Young Adults’ Social-Political Beliefs Differ From Those of Their Elders. Why? With Age, Will They Become Their Elders?

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“Young Americans are more pro-Palestinian than their elders. Why?” headlined a recent Washington Post article.

’Tis true, as many surveys reveal. In a late October 2023 YouGov poll, 20 percent of adults under age 29, but 65 percent of those 65 and over, reported pro-Israel sympathies in the Israel-Hamas war. In a follow-up Pew survey, 18- to 29-year-olds were less than half as likely as adults ages 65+ to “favor the Biden administration’s response to the Israel-Hamas war.”

Consider other attitudinal generation gaps:

  • Politics. In the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Biden won the support of most voters under age 30, while Trump was favored by a slight majority of those ages 65+.
  • Climate concerns. In survey after survey, young adults express more concern for the future climate. They are, for example, more than twice as likely as adults ages 65+ to favor phasing out fossil fuels: 

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  • Same-sex marriage. In the latest Gallup survey, 60 percent of those ages 65+, and 89 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, favored gay marriage. Moreover, a generation gap exists worldwide.
  • Religiosity. It’s no secret that worldwide, today’s young adults, compared with their elders, are less often religiously affiliated and engaged. They believe less, attend less, and pray less.

These generational dissimilarities—with more documented by social psychologist Jean Twenge in Generationshave at least two possible explanations:

  • A life-cycle explanation observes that attitudes can change with age. Our youthful progressivism may mutate into a more conservative later-life perspective. With life experience, people change.
  • A cohort (generational) explanation observes that emerging adults form attitudes in response to their time, and then carry those attitudes throughout life?

There is wisdom in both.

We are not fixed entities. Over the last half century, most people, regardless of age, have become more accepting of same-sex marriage. With age, people may increasingly seek to conserve familiar traditions as values. Some agree with the old cliche, “Those who are not socialist by age 20 have no heart. Those who are not conservative by age 40 have no brain.”

Yet, as Twenge and I explain in Social Psychology, Fourteenth Edition, the evidence more strongly supports the cohort/generational explanation. Attitudes form in youth and emerging adulthood, and then become more stable. In surveys of the same people over years, attitudes tend to change more from ages 15 to 25 than from ages 55 to 65.

When asked to recall memorable life and world events, adults also tend to reminisce about happenings during their impressionable teens and young adult years. These are also the prime years for recruiting people into cults or to new political views. The teens and early twenties are formative.

In Public Religion Research Institute data, below, depicting generation gaps in religiosity over time, I found more evidence of the cohort/generational effect. Note that in 1996, 20 percent of people in their 20s were religiously unaffiliated; 10 years later, 17 percent of people in their 30s were the same; and, 26 years later, 20 percent of people at roughly midlife, were religiously unaffiliated.

Cohort 2.png

But surely, you say, some people in each cohort will change as they age, by becoming religiously engaged or disengaged. And overall there has been a slight trend toward disaffiliation in each cohort. Yes, and yes. But what’s striking is each cohort’s overall stability over time. Today’s older generations were more likely, as youth, to have attended worship and religious education programs—the footprints of which they have retained into their later lives.

In explaining the U.S. generation gap in attitudes toward Israelis and Palestinians, the Washington Post also offers a cohort explanation:

Each age group has a different “generational memory” of Israel, Dov Waxman, director of the UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, said. Beliefs about the world tend to form in our late teens and early 20s and often don’t change, he said.

Older generations, with a more visceral sense of the Holocaust, tend to see Israel as a vital refuge for the Jews. . . . But by the time millennials began forming their understanding of global events, the violence of the second Intifada had concluded in the mid-2000s with enhanced walls and barriers constructed between Israel and the West Bank, and then Gaza. This generation formed its idea of Israel from reports of Palestinians denied access to water, freedom of movement and fair trials.

Evidence of cohort stability over time implies two important lessons. First, generational succession is destiny. Today’s older generation, with its ambivalence about gay rights, will be replaced by younger gay-supportive generations. Barring unanticipated events, support for climate change mitigation efforts will grow. In the absence of religious/spiritual renewal—which could happen (the proportion of religious “nones” does appear to have peaked)—secularism will increase.

Second, there are few more influential vocations than educating, mentoring, guiding, and inspiring people during their formative teen and college-age years. To be sure, our entire life is a process of becoming and reforming. At every age, we are unfinished products. Yet the foundation of our future selves and of our deepest beliefs and values tends to be laid in the teachings, relationships, and experiences of those seminal years.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or check out his recent essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves?: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)

*Photo credit Maskot/Getty Images

 

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).