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Posted: March 21, 2008

Are Mom and Dad More Liberal than You Think?

Winston Churchill is often credited with saying, “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."

Given conventional wisdom, this trend 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? And why, then, are sociologists today questioning this traditional assumption?

New research by sociologists at the University of Vermont and Penn State University strongly suggests that this long-held belief about seniors being more rigid simply isn't true. And their findings, published in the American Sociological Review, have 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 groups 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 over-60 age groups, the movement among the older group was greater and most often trended 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 Vermont’s Nicholas Danigelis. "Clearly both groups 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.”

The research is especially significant because it's among the first to show over an extended period of time that people age 60 and older become more liberal at a faster rate than their younger counterparts on a number of measures.

In fact, the authors say our parents who grew up in the Depression have different attitudes toward many issues than those of us 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.

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