Study: People become more liberal as they age
Globe and Mail
March 11, 2008

Have you been feeling more liberal lately (with a small L, that is), less rigid in your beliefs, less conservative (with a small C), more accepting of change?

One reason could be that you're over 60, according to a new U.S. study.

The study found that, contrary to popular wisdom, older people tend to become more liberal as they age, and occasionally hold more liberal views than younger people.

Using data from the U.S. General Social Survey that measured changes in attitudes at different stages in life, Nick Danigelis, a sociologist at the University of Vermont, and two colleagues studied the political beliefs of 46,510 people between 1972 and 2004 and divided them into two "cohorts," one aged 18 to 39 and the other 60 and over.

"What we did was look at a number of questions about contemporary issues and divided them up into three domains," Prof. Danigelis said in a telephone interview from Vermont.

The first area concerned questions about historically disadvantaged groups.

"We particularly focused on African-Americans and on women – so there are two out of three of the U.S. presidential candidates right there," he joked.

"And, of course, we're dealing with age, so there's the third one."

The second domain covered attitudes toward civil liberties and individuals who belong to "unpopular" causes, such as communists and atheists.

The third area focused on right-to-die questions and tolerance of sex outside marriage and attitudes toward divorce.

"And what we found was that the changes that the stereotypical older person is presumed to make, if any, towards increased conservatism were not true for the majority of the items that we looked at," Prof. Danigelis said.

For example, on gender equality in politics, older people became more liberal over time.

However, he noted that part of the reason for greater change among older people is that the older folks often started off from a more conservative position. For instance, while both the older and younger groups have become more liberal on race relations in the past 30 years, the change has been more pronounced in the older group.

(The study made allowances for the fact that people in their 70s and 80s in 1972 would have died off, and by 2004 their study "cohort" would have been replaced by people who were in their 40s and 50s in the 1970s.)

Sometimes, younger people were more rigid than their elders. Those under 40 took a more conservative stand toward communists and atheists, while those over 60 viewed them more tolerantly.

But when it came to sex, "tolerance of extramarital sex and premarital sex [in each age group] tended to move in a conservative direction," Prof. Danigelis said.

He also pointed out that large societal events, such as the civil-rights movement, tend to change attitudes across all age groups. Nevertheless, "the predominance of change in a liberal direction indicates that many more people in the older group are becoming liberal than are becoming conservative or not changing their positions," Prof. Danigelis said.

His co-authors in the study were Steve Cutler of the University of Vermont and Melissa Hardy of Pennsylvania State University. The research was published in the American Sociological Review.

With a report from Reuters

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