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The Politics of Ageing

Why are old people more conservative than the young?

Source: paranoid/flickr

If you attend any protest march about political or social issues, chances are that most of the participants will be young people. It’s almost a cliché that young people are idealistic, and more likely to voice dissatisfaction with social norms and institutions, while older people are more likely to be content with the status quo.

Young people are also more likely to lean towards the left of the political spectrum, while older people are more likely to lean to the right. This was very clear in last year’s UK election, when 60% of people ages 18-24 voted for the left wing Labour Party, while 61% of people over 64 voted for the right wing Conservatives. The results of the last US election showed a similar pattern. One poll found that 55% of 18-29 years old voted for Hillary Clinton, while 37% voted for Donald Trump. Recent approval ratings for the president showed that only 22% of Americans under the age of 35 approve of him compared with 43% approval among those age 50 or older. Back in the UK, in the 2016 Brexit vote, 75% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted to remain in the EU, compared to only 39% of the over-65s.

It is also well known than older people tend to be more nationalistic than younger people, and to show more prejudice towards members of other ethnic or national groups. Research has shown that older white adults tend to be significantly more racist than their younger counterparts. (1) Other research suggests that older people are more likely to form and maintain stereotypical inferences, potentially leading to more prejudice. (2)

Identity and Threat

Why are older people more likely to lean towards the right? Is it simply because they were brought up in more illiberal times and have simply retained their earlier perspectives? Or is it because there is a natural tendency to drift to the right as we grow older? Around the time of the UK election, a friend of my father’s was talking about how much he disliked the left-wing Labour party. I asked, "Isn't it strange that young people tend to vote for Labour while old people usually vote Conservative?" My father’s friend said, "That's because we're all wiser." I joked: ‘Not necessarily—it could be because your brains are deteriorating."

More seriously, "terror management theory" might provide one answer. According to TMT, when people become more aware of their own mortality, they are more likely to engage in protective or defensive behaviour. Researchers have created "mortality salient" environments—in which people are subtly made aware of their own mortality—and found that in response, people become more prone to status-seeking, materialism, and prejudice. They are more likely to conform to culturally accepted attitudes and to identify with their national or ethnic groups. The motivation of this behaviour seems to be to enhance one’s significance or value in the face of death, or to gain a sense of security or belonging, as a way of protecting oneself against the threat of mortality. So if we apply to this to old age, it could be that as people get older, they become more aware of death, and more anxious about it, and so may become generally more prone to prejudice and nationalism.

Another factor could be that older people feel threatened by the modern world. As the world becomes ever more technologically complex, they may struggle to understand it and feel alienated from it. So in a similar way that they may react to the threat of death, they may cling to their group identity (which might be ethnic. nationalistic, political or religious—and often all of them at the same time) more strongly, resulting in an increased sense of mistrust or enmity towards other groups.

Habituation may also be a factor. The longer we live in our societies, the more normal social norms become to us, and the more we grow to accept situations and conventions that might seem unfair and unacceptable to outside observers. The most insane behaviour can seem acceptable when it's deeply engrained and viewed as normal. But young people are looking at the world with fresh eyes, and are less habituated to social norms. Inequalities and unethical or oppressive practices are more obvious to them, and so they are more motivated to try to change them.

The Other Side of Ageing

It’s worth remembering that these are generalisations. In fact, I have previously written blogs about an opposing trend that can occur with old age: a process of ‘letting go’ and acceptance, together with an increasing orientation in the present moment, which is equivalent to spiritual development. While some older people (perhaps the slightly larger proportion) may become more anxious and insecure, many others become more at peace with life. This is indicated by research from positive psychology showing that old age is generally one of the happiest phases of human life. As the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson pointed out, old age is a period of extremes: we may either veer towards ego integrity, wisdom and acceptance, or towards bitterness and resentment. So it is by no means inevitable that we become more nationalistic and prejudiced. To a large extent, the choice is ours.


(1) Ford, R. (2012) Parochial and Cosmopolitan Britain: Examining the Social Divide in Reactions to Immigration. Transatlantic Trends: Immigration Focus Papers. German Marshall Fund of the United States: Washington, DC.

(2) Stewart, Brandon D., von Hippel, William and Radvansky, Gabriel A. (2009). Age, race, and implicit prejudice: Using process dissociation to separate the underlying components. Psychological Science 20 (2) 164-168.