The Wilson Quarterly

Will the graying of America produce a more conservative electorate, resistant to liberal ideas about minorities, atheists, political dis­senters, and gays? Not likely, say sociologists Nicholas L. Danigelis and Stephen J. Cutler, of the University of Vermont, and Melissa Hardy of Pennsylvania State ­University.

Americans over 60 are as likely as those under 40 to hold different views on hot-button social issues from those of their predecessors at the same stage of life. More surprisingly, these older Americans’ opinions are more likely have shifted left than ­right.

Opinion surveys of nationally representative samples of the English-speaking population show that the over-60 generation’s responses to questions about minority groups, civil liberties, and privacy changed substantially between 1974 and 2004. The shifts occurred because of two factors—older members died and were replaced by new seniors, and beliefs gradually changed within the surveyed group. The authors used complex statistical techniques to separate the two. Their findings concentrate on the changes that occurred because people changed their minds.

When asked questions about civil liberties for gays, members of the older generation are more likely to have altered their views—in the direction of increased tolerance—than those under 40. On the question of whether individual failings—such as a lack of motivation or ability to learn—are responsible for black Americans’ problems, seniors are nearly three times more likely to have changed their minds to disagree, blaming the gap instead on discrimination and poor ­education.

Older Americans haven’t become more liberal in everything, or more liberal than the under-40s overall. Like their younger counterparts, they have grown more conservative in their view of premarital sex and divorce. And because so many older Americans started out with far more conservative views than those under 40, as a group they are hardly lefties. But the notion that age breeds conservatism is as outmoded as TV rabbit ears and maps of Upper ­Volta.

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The Source: "Population Aging, Intracohort Aging, and Sociopolitical Attitudes" by Nicholas L. Danigelis, Melissa Hardy, and Stephen J. Cutler, in American Sociological Review, October 2007.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/whitnuld

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