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Aging Liberally

UVM sociologists debunk stereotype that people grow more conservative as they age

By Jon Reidel Article published February 20, 2008

New Dogs
Nick Danigelis (L) and Stephen Cutler, both professors of sociology, have produced new research showing that age doesn't translate to conservatism. (Photo: Rajan Chawla)

Winston Churchill is often credited with saying that if “you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain.” Makes sense; everyone knows older people are more conservative and set in their ways. So why then was Churchill more conservative at age 15 than at age 35?

New research by Nick Danigelis, professor and chair of sociology, and Steve Cutler, professor of sociology and Distinguished Bishop Joyce Chair of Gerontology, strongly suggests that this long-held belief about older citizens being more rigid isn’t true. Their findings, published in the October 2007 edition of the prestigious American Sociological Review in an article titled “Population Aging, Intracohort Aging, and Sociological Attitudes” has sociologists and politicians alike rethinking the attitudes and social and political leanings of older Americans.

The study is based on U.S. General Social Survey data from 25 surveys between 1972 and 2004 that measure the changes in attitudes that occur within cohorts at different stages in life. The political leanings of 46,510 Americans were examined with regard to how they felt about the political and economic roles of historically subordinate groups (e.g., women and African-Americans); the civil liberties of groups considered outside the U.S. mainstream (e.g., atheists and homosexuals); and privacy issues (e.g., right-to-die and sex between consenting adults).

Results showed that although change occurred in both the 18-39 and 60-and-over age groups, the movement among the older group was greater and was most often toward “increased tolerance rather than increased conservatism.”

“It proves that some of the commonly held beliefs about older people being rigid and unwilling to change aren’t true,” says Danigelis. “Clearly both cohorts changed, but the older one changed more dramatically. In other words, getting older makes you more conservative, but only if you’re a younger person,” he adds with a wink.

Contributing to the ‘aging’ literature
When Danigelis looks out his second floor office on South Prospect Street he can see the old Bishop DeGoesbriand Memorial Hospital (now University Health Center) where he was born. After explaining that he went to elementary, middle and high school within a stone’s throw of his office before attending UVM, Danigelis jokes about fitting the stereotype of the inflexible older American that his research debunks. But he and Cutler have been anything but stuck in a rut when it comes to research on aging. Cutler, past president of the Gerontological Society of America, has been researching age-related issues for three decades and has received numerous grants from the National Institute on Aging. His research with Danigelis is especially significant because it’s among the first to show over an extended period of time that people age 60 and over become more liberal at a faster rate than their younger counterparts on a number of measures.

Danigelis and Cutler note that Americans who grew up in the Depression have different attitudes toward many issues than those who grew up in the 1960s. Their research, however, shows that although people tend to be shaped by defining issues during their lifetime, a general pattern of aging Americans changing their attitudes — regardless of era — is clearly evident. And much of this change is in a liberal direction.

Challenging supposed societal beliefs has always intrigued Danigelis and Cutler. They point to a Gallup poll from 1970 that went against the commonly held notion that more educated people were against the Vietnam War while lesser educated ones supported it. Danigelis asks students in his sociology courses if they think people with more education would be more or less likely than someone with less education to tolerate an adult male punching another adult male. More than 95 percent assume the lesser educated ones would be apt to condone a left jab. Not true, according to studies. “We want our students to be critical thinkers regardless of the issue,” says Danigelis.

A history of stereotypes
Danigelis and Cutler say that every stereotype has its own reason for existing. In regard to the idea of older Americans being inflexible, Danigelis says it’s a combination of historical factors led by a shift in opinion about the older patriarchal way of life that changed during the free-thinking Revolutionary War era. Conservative or rigid depictions of older Americans by writers like Emerson and Thoreau, and assertions by prominent figures such as Freud, who once said anyone over age 50 was ineducable, contributed to the shift in perception. “Take a long look at U.S. history and you will see a change in attitudes toward older people that have produced these sets of stereotypes,” says Danigelis.

Moving ahead to the modern era, Cutler says a number of institutions that continue to buy into the notion that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks are losing out on a major market share. The idea that there’s a sort of ‘social sclerosis’ or hardening of the social arteries simply isn’t true, he says. “The idea that older people are uninterested in computers or can’t learn to use them isn’t true,” says Cutler. “The same goes for the current presidential election. When you dissect the electorate you will see that older voters will support Obama. It would be a mistake to ignore them. There are differences in the ways younger and older Americans function and approach issues, but nothing about the aging process is endemic.”