July 9, 2014

The politics of American generations: How age affects attitudes and voting behavior


The notion that age and political ideology are related goes back at least to French monarchist statesman François Guizot, who originated the oft-mangled quotation, “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” But data from the Pew Research Center’s new political typology report indicate that, while different age cohorts do have markedly different profiles, the relationship is considerably more complex than young=liberal and old=conservative.

The report, based on a survey of more than 10,000 Americans, finds that among the oldest Americans (those ages 65 and up), nearly two-thirds are at opposite ends of the typology. 32% fall into the two strongest Republican-oriented groups (what we call Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives) and 33% are either Solid Liberals or Faith and Family Left, the two strongest Democratic-aligned groups. (Steadfast and Business Conservatives are separated mainly by the latter’s more Wall Street orientation, while the Faith and Family Left tend to be more conservative on social issues than Solid Liberals.)

Looking at the youngest American adults, those ages 18 to 29, nearly one-in-five are what we call Young Outsiders — GOP leaners who favor limited government but are socially liberal. Almost exactly the same percentage are what we’ve termed the Next Generation Left, who tilt more to the Democrats but are wary of social-welfare programs. And many (17%) are Bystanders — not registered to vote, don’t follow politics and generally the least politically engaged. That’s the biggest share among all age brackets, though perhaps not entirely surprising.

Who are the political typology groups?

Steadfast Conservatives: Generally critical of government, especially social safety net programs, but also critical of big business and immigrants. Most are very socially conservative.

Business Conservatives: Overall, critical of government regulation and social-welfare spending, but not of big business. For the most part, moderate to liberal on social issues, with positive views toward immigrants.

Young Outsiders: Tend to be distrustful of government programs and fiscally conservative, but very liberal on social issues and not very religious.

Hard-Pressed Skeptics: Generally distrustful of government, except for social safety net spending. On average, low-income, anti-immigrant compared with other groups.

Next Generation Left: Generally positive feelings about government, but less so for social programs. Tend to be business-oriented and individualistic.

Faith and Family Left: By and large, highly religious, socially conservative, but strongly support social safety net and government action more broadly.

Solid Liberals: Overall, highly supportive of social programs, immigrants and government generally; very skeptical of business and markets. Consistently liberal on social issues, from homosexuality to environmental protection.

Bystanders: On the sidelines of the political process; not registered to vote and pay very little attention to politics.

On an individual level, of course, many people’s political views evolve over the course of their lives. But academic research indicates not only that generations have distinct political identities, but that most people’s basic  outlooks and orientations are set fairly early on in life. As one famous longitudinal study of Bennington College women put it, “through late childhood and early adolescence, attitudes are relatively malleable…with the potential for dramatic change possible in late adolescence or early adulthood. [B]ut greater stability sets in at some early point, and attitudes tend to be increasingly persistent as people age.”

A recent paper by two Columbia University researchers that combined multiple survey data sources finds evidence of this sort of generational imprinting. Their study identified five main generations of presidential voters, each shaped by political events during their formative years: New Deal Democrats, Eisenhower Republicans, Baby Boomers, Reagan Conservatives and Millennials. (The researchers note, however, that their model works best among non-Hispanic whites.) Amanda Cox of The Upshot (The New York Times’ data blog) has created a fascinating interactive visualization of the researchers’ model.

Pew Research Center surveys over the past two decades also have found compelling evidence that generations carry with them the imprint of early political experiences.

As Fact Tank noted last year, Americans who came of age during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, and are now in their 70s and 80s, have fairly consistently favored Republican candidates, while those who turned 18 under Bill Clinton and his two successors have almost always voted more Democratic than the nation as a whole.

Topics: Demographics, Political Typology

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Non Applicable2 years ago

    There is a tendency to maintain lifetime affiliation with a party, but there is also what I call the classic flipflop; start democrat in college to get grants and girls, turn republican midlife to impress your boss and buddies at the office, then switch back to democrat once you realize you didn’t become a millionaire and are on a fixed income.

  2. Eric P.2 years ago

    This is very interesting. Especially because the study is about comparing sub-groups to national average, and all individual comments have been about personal ideological development. Several comments seem to be from vocal outliers.

    I would love to know what the definitions of the political typologies are. I understand enough to know that some are based on historic voting cohorts, and others seem to be from general political jargon.

    Are the definitions given by this article in line with those from this link?

    For example, “Young Outsiders: conservative views on government, not social issues”

    Sounds like the profile of most educated Boomers I know.

  3. Min Zee3 years ago

    When you say that this study works best among non-Hispanic whites, does that include the 33 million Mexican-Americans or the 22 million of them that have been here for generations and where born here? Isn’t “Hispanic or Latino-white or not, more aligned with new immigrants from diverse Spanish speaking countries…

  4. kizzy3 years ago

    I can not find a definition for Hard-Pressed Skeptics. Are they skeptical of theologies or government?

    1. Ninja Samurai3 years ago

      I see young outsiders in the 65+ group.

      Are words just a joke to these people?

  5. Howard Reston3 years ago

    Conservative values are generally acquired in direct proportion to the gaining of (and fear of losing) property, whether it be monetary, investments, or social status. It is very easy to be a liberal if either the government or your family are supporting you and will always do so. Then you never have to fear losing these necessities.

    So called “limousine liberals” have never had to worry about losing a job or status. Therefore, they are exempt from the fears of the middle class as such. But it is also easy to be a conservative if you have never had to worry about where your next meal comes from. So it all boils down to a hierarchy of needs and where you happen to fall on the continuum.

    1. Connor3 years ago

      I disagree, mostly because your comment is simplistic–and that’s the problem with so much of how we try to analyze politics and economics in this complex world today. People who used to be willing to share the wealth with those who were less fortunate did so because they were told it was the right thing to do. They used to have access to balanced reporting about the state of the nation (thanks to FCC rules that required balanced reporting, which were abolished during the Reagan Administration). Those same people used to believe they lived in a safe country, mostly because they lived in predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods where crime was low and drug use was only by prescription and doled out to repressed housewives by doctors who also did what they were told rather than what common sense would tell them to do. Feeling safe and superior engendered noblesse oblige in the happy middle-class. Then, slowly but surely, people who liked money too much started finding ways to dismantle what Roosevelt and his predecessors who cared about democracy had built: banking regulations were overwritten so banks could speculate again, constitutional rules of how wars should be declared were ignored, myths were spread that commercial enterprise was more efficient than government so government functions were contracted out and taxpayers now had to pay for info to be created then to get their hands on it (ask your librarian how this works). A President was assassinated, more assassinations occurred, whites lost their privileged status, somebody decided the problem was that the middle-class was too well educated and knowledgeable so they started defunding public education, mortgages became a shell game and the middle-class lost, our wars-for-profit came home to roost and we were no longer the most secure nation on earth (actually, we never were; we just didn’t know it). All the while, our public utilities were morphing into for-profit businesses and consumers were paying through the nose for less and worse service for energy, telecommunications, transportation and infrastructure while our air, water and soil were being polluted. It’s all very complicated and messy and fraught with shenanigans we can only guess at, so don’t even try to make a chart about voting and ages. How did you factor in Diebold and jerry-rigging in all this, by the way?

  6. alexis browning3 years ago

    I am a racial minority and sexual minority. I am also living on disability.It hardly matters what my specific views are since i am ambivalent on most of the issues. However, this also means that i will always be a liberal no matter what ever be the burning issues

  7. Howard Reston3 years ago

    Basically I feel there is strong evidence that as people age and lose close connection to progressive changes that effect their lives directly AND particularly when they begin to accumulate property or monetary wealth and in investment portfolios, they grow more conservative simply because they have more to lose when govrnment programs sponsor giveaway programs for the poor who know how to work the welfare system for unearned financialgain.

    We were married in 71, and until 82, we lived paycheck to paycheck. And it only changed then after a relative died who left us a small legacy that became the basis for our portfolio that has grown more than 25 times greater since then. We voted Democrat until 94 when we realized that party did not have our interests as a primary concern. Labor union members and idealistic university faculty (and their impressionable students, who have nothing much to lose, are the only exceptions due to collective bargaining and and ivory tower life among the phony literati.

  8. Robert Day3 years ago

    I turned 18 under Truman/Ike and have voted for a democrat except one tome. It was Reagan’s first term. I have yet to see a good republican President sense Ike.

    1. treefarmer3 years ago

      I have not seen a good Democrat president since Kennedy.

  9. Jason Hader3 years ago

    I turned 18 under H.W. Bush, and while I was raised conservative in a conservative area, ended up realizing I was actually liberal before the first election I took part in: Bush v. Gore (2000). I was recently out of the Navy during which time I’d always considered myself conservative. I did live in the liberal Bay Area, but my thoughts were influenced more by perceiving political debate online, and judging in favor of the side that was more reasonable an tolerant. I still consider myself somewhat centrist, and I don’t vote in favor of most California spending measures, but always find myself self-assessed through online tests as liberal. Pew finds me to be in the Next Generation Left.
    I honestly have a difficult time believing that a plurality of people my age are solidly voting Republican, especially as many of my classmates were raised similar to me, and are also now liberal.