This question asked whether the current distribution of ages within each political party is similar to the past. This leads to a more general question: what is the relationship between age and political ideology?

"Classic (that is, old) works of political science definitely supposed that some relationship existed. For example, Glenn (1974) summarized some key arguments from his day:

  • Older people have more family responsibilities, so they are less interested in general social benefits than benefits for their own family.
  • Older peoples' opinions change less quickly than young peoples', so their views lag behind younger peoples'.

In more current research, what is believed to be the relationship between age and political ideology? Is there any? If so, why?


As I indicated in my answer to the question linked, research suggests that political affiliations are imprinted at a young age and relatively static thereafter.

Now, that is speaking about whole demographics, not individuals. Individuals' beliefs will likely be a product of their circumstances. If we look at, for instance, the members of the Supreme Court, evidence suggests they get more liberal as they age. enter image description here

  • 1
    There is the caveat here that SCOTUS rulings may not necessarily represent the justices personal beliefs. The chief task of judges is to interpret laws in specific cases, if the law is "conservative" then a liberal judge will (should) make a "conservative" ruling, as that's what the law says (and vice versa, of course).
    – user11249
    Dec 12 '18 at 2:22
  • 1
    Furthermore, I wonder if this doesn't at least partly represent changes in societal views as well: some things that are "liberal" today were "conservative" 20 years ago. (I wasn't able to find a concise description of the methodology, and reading the 48-page paper is too much work to satisfy my curiosity). Besides, several dozen justices is not a very large sample size, and certainly not representatives for the entire population. So in short, I am not convinced of the significance of this data for this specific question.
    – user11249
    Dec 12 '18 at 2:24
  • Thanks for the answer. I really appreciated your answer to the linked question. This one is good too - but I'm hoping for something that focuses on "why". Why are age and ideology linked? Dec 12 '18 at 16:41
  • @indigochild So, if you mean "why" as in "what is the mechanism for the imprinting and staticness of political beliefs"... Assuming you're talking on an individual level, I have speculations concerning brain formation and psychology, e.g. children seem to be far more impressionable than adults and there could be evolutionary reasons for this, but to be honest, those are guesses and I don't know, and I'd be interested to hear someone else's answer that they could back up with good evidence. Dec 13 '18 at 3:00
  • I don't think a sample size of 9 is statistically significant. (Or even 25+ since it is all justices since 1937.)
    – Chloe
    Apr 25 '19 at 18:11

Most research e.g. summarized by Cornelis et al. (2009) suggests that most people become more conservative as they age:

The finding that older people tend to be more conservative emerged from many studies (e.g., Feather, 1977; Grant, Ross, Button, Hannah, & Hoskins, 2001; Henningham, 1996; Maltby, 1997; Ray, 1985; Truett, 1993; Wilson, 1973).

The case of US justices highlighted in another answer thus might not be representative of the population at large. But you also have to keep in mind that most such studies are cross-sectional, which simply means that older people are more conservative than than younger ones at a given point in time. Longitudinal studies are fewer in number.

Cross-sectional survey data have shown moderate to substantial correlations between chronological age and measures of cultural conservatism (see Table 1).

enter image description here

Grant and colleagues (2001) found evidence for both a linear and quadratic effect of age on conservatism, with scores initially increasing slowly, and then at an accelerated pace in older age, a pattern also observed by Truett (1993). Previous studies generally failed to report significant relationships between age and indicators of economic conservatism (e.g., Duriez & Van Hiel, 2002; Felling & Peters, 1984; Middendorp, 1991; van Berkel- Van Schaik & van Snippenburg, 1991; Van Dam, 1993).

The study of Cornelis et al. (conducted in Poland and Belgium) also found support for this linear relationship of conservatism with age, but a very limited quadratic effect. Their explanation is that Openness to Experience (a Big Five personality factor) decreases with age. Additionally they found a more obscure personality factor, namely Need for Closure to be another explanatory link.

Need for Closure (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996; Webster & Kruglanski, 1994) refers to the desire or need for any firm belief or answer, as opposed to further sustaining ambiguity.

Likewise a 2013 Europe-wide study by Robinson found similarly:

The value categories measured by the ESS [European Social Survey] are the following: conservative values (tradition, conformity and security), openness to change values (self-direction, hedonism and stimulation), self-transcendent values (universalism, benevolence) and self-enhancement values (power, achievement). Of the ten lower order values, tradition shows the strongest positive relation with adult age, while the value of stimulation shows the strongest negative relation with age. With regards to the four higher order value categories, conservative values increased across age groups, while openness to change values decreased. Neither of these value types showed cohort or gender differences. [...] Age effects on the four higher order value types were replicated across all 12 countries in the sample


As you'd expect, political views are malleable and subject to radical change much more often before adulthood.

True case studies have been scarce in the last 10-15 years, but simple correlation surveys have been fairly clear: Millennials and Gen X are actually getting more liberal over time. When you get into the details, though, it's a bit more complicated, as the rise of the alt-Right seems to also be tied to younger generations, though not at the same rate as liberalism.

  • You've omitted from that PEW study that Boomers are getting more conservative. "Boomers have turned more conservative. In both 2015 and 2016, about three-in-ten Boomers (30% in 2015, 31% in 2016) identified as conservative Republicans – the highest percentages dating back to 2000. In both years, conservative Republicans made up the largest single partisan and ideological group among Boomers."
    – Fizz
    Dec 14 '18 at 6:46
  • And I'm not sure how politically [un]biased some US surveys are but "In my analyses of the nationally representative yearly survey Monitoring the Future, the percentage of high school seniors who identified as conservative rose from 23% in 2000 to 29% in 2015, creating a group more conservative than the Reagan-era GenX teens of the 1980s." time.com/4909722/trump-millennials-igen-republicans-voters That's from US psychologist whom I see is a bit controversial en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Twenge
    – Fizz
    Dec 14 '18 at 7:09

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