Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He enjoys exploring the interplay between politics and culture.
It is folk wisdom to say that people gravitate toward the "right-wing" of the political spectrum as they get older, but is there any truth to this aphorism? The following article discusses the evidence and proposes several theories.
The main reason for the belief that we steadily gravitate toward right-wing politics is that, almost without fail, election results around the world exhibit a stark demographic divide, with elderly voters preferring right-wing parties and candidates. Whether we are talking about the 2020 US election, or the 2019 UK election, most elections for which there is accurate data display this trend.
The underlying reason for this trend is less clear. Do people undergo a common change during their lives that disposes them to become more right-wing? Or perhaps society is changing, and what was considered left-wing 50 years ago is considered right-wing today?
Does Society Change Rather Than People?
One possibility is that people don't change, society does. However, while society has become more left-wing on social issues (such as the rights of women and minorities), it has arguably become more right-wing on economic issues, such as the rights of corporations (e.g., "Citizens United" in the United States, free trade deals, etc.) versus the rights of workers (e.g., a minimum wage that does not increase with productivity). Furthermore, U.S. presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy had views on public healthcare that would be deemed "socialist" or worse in today's world.
Nevertheless, there is some support for the view. A recent study found that the political attitudes of individuals are remarkably stable over time. However, the study also found that, when there is a change, liberals are more likely to become conservatives than the converse. In other words, there is some left-to-right transition that requires an explanation, but much of the appearance of a transition might actually be attributable to society changing and leaving older people behind.
Are Right-Wingers More Intelligent?
Before listing the reasons that people might become more right-wing over time, it is worth addressing a common argument for this association that is probably incorrect. This argument is that a right-wing persuasion is facilitated by the "wisdom of age."
Depending on one's political allegiance, the argument may be especially attractive, and perhaps the best demonstration of maturity would be to not flatter one's ego with it! The argument is best described in the following quote:
Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.
— Georges Clemenceau (among other possibilities)
While Clemenceau was never going to describe himself as brainless, Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan have reportedly said similar things, and many people (whose ego is flattered by it) seem to agree.
Although people do acquire more knowledge as they get older, the level of childhood education is also increasing as society advances (science, computing, etc.), and the youth of today arguably learn more in school than the boomer generation did. A greater number also go to university, which is an especially left-wing habitat for students and professors alike.
At the opposite end of the intelligence spectrum, less cognitive ability can be associated with right-wing attitudes such as ethnocentrism and authoritarianism, although right-wing economic views do not follow this pattern. In other words, the view that right-wing people are more intelligent does not stand up to scrutiny.
The following sections describe five more realistic reasons for an individual's left-to-right political transition.
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1. Older People Are More Pessimistic
A stereotype about young, left-wing people is that they "have their heads in the clouds" and are filled with hope for a better, utopian future in which everyone gets along. The extent to which this is true is unclear, but a better theory might be that getting old causes people to lose this youthful hope.
A large European study found that as people age, they go from optimistic about the future, to realistic, to pessimistic. Conservative political parties that refrain from lofty statements about building a better future might therefore attract more elderly voters.
The theory might also be supported by Clemenceau's (supposed) notion that being left-wing requires "heart" or emotional intelligence. While this connection has been supported, it is unclear whether emotional intelligence changes over time. Nevertheless, if the elderly have had their hopes crushed by the socioeconomic system, this might lead to a harsher emotional outlook that promotes conservatism.
2. Older People Are Opposed to Change
An age-based trend toward pessimism might also be associated with a general dislike of change. After all, pessimists see change as an opportunity for something to go wrong. For example, Barack Obama's 2008 message of "hope and change" inspired many young people to vote for him, and left-wing politics is often associated with a desire for social change and dissolving the status quo. Conversely, right-wing ideals are usually more traditional, with slogans such as "preserving family values." Indeed, conservatism is an ideology that "conserves" what is already in place, meaning it is more generally opposed to change.
If, as suggested above, the elderly have had their hopes for change watered down by decades of disappointment and media propaganda that reinforces the status quo, while at the same time their futures have become more secure (e.g., home ownership, greater wealth), these factors might entrench greater tolerance for political parties that conserve the current system or that of the recent past.
3. Younger People Have Lofty Expectations
If older people are pessimistic, it follows that younger people may be overly optimistic. This optimism might generate unrealistic expectations about the future that could leave young liberals disappointed when they get older.
For example, the 1960s view that social liberalism would succeed in achieving world peace was clearly misguided. To sum up what went wrong, the military adopted the values while (figuratively) painting rainbow flags on their bombs. With wars still rumbling in the 21st century, lost hope might have contributed to an abandonment of the liberal ideas that helped form those optimistic expectations.
It should be noted that it is not the fault of liberalism or socialism that some individuals used these political philosophies to form unrealistic expectations about the future. Nevertheless, if liberalism doesn't succeed in one's lifetime, it could easily appear flawed.
4. Older People Are Wealthier
The greatest destroyer of any set of personal principles may be self-interest. It is clear that the older generation have been able to accumulate much more wealth than the younger generation, having had an easier path to home ownership and good employment, while the younger generation appear to be destined for a lifetime of renting, student debt, and contractual or "gig" work.
Given that left-wing parties prefer to tax the rich, while right-wing parties typically cause wealth inequality to remain or widen, it should be no surprise that older people (generally) gravitate toward the parties that preserve their wealth.
Older people may also have had more opportunity to feel resentment about the taxation of their earnings during difficult times, causing a gradual realignment toward right-wing economic values.
5. Younger People Have Uncertain Futures
Even if younger people are more optimistic about the future, they are usually in a more precarious situation financially and socially. Young people want to launch their careers, buy a home, and often build a family; all things that older people usually don't need to worry about.
The extensive welfare schemes that are often supported by left-wing parties will therefore be particularly attractive to the younger generation, and this attraction may wane as careers, homes, and families are built. Thus, the self-interest of younger people may fuel their early support for left-wing parties.
For older individuals, a safety net simply isn't required in the same way (or rather their part of it is guaranteed by right-wing parties, e.g., pensions). As a result, older individuals may feel that leftist welfare schemes are wasteful.
The Many Exceptions to the Rule
Many young conservatives and aging lefties will be reading this and thinking, "What a load of rubbish!"
While there is a trend for people to become right-wing as they age, or to at least vote for more right-wing parties, it clearly doesn't apply to everyone. Likewise, old people are not all rich, pessimistic, traditionalists. The theories proposed above are based on trends in voting data and correlations in social studies. Many people do (or will) deviate from these trends.
Additionally, some people may be born with a brain physiology that predisposes them to a political position that never changes. For example, conservatives have been shown to have larger amygdalae: the part of the brain that regulates emotions and assesses threats. Thus, they may be more likely to feel threatened by sources of fear, promoting a need for security and conservatism that lasts a lifetime.
In sum, it is possible that all or several of these theories are correct to some extent. With such a vast and changing spectrum of political allegiances, it would be imprudent to suggest that a single factor can explain it all. When picking one or more of these theories, it is worth remembering how old you are, and asking if your chosen theory flatters or belittles you. While our senescent drift toward right-wing values is somewhat opaque, the human ego is certainly not.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2013 Thomas Swan