.S. Power as a World Leader

While 31% of respondents think the United States is more powerful than it was 10 years ago, more (42%) think the U.S. is less powerful.  Still, this is a more optimistic view than was found either a decade ago, or back in 1979 when the question was first asked.  Back then, over half of Americans said the U.S. had become less powerful as a world leader.

The change in perception between now and 2009 is driven largely by Republicans. Back in 2009, with Barack Obama about to take office, just 15% of Republicans said the U.S. had become more powerful as a world leader; today, 56% of Republicans think so.

Should Marijuana Use Be Legal?

Today, a majority of Americans (61%) think marijuana should be legal, though support for legalization is a fairly recent change in public opinion. Americans were evenly divided as recently as 2013 (45% yes, 45% no), and in 2011 just over half of Americans (51%) said marijuana use should not be legal, compared to 40% who favored legalization.

Back in 1979, though, just 27% of Americans thought marijuana use should be legal; 69% were against it.

Attending Religious Services

Americans are less religious than they were four decades ago, at least if measured by church or religious service attendance. Today, 35% of Americans say they attend religious service at least once a week, compared to the 44% who said so back in 1981. 

Likewise, in 1981 13% of respondents said they never attended religious services; that number has more than doubled today, to 29%.

Gay Pride
A group called The Advocate Experience parades in front of San Francisco City Hall, June 24, 1979 during the 1979 Gay Freedom Day Parade and Celebration. Over a quarter million persons attended the afternoon-long celebration. Paul Sakuma/AP

Same-Sex Relations

Public opinion on same-sex relations has changed dramatically over the years. In 1978, a Gallup Poll found that 62% of Americans thought homosexual relations between consenting results was wrong. (25% did not.) Today, using the same language for comparison, most Americans (60%) think homosexual relations between adults are not wrong. (30% believe homosexual relations between adults is wrong.)

Where Do You Get Your News?

One obvious change (compared to a 1979 Los Angeles Times poll) is the source of new for many Americans. Today more respondents gets their news from the internet than ever before (37%, up from 13% in 2009) – a source which didn't even exist in 1979. The percentage is almost as high as the number who get their news from television (41%), which is down from 2009 (when it was 60%).

Just 7% now get most of their news from newspapers. Forty years ago, when the internet was not an option, the L.A. Times found Americans were equally as likely to get most of their news from newspapers (42%) as television (41%).

Race car driver Darrell Waltrip relaxes reading a newspaper after gaining the 3rd position from the pole during time trials for the NASCAR Pocono 500 Race, at Pocono International Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. July 28, 1979. AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy

This poll was conducted by telephone August 28-September 2, 2018 among a random sample of 1,002 adults nationwide.  Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by SSRS of Glen Mills, Pa.  Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The poll employed a random digit dial methodology. For the landline sample, a respondent was randomly selected from all adults in the household. For the cell sample, interviews were conducted with the person who answered the phone.

Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish using live interviewers.  The data have been weighted to reflect U.S. Census figures on demographic variables. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus four percentage points. The error for subgroups may be higher and is available by request. The margin of error includes the effects of standard weighting procedures which enlarge sampling error slightly. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.