There is evidence that voting preferences and political views change with age. Of course, this is a broad stroke statement and many people buck any observable trends. Some people will form defined political beliefs at a young age and will stick with those beliefs throughout their life. Still, many people’s beliefs change as the years pass by. Many argue that people grow more conservative with age. However, this assertion is not conclusive. Generations also exhibit different voting habits. Other factors, such as common experience among generation cohorts, must also be considered.
It would make sense for our political views and voting habits to change with age. After all, wants and needs will change as we age. Priorities for younger people versus older people are often very different. Further, experience is a learning opportunity. Given this, it would make sense for our political views to evolve as our needs change and our experience informs our beliefs.
Consider the priorities of younger voters. Free or affordable college education will be more beneficial for younger people than older ones. Younger people generally earn less money than older workers. As such, increased taxes on high-income earners will not impact them as heavily.
On the flip side, older voters have already secured many of those benefits, such as affordable college. At the same time, they are generally earning more money. It’s more favorable for older workers to have lower taxes, even if it means cutting some social benefits, such as affordable college tuition.
Older Individuals Have Supported Conservative Politicians In Recent Years
There’s an old saying, “if you’re young and not a Democrat, you’re heartless. If you grow up and you’re not a Republican, you’re stupid.” This view isn’t necessarily correct, but it does reflect the belief that as people age, they tend to vote more conservatively. This is backed up by cold, hard data. However, the data is not conclusive (more on that later).
Back in 2004, conservative George W. Bush beat his opponent, liberal John Kerry, by a solid 8 percent in the over 65 crowd. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat Obama by 12 percentage points. More recently, Trump beat Clinton by 8 percentage points. By and large, older voters are more likely to vote for conservative politicians. Data has found similar trends in the United Kingdom, where older people are more likely to support the Conservative Party.
When we take a look at younger voters, however, we see an even larger gap. In 2008, Obama secured 66% of the 18-29 vote, versus McCain’s 32%. In 2012, Obama secured 60%, versus Romney’s 36%. Clinton secured a smaller margin in 2016, locking up “only” 55% of the young vote, to Trump’s 37%.
Are older people simply more experienced, thus explaining why they are more conservative? This is a frequent argument, but its veracity remains uncertain. A substantial review of 92 different scientific studies suggests that one reason we grow more conservative as we age is a lack of intellectual curiosity. As we grow older, it’s easier to become set in our beliefs and to stop challenging our own views. This could lead to a more conservative outlook.
Other research suggests that as we age, our ability to process information slows down. Information processing peaks in our mid-twenties, and then starts to decline by our 40’s. This doesn’t mean older people are less intelligent. In fact, more experience often means older people are both more knowledgeable, and more likely to rely on that knowledge. However, it does suggest that older people will be less open to and even less capable of digesting new information and changing circumstances.
To look at this another way, in a 2014 Pew Research poll only 10% of people between 18 and 29 self-identified as either staunch conservatives or Business conservatives. Among those aged 50 to 64, these numbers jumped to 28%. Among those aged 65 or more, staunch conservatives and business conservatives jumped to 32% of the population.
Importantly, much of this change appears to be the result of “bystanders” choosing a side. Of those aged 18 to 29, 17% considered themselves to be non-affiliated bystanders. This number dropped to 6% among those aged 50 to 64 and 3% among those aged 65 or older. Meanwhile, solid liberals declined from 16% to 15% to 13% respectively.
Could Generational Experience Explain Political Views?
Another theory argues that our views are more closely tied with our generational cohorts rather than our age. Each generation will experience somewhat similar conditions. For example, the “Greatest Generation” (1910-1924) came of age in the Great Depression, had to fight the horrors of World War II, and then the rapid expansion of Communism that followed.
These experiences certainly impacted the political outlook of the individuals that made up this generation. But how about the generation as a whole? Could the common experiences of the Great Depression, and everything that came after, impact the generation as a whole? And would that impact last throughout the rest of their lives?
In 1994, the Greatest Generation favored Democrats 47% to 42%. By this time, every member of the Greatest Generation had reached the age of 67. Regardless, they favored Democrats. Interestingly, Generation X, then the youngest vote bloc, favored Republicans 47% to 42%. However, in 2014, Generation X’ers favored Democrats 49 to 38%.
Even odder still, the Silent Generation that came after the Greatest shifted from favoring Democrats 47 to 42% in 1994 to favoring Republicans 47 to 43%. The Silent Generation had shifted from older working-age adults in 1994 to retirees in 2014. This does support the idea that generations tend to grow more conservative as they age.
The Baby Boomer generation, however, did not follow this trend. In 1994, Boomers favored Republicans 45 to 43%. By 2014, Boomers favored Democrats 47 to 41%. Yet in 2016 Boomers voted heavily for Donald Trump. Using a different data source, we see that voters 45 and older (meaning some Gen X’ers and Silent’ers are also mixed in) supported Trump versus Clinton roughly 53 to 44%.
Do Older People Stick With The Social Views Of Their Times?
Conservative parties tend to remain more conservative on social issues. Today’s Republican Party is in many ways more progressive and open to changing social circumstances than the Republican Party of the 1970’s. However, the party is still socially conservative by modern standards. Social conservatism is common among Conservative parties outside of the United States as well. In many ways, social conservatism is as important to conservative identity as economic issues.
A liberal from the 1950’s would likely seem quite conservative by today’s standards. Up until the 1960’s, gay people were prosecuted under the letter of the law. Many adults did not approval of gay relationships, let alone gay marriage. Now, a majority of adults support gay sex marriage. In fact, nearly 75% of millennials support same-marriage. However, only 41% of the silent generation (born 1928-45) and 56% of baby boomers (1946-64) support gay marriage.
Conservative Parties tend to conserve older social norms. These conservative views are more likely to be in-line with older voters. This helps explain why older voters are more likely to vote conservative. At the end of the day, the conservative social views of conservative parties are more likely to be in line with the social preferences of older voters.
Patterns Are Difficult to Discern
There does appear to be some evidence that people grow more conservative as they age. However, other evidence suggests that each generation’s experience is different. Still, other evidence suggests that voting preferences can swing from election to election. In this case, it might be the performance of individual politicians that drive voter habits.
Regardless of the cause, the most recent elections have suggested that older voters are increasingly more likely to vote conservative. Likewise, younger and middle-aged voters are more likely to vote for liberal politicians. These generational differences are being felt both in terms of who is winning elections, and what types of policies are being pursued.
- Party Affiliation Among Voters – Pew Research
- A Different Look at Generations and Partisanship – Pew Research
- The politics of American generations: How age affects attitudes and voting behavior – Pew Research
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