Amidst the bipartisan banter of election season, there persists an enduring belief that people get more conservative as they age -- making older people more likely to vote for Republican candidates.
Ongoing research, however, fails to back up the stereotype. While there is some evidence that today's seniors may be more conservative than today's youth, that's not because older folks are more conservative than they use to be. Instead, our modern elders likely came of age at a time when the political situation favored more conservative views.
In fact, studies show that people may actually get more liberal over time when it comes to certain kinds of beliefs. That suggests that we are not pre-determined to get stodgy, set in our ways or otherwise more inflexible in our retirement years.
Contrary to popular belief, old age can be an open-minded and enlightening time.
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"Pigeonholing older people into these rigid attitude boxes or conservative boxes is not a good idea," said Nick Dangelis, a sociologist and gerontologist at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
"Rather, when they were born, what experiences they had growing up, as well as political, social and economic events have a lot to do with how people behave," he said. "Our results are showing that these have profound effects."
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Early in American history, elders ran the country's governmental, religious and political institutions, and they were revered and even feared by younger generations. But those reins of power began to loosen in the early 1800s, Dangelis said. By the middle of that century, society's focus had turned to the value of youth, as expressed by Thoreau and the Romantics, who often emphasized the negatives of old age.
As young people gained power, they gave the nation a refreshing sense of freedom and progress. By the turn of the 20th century, people had come to see old age as a social problem. In many ways, we have yet to overcome that stereotype.
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Today, the image is ubiquitous in popular culture: A rigid gray-haired grump, who is closed-minded and set in his or her curmudgeonly ways. To some extent, that belief emerged from a real observation: Surveys that ask about attitudes towards things like premarital sex or race relations reveal that people older than 60 express more conservative views than people between the ages of 25 and 39. By extension came the assumption that older people used to be more liberal.
The problem with these studies, Dangelis said, is that they compare two demographics at one moment in time without offering a picture of the older cohort when they were younger. So, in a 2007 paper in the journal American Sociological Review, Dangelis and colleagues started to address that problem.
Using surveys taken between 1972 and 2004, the researchers found that groups of people actually became more tolerant, not more conservative, after age 60 -- calling into question some enduring myths about old age. Survey questions addressed attitudes about boundaries of privacy (such as the right to die), historically subordinate groups (such as women and Blacks) and civil liberties (for groups like atheists).
But that study had limitations, too. For one thing, each survey included a different set of people. So the researchers could compare the attitudes of people who were 25 in 1972, for example, with the attitudes of people who were 35 in 1982.
What's still missing, though, are long-term studies that actually follow individuals over time to see how their beliefs change.
In lieu of that kind of research, which is too difficult to do, researchers are now using complicated statistics to tease apart the effects of getting older from the effects of being a certain age at a certain moment in time.
Results, which are just starting to emerge, suggest that each belief follows its own complicated pattern. Seniors seem to have become more liberal about subordinate groups, for example, but more conservative about civil liberties.
Overall, what's happening in society at large as people come of age seems to matter most in determining the starting point for their core beliefs, said Karl Pillemer, a sociologist and gerontologist at Cornell University, who conducted more than 1,000 in-depth interviews with seniors for his book, "30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans." From there, people's attitudes can evolve as they age. And flexibility often trumps rigidity.
"Older people said very surprising things about being old," Pillemer said. "One of those things was that old age was a quest for adventure and a time to try new things. Many older people describe themselves as feeling freer or clearer."
Late in life, his research shows, people often become more open, more tolerant, and more appreciative of compassion. Even if they started out conservative, they may become less extreme in their conservatism.
"Many describe themselves as open to ideas or open to new ways of thinking, and they come back to a sense of much greater tolerance for different points of view," he said. "I had someone say, 'I used to think I was always right, but now that I'm 80, I'm not so sure I'm always right.'"