Do People Grow More Conservative as They Age?
Friday, 06 November 2015
Conventional wisdom has long answered this question in the affirmative and my unscientific observation after doing this blog for about a dozen years agrees. So do such people as Winston Churchill or Victor Hugo to whom this quotation has been attributed (among others):
”Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.
Even if you disagree with that sentiment, voting statistics from many years mostly support the actuality of it, including exit polls from the 2012 U.S. presidential election:
|Age Group||% of Electorate||% Voted for Obama|
The same age phenomenon is true going back several decades in British elections as reported in a story at The Conversation website by Oxford University Professor of Politics, James Tilley:
”Older people are always more likely to support the Conservatives,” he writes. “For example, when I voted for the first time in the 1997 election, only 23% of people my age (20) voted Conservative. In contrast, 42% of people my grandmother’s age (80) supported the Conservatives.”
Tilley posits that it might be that people vote Conservative as they get older because it is a biological imperative or that one's generation is what makes the difference:
”This could be because the ageing process makes people more conservative (with a small c), or because older people have different lifestyles, and therefore different priorities when voting.
“...Older generations of voters, who were brought up in different circumstances to younger voters, could vote differently as a result.”
Last year, The New York Times reported on a voting study involving hundreds of thousands of American respondents that seems to support a generational explanation:
”...whites born in 1941...came of age under Eisenhower, who was popular throughout his presidency. By the time Eisenhower left office in 1961, people born in the early 1940s had accumulated pro-Republican sentiment that would last their entire lifetimes.
“In contrast, people born a decade later – baby boomers – were too young to be influenced much by the Eisenhower years. Childhoods and formative years under Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon left them relatively pro-Democratic.”
So, the study concluded, it is no longer true in the U.S. that “Republican vote share increases linearly with age.”
“Instead, young voters and some baby boomers lean Democratic, with a complicated curve in between.”But, but, but – the same article also states that the study model
”...assumes generations of voters choose their team, Democrats or Republicans, based on their cumulative life experience — a running tally of events.”Huh? Didn't they just say that childhood influences last a lifetime?
Leaaving that contradiction aside, it turns out that the longitudinal study of more than 50 years that Oxford Professor Tilley looked into found different voting patterns in Britain than the Times's study is reporting:
“...Conservatives probably shouldn’t be too worried about their support base thinning out and being replaced by younger, less conservative generations.
”If history repeats itself, then as people get older they will turn to the Conservatives. Our evidence suggests that this is probably not due to 'social ageing' (getting married, having children or an increasing income), but rather to the direct psychological processes of ageing that tend to make people more resistant to change.”
Well, Tilley doesn't offer any evidence that a lean toward conservatism is automatic with age and I would like to think his conclusion is not so, but the social and political atmospheres of our two countries so often mesh.
After many years of tracking elders' political leanings, listening to too many old Republicans say idiot things like, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” and watching them vote in droves against their own best interests, I have trouble believing elders will change conventional wisdom in 2016 U.S. election.
I've always been an open minded liberal thinker coming from a family of staunch Republicans. And as I age, I become more liberal.
Posted by: DIane | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 06:39 AM
I've been hearing that for years but it sure isn't true of me. I get more liberal the older I get. What gets me is how many of the youngest members (of voting age) in my circle of friends and family who are hardcore conservatives. We have way too many low-information voters in this country and selfishness---me-first-attitudes---seems to heavily influence politician standing these days.
Posted by: Jean R | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 06:45 AM
I was born in 1939, raised by Republican parents, cast my first vote for Nixon (to my everlasting shame) and then ditched the GOP. I've become more liberal as I get older and am firmly in the Democrat ranks now, at 76. Unthinking Conservatives drive me bonkers. Clearly I've become more opinionated too!
Posted by: Jean Gogolin | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 07:40 AM
I'm also one who has become more liberal as the years go by. My family was staunchly Republican and I, too, voted that until life experiences and becoming aware of political news caused me to change along the way. It's so true that low-information voters and our sharp divisions due to inequality are a factor. Through the years though, as I've heard that, that people become more conservative with age, I could never understand it and have wondered why on earth it should be so.
Posted by: Marge | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 07:50 AM
I was born in 1948 and came of age politically in the mid to late 60s. I remember heated dinner table arguments with my parents, who were staunch Goldwater Republicans. If anything, I've become more progressive/liberal in my thinking as I've aged. My mother also edged closer to a liberal point of view in her later years (my dad remained a strong conservative).
Posted by: Lynn | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:01 AM
There's no real mystery to this tendency. The more money you have (and if you have been successful financially, you will have your highest net worth in your older years), the less you want to see it taxed away.
There is also the desire to pass your assets onto your own children and grandchildren to keep them in the family. Activist government needs piles of money, and where does it come from? Why from the people who have money.
Posted by: Yvonne | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:05 AM
I'm 70 years old, and another one who was raised to be a staunch Republican. As I have aged, I may have been a registered Republican, but that didn't mean I voted Republican. I changed my registration to Democrat last month, as I want to have a say in the primary, and there is no way on God's green earth that I could vote for any of the Republican candidates. I cannot understand why intelligent people do not research what the candidates stand for, as opposed to just listening to the generalizations they speak. I have turned into a bleeding heart liberal, and I am proud of it.
Posted by: Jean | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:07 AM
More liberal the older I get. The older I become, the more attuned I am to our responsibility for our fellow humans, our planet, and animals. The more I understand that this complex world requires we be open-minded and even more open-hearted, making choices tempered with the wisdom of our years and, above all, guided by kindness.
Posted by: Wendl | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:29 AM
I think becoming more fearful as we age correlates with becoming more Republican. The GOP media exists to keep people literally scared out of their wits -- and if life has inclined us to fear, we eat it up. In many people's lives, learning to fear has been appropriate to their experience. Others not and why they'd take it on, I don't know. Being fearful is painful.
Knowing that dying is the next phase is scary to most of us.
It is easier to be liberal if inclined to hope and also to envisioning life itself as going on, and on, and on, including long after one's own short dip in the stream. That's not an equanimity we come to easily.
Posted by: janinsanfran | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:38 AM
Maybe there's a grain of truth in it, if you take the classical meaning of the word conservative. That's what that quotation is about. As we gain more experience of life, it may well be true that we do become more financially conservative in our approach to politics. We do ask the important question which younger people might not, "That sounds all well and good, but tell me first, how do you plan to pay for it?"
(Though, please notice that Churchill, or whoever really said that, put the transition to more responsible thinking at age thirty. Hardly old age!)
But that doesn't describe today's Conservatives. They've been trained to think about that question only when it's about helping people in need... (except, of course, for themselves and their own family and friends, who are deserving!) They've been diverted by a carefully chosen assortment of wedge issues: race, religion, language... It never occurs to them to ask it about military spending or tax breaks for the rich; they regard that as essential spending that -- somehow -- keeps them safe.
I think that... as we age, liberals will tend to become more liberal, and conservatives more conservative. Our circle of contacts and new experiences contracts. Our accumulated sum of already-established opinions grows. It takes more contradictory evidence to overthrow something we've come to believe, and we're less likely to run into such non-confirming evidence.
Whatever we are already, with age we become more so.
Posted by: Sylvia | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:41 AM
I'm always amazed at how many people my age group (70-80) vote Republican because their father-or husband "always voted that way"! Good grief!
I wonder how many are so lazy, or perhaps too tired of all the rhetoric, to think for themselves?
Posted by: Lola | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:44 AM
I haven't followed this topic historically, however, what it meant to be Republican over the decades has changed, I think. Currently, does "cutting your nose off despite your face" have an alarming ring to adhering to the present crop of GOP members and their media darlings? I just want to shake people and ask what are they thinking? For example, in one breath they say they want to protect social security and in the other they support the GOP that wants to stab them in the back.
Personally, I consider myself an independent, because I never agree totally with either party.
Posted by: Norma Hall | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:44 AM
I'm now 75 years old and I have to say that I left the Democratic Party eleven years ago. Only because the Democrats were moving to the center and I am firmly on the Left. Always have been and always will be. Contrary to the polls, I love change. Besides, polling questions are only answered by people with land lines. I won't have one of those in my house!
Posted by: Steven | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:45 AM
"Activist government needs piles of money, and where does it come from? Why from the people who have money."
Yvonne, I take issue with your above statement, because the facts give a blatantly different view. Because of the the loopholes and benefits given to the largest investors and corporations, the taxes are disproportionately levied on the middle and lower income citizens of our country.
The rates at which the upper income and filthy rich persons and corporations are taxed could be raised and loopholes could be closed to make for a bit more equalization of the burden placed on the middle and lower income population. Just closing the loopholes would be a godsend for the budget deficit. The tendency for the politicians to stiff arm the needs of the people while glad handing and filling the hands of the corporate world, makes for the corruption of Democracy, OF, BY, and FOR the people.
The catchphrase "free" enterprise is a guise to play upon the American ideal of individuality. People who are underfed, in debt, without hope cannot fight the fallacy of the word "free" being used to take away their freedoms.
The small government movement wants the wages of the middle and lower income to be as low as possible and their taxes to be as high as possible, so they are "free" to fill their coffers for their progeny. Their attitude toward the rest of Americans, "let them eat cake."
I think of myself as Moderate. Equality is a lost cause in our ever-greed-grabbing society.
Sorry, I got off topic. I have not become more conservative in my political thinking. I have always been personally conservative, caught that from my father.
Posted by: S C Jones | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:45 AM
I also don't think growing older necessarily means growing more conservative, as the above comments prove. But in the aggregate, there are too many factors to competently speak to the issue, as you have intimated by showing the contradictions in the data and opinions that you found. As Yvonne says, certainly the size of an estate makes a difference in your desire to "conserve" it, but these same people support the arts, public television, libraries, and public services of all kinds. In our own generation (I was born in 1949) I see several unique factors that apply to our political preferences as an age group. One is our youth in the anti-government Vietnam era. Another is the resulting institutionally motivated dumbing down of the populace through near-decimation of public education and big-time wrestling television (something I call the Springerization of America) that, while mostly affecting our children and now their children, certainly also defined what polito-social context we have been exposed to ever since. Another is the rise of the religious far-right and their climb to political power that rested on the backs of more uninformed voters. And finally the appearance of the terrorist boogeyman, which for fearful people is a very strong motivator to legislate away freedom for perceived "safety." All of this and more make it impossible for me at least to say if, as a group, we are more conservative than we were when we were young. Personally, I have not fallen from the far-left path at all and have felt only more free to be me since my kids left home and reasonable retirement approaches. It is a thorny question you ask, Ronni:)
Posted by: Pinko Gramy | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:47 AM
In many states, there are many voters that are rendered voiceless by the electoral college.
Posted by: Perspective | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 09:08 AM
Our party labels just don't stick to "liberal-conservative" ideas as they did not so long ago. My parents were staunch Republicans, and so was I for some years. But we were progressive Republicans who believed in civil rights and responsible government. We supported tax increases when they seemed to be in the common good. The conservatives were Democrats who dominated politics in the deep South. They were outright racists and generally opposed expansion of federal government programs and any controls on their "states rights."
For a time, the two positions gradually moderated and we had widespread criticism that there was little choice between the parties.
Now, the lines are rather clearly drawn. It is hard to find a solid conservative in the Democratic party and at least as hard to find any sort of liberal in the GOP.
I don't think age groupings or generational attitudes have much to do with the present situation. Some individual political leanings are hard to rationalize, but they always were.
Posted by: Gabbygeezer | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 09:34 AM
There is comfort in being Conservative. You don't have to change your lifestyle. If you are conservative, you don't have to believe in global warming, air pollution, Americans who live below the poverty level, homelessness, or any of the social ills that the Liberal media seems to make such a big deal of. You can believe that America is a white country, founded by white people for white people and that if the government would just keep its hands out of my pockets and let me run rampant over the land, we'll be alright. Yes, you can live your life with blinders on, oblivious to the world around you because it's just so darn safe.
Posted by: Bruce Cooper | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 09:37 AM
I'm indeed resistant to change so will stay Very Liberal!! Seriously, I find myself becoming more so.
Posted by: Sarah Wrightson | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 09:53 AM
Good comments here. Like many others, I was raised in a Republican voting household and my mother worked for the party during elections. Our lodge was a voting place when I was a child so I voted Republican when I was old enough to cast my first ballot. (21 years at that time).
My grandparent's fathers fought for the North in the Civil War and President Lincoln was there idol, so it's no surprise that they were Republican. I like to think that as the Republican party started it's rightward trend that they would have become Democrats.
As soon as I became interested in politics and studied the issues I changed from my family's party to the Democratic party. For a time I voted for the person as well as the party, but now I would never put my mark next to anyone on the Republican ticket.
I was always liberal in my thinking, but have gotten more so as I age. I have friends who have never varied from being Republicans and they have veered "right" along with the party. Just as they accept whatever their Priest or Minister tell them without thinking, they accept whatever the party bosses tell them and continue to follow the party line. Critical thinking or research to find fact from fiction is not in their character. It's a tribal thing.
Posted by: Darlene | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 10:02 AM
I live in Canada, hence my comment above, has nothing to do with US politics or the Republicans or Democrats. Just an observation that a middle-class to affluent family with money would prefer to keep it to themselves and close family members, not subject to the whims of the tax man or whatever the government is in power.
Posted by: Yvonne | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 10:04 AM
Parents were Republicans...I usually couldn't swallow all of it and drifted to more independent ideals in my early 30's...However the last 15 to 20 years I have become a true Tax and Spend Liberal!
Posted by: Terry | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 10:41 AM
Like quite a few other TGB responders I came from a red, white and blue Republican family. I grew up with Archie Bunker-type views and language that I felt uncomfortable with (even then when I knew nothing different) and find totally repugnant now. Despite the outspoken disapproval of my family, I cast my first Presidential vote for JFK. I've never looked back although I've voted for the occasional moderate Republican in state/local elections--when such a species existed.
I remember when Republicans and Democrats could exchange opposing views and ideas through civil discourse and eventually meet in the middle much of the time. Unfortunately for the country that is no longer the case. The current crop of ultra right wing Repubs and their supporters, especially those in the south, are not swayed by logic or reason--in fact, they proudly reject both, along with science and higher education.
As far as younger voters are concerned I think there's some reason for hope. However, many were raised on reality TV and may view Donald Trump through the lens of "Survivor: Politics!" That could be a problem since it reflects the dumbing-down of America and the possible continuation of low-information voting for years to come.
Posted by: Elizabeth Rogers | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 11:09 AM
My husband born in '45 to democrat parents and me in '47 to republican parents, although the Eisenhower type and not the far right nuts of today. As my husband aged he got more conservative and I more liberal and much more so now as a widow of two years.
Some of this conservatism among the young is rebellion against their parents like for many in the 60's only in reverse.
But it's also lack of education, talk radio hatred spewing, Fox News, anti science push and judging people negatively of different races, non Christian religions, alternative partner choices by the religious right and fear of change and technology especially by older adults.
If it's true and I think it is in the big picture ( remember here you usually have educated professional people commenting) , it's because of this fear of change and the world changing from our comfort zone.
Posted by: Mary | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 11:29 AM
Our culture trains us to be obedient and non-thinking. Makes us easier to control.
Posted by: Charlotte Dahl | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 12:01 PM
These comments are really interesting to me. I too grew up in a Republican household. Then I married a Republican who became a public figure in the 70's.
He died young, and, like the rest of you, I have become more and more liberal, and it's not just because the current Republicans are nuts. I don't like the mean-spiritedness of the party's resistance to gov't spending, it's fairy tale belief that the private sector will take up the slack, among other things.
My late husband, who was a moderate Republican, once said to our daughter, "I am part of a dying breed." And of course he was right. There is no place in our current culture for moderate Republicans. Still, even if there were, I'd still be a Democrat.
Posted by: Anne | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 12:43 PM
In other words, it seems to me, the only rule is there is no rule. Born in '43, I was raised Republican and stayed that way until I realized the GOP was butting into my personal life and decisions with its pro-life leanings. Went to the Dems briefly, but couldn't deal with them for long either. Have been independent ever since, with stances on both sides of the aisle depending on the particular issue. Think, people, think! No one party has all the answers!
Posted by: PiedType | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 12:46 PM
In a country where two parties dominate our politics all a third or fourth party accomplishes is to weaken the Democrat votes. It's all well and good to think for yourself, but if it means that you split voters from the Democrats you're simply strengthening Republican power.
I favor Bernie Sanders for President, but if Ms. Clinton wins the Democrat nomination I will definitely cast my vote for her rather than some independent candidate -- otherwise the nut-case Republican candidate will run away with the race. As it is, the electoral college may negate all our liberal votes anyway.
I'm not sure that I have become more liberal than when I was young, but I am more aware of the gerrymandering and the growing power of the far-right wing. I believe our government has become an oligarchy and I am afraid of it.
Posted by: Classof65 | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 02:09 PM
As I inch closer & closer to my seventh decade, I have to admit I'm a little bit of both. Politically I'm a proud Progressive/Liberal which by my definition believes in 2nd chances, helping others in need & protecting our environment. But personally & spiritually I believe there is a Loving&Forgiving GOD & the ten commandments are not merely suggestions~~~~~<><
Posted by: barbarajean | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 02:30 PM
I was raised by a widowed mother who always voted Democrat - except when she found she could support neither of the major party candidates and then willingly - and I think joyfully - turned to Norman Thomas, the perennial candidate and head of the the American Socialist Party. (my parents were totally enamored with him, and actually, I am told, had him to dinner one night. I wish I could remember--).
I find that I am critical of both major parties, find fault with both, but far greater fault with the Republicans - several of you have used the term nutcase to describe the current candidates, and I agree, find it quite terrifying. Like others of you, I find Bernie Sanders closest to what I believe and hope for, although even in his case I find his positions re immigration and gun control pretty reprehensible. Hillary Clinton is the obvious second choice.
But as to political leanings, there was a time when things were less rabid between the two parties when I could comprehend at least an occasional Republican position - think of Goldwater, for example, and his strong belief in the conservation of the planet - but generally it was because those positions somewhat echoed the Democratic platform. Nowadays, however, I feel nothing but contempt for and terror of what passes as the second major party. There is SO much at stake in this upcoming election, and I have never felt more frightened than I do now.
Actually, the person who represents for me those things I believe in is Bill Moyers. I mourn his absence, think that basically what I am is a Moyersist.
Anyway, it may indicate some complacency in me, but I am pleased that, at least in terms of politics, my parents headed me in what I see is the right direction.
Posted by: Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 02:37 PM
Interesting comments. Many of us appear to lean more heavily to one side than the other. I would find this encouraging, but I think as regular readers of Ronnie's great blog, it's not too surprising.
When Obama was running the first time, I spent some time working the phones, right before the election. Our mandate was to tell the people we called that we were calling from the Democratic party and asking if they needed a ride to the polls. That's it -- please vote, however you plan to vote, and if you can't get there, we'll find you a ride. The vitriol I encountered from people I called -- and the names they called me -- was extremely surprising to me. I think, Bruce and janinsanfran nailed it...Fear of the unknown, fear of change, tends to make folks lean towards the right. Does it correlate with aging? With fear of death? I don't know, but what's to fear? None of us gets out of here alive.
Posted by: Patty-in-New-York | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 05:07 PM
Another one who's moved to the left with age, rather than to the right. But, of course, the spectrum in this country has moved wildly to the right in my lifetime, so that Democrats these days are saying things that Republicans were saying 40 years ago. I am certainly to the left of the Democrats currently. It has nothing to do with my (fairly meager) pocketbook. It has to do with--remember this?--the common good, and the welfare of both the species and the planet.
Posted by: Kate Gilpin | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 05:23 PM
Well, it may be true of some, but certainly not for me!
Posted by: Olga | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 05:36 PM
Reading today's column by Ronni and the comments from everyone caused a good deal of vigorous head nodding! I do miss having meaningful though opposite points and perspectives of view with conservatives as I once had, but everyone I know has become as liberal as I the past few years.
Posted by: Simone | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:33 PM
I vote for the person. I am liberal left. If the candidates ideas agree with mine I vote for them no matter what they are.
A ride to the polls is a wonderful thing. No matter how they vote. I work at the polls every election.
Posted by: Debi | Friday, 06 November 2015 at 08:56 PM
I suspect Jan and Bruce are very close to the truth. Making choices which aren't well thought out is a classic avoidance measure. Wanting to turn back time is fear, being baffled by tech is fear (unless you have dementia, then it's true bafflement). Both parties are good at playing to fear....and every election feels like there's SO much at stake.
Posted by: Lauren | Tuesday, 10 November 2015 at 01:51 PM