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Why do people get more right-wing with age?
It is often claimed that people become right-wing as they get older. Conservatives attribute this to the wisdom of age, while liberals offer explanations that describe themselves more favorably. As an old and ostensibly content right-winger, Georges Clemenceau once wrote:
"Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head."
Clemenceau was hardly going to describe himself as brainless, and similar quotes can be attributed to others who've made the transition to right-wing politics (e.g. Winston Churchill).
Voter demographics support the claim that we get right-wing with age. In the 2012 US presidential election, 18-40 year olds were more likely to vote Democrat, while 40-80 year olds were more likely to vote Republican. Exit polls showed that age was directly correlated with voting Republican, and comparable trends have been reported in other US elections.
The United Kingdom demonstrates similar voting preferences, with 18-34 year olds predominantly voting for the left-wing Labour party, while 55-80 year olds side with the right-wing Conservatives.
There are a number of theories for why this occurs. Depending on one's political allegiance, some of them may appear more attractive than others. Unlike Clemenceau and Churchill, maturity may best be exhibited by picking a theory that doesn't flatter one's ego.
Forecasting Life Satisfaction Across Adulthood: Benefits of Seeing a Dark Future? (2013) Lang et al. (PDF file).
1. Older people are more pessimistic
When Barack Obama became US President in 2009, his message of "change" appealed to many Democrats. Indeed, left-wing politics is associated with activism, social change, and dissolving the status quo, while right-wing ideals are more traditional and conservative.
Pessimists see change as an opportunity for something to go wrong, while optimists embrace it. This means that pessimists are more likely to be right-wing.
Studies show that as people age, they go from optimistic about the future, to realistic, to pessimistic (see article). As older people are more pessimistic, it is likely that they'll be drawn to the traditionalist right.
2. Older people want to preserve the past
The association of left-wing politics with "change" will always disenfranchise older people who wish to preserve established values and traditions. When right-wing political parties talk about preserving family values, what they're really doing is appealing to the older generation who believe these values are being eroded.
3. Younger people can be naive
If older people are pessimistic, it follows that younger people may be too optimistic. This optimism can generate unrealistic expectations about the future that can leave young liberals disappointed when they get older.
For example, the 1960s view that liberalism would succeed in achieving world peace within a single generation may have been misguided. With wars still rumbling in the 21st Century, lost hope could cause an abandonment of the political positions that helped form those 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 richer
Leftists seek to tax the rich, while right-wingers prefer to allow wealth-inequality to remain or widen. As the older generations have more than an average share of the wealth, they may be attracted to the right-wing view. Additionally, older people have had more opportunity to feel resentment about the taxation of their earnings during difficult times.
5. Younger people have uncertain futures
Left-wing socialism is epitomized by extensive welfare schemes that cater for all manner of disadvantaged people. This appeals to younger individuals who are uncertain about what the future holds. If younger people know they have a safety net to fall back on, their concern for the future can be quelled.
Older individuals often have a comfortable lifestyle with less uncertainty about the future. They have already made their way in the world, and they generally have larger savings accounts to rely on. A safety net simply isn't required in the same way. As a result, older individuals may feel that leftist welfare schemes are wasteful.
Differences between left-wing and right-wing brains
Not all old people are right-wing
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, it clearly doesn't apply to everyone. Indeed, old people are not all rich, pessimistic, cynical, traditionalists either. The theories proposed are based on age-based trends, and any conclusion drawn from them will be subject to the same air of estimation.
Additionally, people may be born with a brain physiology that predisposes them to an immutable political position. For example, people with larger amygdalae are more likely to feel threatened by sources of fear, and this can promote conservative thinking. Conservatives have been shown to have larger amygdalae, and this manifests in the womb as a result of their mothers feeling greater stress during pregnancy (see video).
It is possible that all or several of these theories are correct to an extent. With such a vast spectrum of political allegiance, 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 towards right-wing values is decidedly opaque, the human ego certainly isn't!