Saturday, July 29, 2017

Age and Political Affiliation

Image by Hillary.
With discussions of politics dominating news outlets and water cooler conversation, sometimes people bring up this question:

Does a person's age influence political affiliation?

Let's take the Baby Boomers as an example (those born 1946 to 1964).

As a group, do they affiliate more with liberal, conservative, or even moderate political ideals?

In January of 2015, the Gallup company posted an article showing how conservative political affiliation increases in age in the polling of these four voting-eligible generations: Millennials (28%), Generation X (35%), Baby Boomers (44%), and Traditionalists (48%).


First of all, several factors can influence trends in the political affiliation of an age group. Demographers consider many influences, for example the age effect or the period effect.

But before we look at those demographers' theories, let's look at more poll / survey data:

Gallup and Pew present data on age and political affiliation

  • In July of 2014, Gallup posted posted an analysis of age and political affiliation that observed that middle aged people and older adults trended Republican in higher percentages as they aged--with the exception of older Baby Boomers, who trended Democrat.

  • In September of 2016, The Pew Research Center published a report on party affiliation by a number of demographic categories. Notably, Baby Boomer had a closer gap than most other generations, with 45% identify as Democrat to 49% identify as Republican. These percentages were determined when Independents were asked questions to determine if they were left or right leaning.

  • Four months after the last presidential election, The Pew Research Center published a report of how various generations identified their political affiliations from 2000 to 2016. They found that while the identification of liberal / Democrat increased over these sixteen years for eligible voters of all ages, the oldest voters did lean more towards conservative / Republican affiliation over this time span.

Demographers theorize that age effect or period effect influences age groups. 

Several factors can influence trends in the political affiliation of an age group. Demographers consider many influences, for example gender, religious affiliation, geography, level of education, race, and marital status--just to name a few.

Because I am a gerontologist, I'm primarily interested in the influence of age by two definitions. Chronological age and membership in a generation.  Specifically, I'm interested in how entering midlife and late being a Baby Boomer affect political affiliation. 

Demographers describe these forces as the age effect or the period effect.

If political affiliation is influence by the age affect, then the assumption would be that people ages 52 and 70 years of age would consistently poll at 44% conservative in their political affiliation in every presidential election past (i.e., 1960 election), present (2016 election), and future (i.e., 2072 election).

If political affiliation is influenced by the period effect, then the assumption would be that all people who experienced the same cultural events would demonstrate the same trends in political affiliation.

In the case of the Baby Boomers, the major forces would include (but are not limited to) the availability of reliable birth control, the expansion of civil rights, the US involvement in the Vietnam War, the computer revolution, and the end of the Cold War.

The assumption is that any generation of people who experience these events would choose the same political affiliation--if somehow those cultural events happened to people born decades before or decades after.

Or stated another way, the period affect would assume that people 52 to 70 in past elections of a significant time gap (such as the 1960 presidential election) would perhaps not poll at 44% conservative.

Why? Because the period effect argues that another generation (or cohort) would be shaped by different historical events, such as the Great Depression and World War II.  The period effect would also anticipate different rates of conservatism in those 52 to 70 in future elections of a significant time gap (such as in the 2072 presidential election).

It's difficult to determine the difference between the effects of growing older (age effect) and the effects of traveling through specific historical events (period effect).  Nevertheless, consider the following findings about the correlation between age and political affiliation.

What patterns emerge about the Baby Boomers from the Pew and Gallup data?

Yes, Baby Boomers are trending more conservative as they grow older, but not by a very wide margin.  They are still more liberal than the generation above them (the Traditionalists, also called the Greatest Generation or the Silent Generation).  And Baby Boomers who were young adults in the 1960s tend to maintain their liberal ideology at a higher rate than those who were young adults in the 1980s.

It's also important to note that individuals can defy patterns.  Just because you meet an older adult, you can't reliable guess their political ideology, so it's probably better to suspend judgement and to avoid stereotyping.

While it's interesting to read the results of surveys and polls, treating people as more complex, nuanced, and dynamic than their demographic category is a sound idea anyway!


Older Americans 2012 Federal Report
Pew Data on Technology Use
A Full Life by Jimmy Carter: A Book Review


  1. I find this extremely interesting. I'm curious what influence geography plays as well because I find that I'm totally out of step with the people who grew up in my area. Haven't known if moving to the city made me more liberal or whether it was educational experience. Lots to think about - and as an INTJ I probably will.

    1. Shelley: The role of a person's zip code is a good question to ask about political affiliation too. Enjoy your time thinking thoroughly about this. (My husband is an INTJ, so I daily give an INTJ a lot of quiet and space to think, read, and write.)

  2. It is very interesting info Karen! Religion, where you live, education level I think also are influencers beside age.

    1. Yes. As a geronyologist, I'm just focusing on the age dimension. Some of the linked surveys look at gender, education and other influences in addition to age. Cool stuff.

  3. Some interesting stuff here which reminds me of the old saying: If you're young and not a liberal, you have no heart. If you're old and not conservative, you have no brain.