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The global surveys support the intuition that young people are socially liberal, perhaps because of their higher openness to experience. However other trends seem harder to generalize.

Although the American narrative is that the younger generations are predominantly left-leaning, in Poland or Israel, young people are more likely to support far-right parties, in France, populist parties from both ends of the spectrum.

Has political psychology revealed some universal differences between young and old people's attitudes that would explain big factors such as the identification on the left-right and globalist-nationalist spectrums?

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  • As you indicate in your question there is more to a person’s political beliefs then their age and it includes a lot of factors about the person and their environment. This can’t be answered as it will vary depending on the people in question.
    – Joe W
    Jan 1 at 18:02
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    You would be hard pressed to find anything that is universal about political belief in any demographic. Possibly you want to modify it to "usual" or "very common" or some such.
    – BillOnne
    Jan 1 at 18:40
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    An American political adage is that if you are under 30 and a Republican, you have no soul, and if you are over 30 and and a Democrat, you have no brain. Internal to both parties, there is a generation gap in party agenda (young Republicans are less focused on moral society than their older counterparts while younger Democrats are more tolerant of socialist policies than their older counterparts for one example.).
    – hszmv
    Jan 3 at 16:43

3 Answers 3

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Has political psychology revealed some universal differences between young and old people's attitudes that would explain big factors such as the identification on the left-right and globalist-nationalist spectrums?

No.

Political science data does not support this hypothesis.

Generally speaking, data tracking the political views of cohorts of people over time in a country support the conclusion that people acquire a set of political beliefs around the time that they become young adults. Their political views become much less malleable after that.

People's political views can change (and it is slightly more likely for people to become more conservative than more liberal with age), especially in the wake of dramatic political or geopolitical events, but inertia is powerful as well.

For example, the abstract of one widely cited political science article from the year 2020 explains:

Folk wisdom has long held that people become more politically conservative as they grow older, although several empirical studies suggest political attitudes are stable across time. Using data from the Michigan Youth-Parent Socialization Panel Study, we analyze attitudinal change over a major portion of the adult life span. We document changes in party identification, self-reported ideology, and selected issue positions over this time period and place these changes in context by comparing them with contemporaneous national averages. Consistent with previous research but contrary to folk wisdom, our results indicate that political attitudes are remarkably stable over the long term. In contrast to previous research, however, we also find support for folk wisdom: on those occasions when political attitudes do shift across the life span, liberals are more likely to become conservatives than conservatives are to become liberals, suggesting that folk wisdom has some empirical basis even as it overstates the degree of change.

Incidentally, this imprinting in young adulthood isn't particular to political views. Marketing professionals, for example, focus heavily on capturing brand loyalty in this time frame because this is when the purchasing habits of most people are formed for many kinds of brands and people's brand preferences are much harder to change later in life.

You even see this phenomenon in science and academia, where bold new ideas are often adopted widely by scientists and scholars who receive their advanced education in their discipline as these ideas gain currency, while the old guard of the scientific and academic establishment will not infrequently cling to older ideas that have been superseded until death. In the sciences, this is known as Planck's principle based upon the following quotation from Max Planck's "Scientific Autobiography" (1950):

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it ...

An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth.

But, the collective political views of a generation in one country, and those in another, and the shifts to new generations later on in their lives, are not universal or uniform.

The long term trend in most places is for political views to get more liberal over time, which is why younger people can seem more liberal on average than older people. This gives rise to the conventional wisdom that people get more conservative as they get older. But, in fact, people's political views actually are fairly static over time after imprinting in young adulthood and it is the overall society that gets more liberal, not the aging individuals getting more conservative, in most cases.

For example, U.S. society has become much more liberal over the last fifty years which explains a lot of the apparent conservatism relative to contemporary norms of older Americans.

But this isn't always true.

The generation that came of age before the 1979 Iranian revolution, for example, was much more liberal than the one that came of age afterwards.

Similarly, in South Korea today, young people, especially young men, are much more conservative than the older generation. In part, because the older generation experienced a long run of rapidly rising prosperity and economic development, while the younger generation has seen that growth level off and young men find it increasingly hard to get married and have kids because far more young men are inclined to pursue that life course than young women in South Korea (which has the fewest children per woman per lifetime of any place in the world).

Germans who came of age before the Treaty of Versailles were more liberal than those who came of age politically while its crippling economic impact on Germany influenced their lives and perceptions.

So, rather than being a universal and global difference due to age rooted in the fundamental psychology of aging, generational differences in political views are primarily a lagging indicator of past political trends, driven by inertia and the young adult timing of the politically formative period for most people.

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  • The bit about Korea makes no sense to me tbh. I've seen the exact same argument being used to explain the opposite behaviors - millennials and gen z resenting boomers and the prosperity that they enjoyed, then subsequently tried to hoard. Why would Korean youth be pro-hoarding? or is it something else? Jan 3 at 9:38
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    @TheEvilMetal Korean young men are angry about not being able to get married and have kids according to the prevailing cultural script because college educated Korean women aren't willing to do that anymore. It has nothing to do with "hoarding."
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 3 at 17:52
  • I'm unsure if your references note this, but regarding the Planck's Principle, part of what defines older people is that they lived longer than others in their generation - and if the people in their generation were politically different enough, a survivorship bias in who survives to be polled could change the generational political spread. Mar 1 at 0:25
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The following isn't a political psychological study, much less an universal one. However, there are some observable patterns in the behavior of older vs younger voters, as well as the interaction between governments and voting groups, as differentiated by their age.


This is an unfortunately not very much covered subject. Or at least, the subject of generational equity does not get enough coverage in politics, IMHO.

Might be tricky to generalize about on particular topics, but for one there are vastly different voter participation rates, with older people voting a lot more:

Politicians also seem quite averse to risking the anger of their older voters due to these participation rates.

And in general, despite being nearer 60 than 50 myself, I see quite a lot of truth in Youtube coverage like this one: older voters tend to very much vote for spending benefiting themselves in aging Western societies.

The Brexit breakdown has been well-documented however:

  • 27% leave for 18-24s, 60% leave for 65+.

Global warming again sees younger voters more concerned in addressing the issue.

Older people in Europe seem very resistant to changes to pensions systems, even when the long term sustainability of their corresponding fiscal commitments has repeatedly been shown to be unsustainable by specialized actuarial experts. In France for example, increasing the retirement age back up from its low of 60 - it is currently sitting at 62 - has been a political minefield. Basically, the longer a reform is put off, the suckier the situation will be for far-future retirees, but the better it is for current ones.

And it's hard to forget that older US voters, who tend to vote Republicans are already nicely covered by Medicare, while generally opposing programs like Obamacare.

People younger than 30 do not view the law as negatively as do older Americans. About as many young people approve (50%) as disapprove (47%) of the health care law. Among older age groups, majorities disapprove.

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    While there are very pronounced generation differences in U.S. politics (and in most political systems), I don't think that this supports the query of the question that there are "universal" differences between generations.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 2 at 14:58
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    @ohwilleke It is a bit of a shift from the original question, true. However, there is a large gap in the social utility of spending between younger and older voters and it seems to me that the older generation is consistently trying to snap up the lion's shares of benefits. That covers areas from health spending, housing regulations and education support. The effect is pervasive enough to have some roots in some fairly generalized causes, IMHO. Besides, when I set out to answer this the Q was sitting at -1 and had a close vote already, with a comment essentially claiming it was pointless. Jan 2 at 20:27
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A universal factor is simple selfishness.

Older voters vote for wealthy people to retain their wealth. Because they are wealthy and want to retain their wealth.

Younger voters vote for unwealthy people to get more share of the wealth. Because they are unwealthy and would like to at least be averagely wealthy, and increasingly feel like it's impossible to get there from here, with any amount of work.

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    This answer would be stronger is supported by references or evidence that this is true.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 3 at 19:53
  • There is academic literature on virtually every issue.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 17 at 17:03

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