Inside Story

Tides of opinion

Generational divides don’t explain much, though attitudes to climate and culture seem to be exceptions

John Quiggin 16 December 2019 1091 words

The reality of human-caused climate change has been accepted by all major scientific organisations throughout the lives of today’s teenagers. Michael Nigro/SIPA USA/PA

The rise of the OK Boomer meme has given a shot in the arm to the idea that social divisions can be understood in terms of conflict between generations. The boomers — named for the “baby boom” of 1946 to 1963 — were the first generation to receive a widely accepted name, so it’s not surprising they still feature the most prominently. I’ve been pointing out the problems with this way of looking at attitudes for a generation or more, and will restate some of them below.

But first, it’s useful to say what this kind of discussion gets right, and why. The starting point is an analysis of the political attitudes of white Americans by statisticians Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman of Columbia University. (There’s an immediate alert here: American attitudes differ far more by race than by generation. For most issues, gender and social class also outweigh generation.)

Ghitza and Gelman focus on party preference and show, unsurprisingly, that people’s attitudes are formed relatively early in life. People who grow up during a period when the Republican Party is popular, for instance, are more likely to vote Republican as adults. This influence is greatest in the years between fourteen and twenty-four, smaller between twenty-five and forty, and quite limited after that.

Ghitza and Gelman give the example of people born in 1941 who came of age during the popular presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. By the time Eisenhower left office in 1961, these people had accumulated a level of pro-Republican sentiment that would last their entire lifetimes. People born a decade later — baby boomers — were obviously too young to be influenced in the same way; their childhoods and formative years under presidents Kennedy and Johnson left them relatively pro-Democratic.

So, birth cohort matters — but nowhere near as much as the popular discussion suggests. By 2015, around 55 per cent of Ghitza and Gelman’s 1941 cohort preferred the Republicans, compared to 49 per cent of those born ten years later.

Importantly, members of a generation don’t all experience their formative eras in the same way. During the 1960s and 1970s, some boomers marched against the Vietnam War and fought for civil rights but others supported the war and helped give Richard Nixon his landslide victory in 1972. To a large extent, these attitudes have persisted. The typical boomer isn’t a radical turned conservative, but someone whose party preferences, radical or conservative, have remained stable.

That said, there has been a broader shift to the right among older voters, and this needs to be explained. For issues where the tide of opinion has run consistently in one direction for a long time, the OK Boomer meme is closer to reality.

Think about climate change. Although scientists have been discussing the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate for more than a century, they didn’t reach even tentative agreement until the 1980s. (Before that, there was discussion of, but no agreement on, the possibility of a renewed Ice Age.) It wasn’t until the 1992 Earth Summit that the issue reached the broader public.

By then, boomers were aged between thirty and fifty, old enough that their attitudes on most issues had been formed. For those who had already adopted conservative views and obtained their (mis)information from sources like the Murdoch press, that was the end of the story. Their prior beliefs were reinforced by a constant drumbeat of lies and conspiracy theories.

But even those who accepted mainstream science saw climate change as a concern for subsequent generations, perhaps as early as their grandchildren. Only in the past few years (or, for many Australians, the past few weeks) has the reality of climate change really hit home.

Compare the experience of a person aged sixteen, like Greta Thunberg. Throughout her life, the reality of human-caused climate change has been accepted by all major scientific organisations. Deadly European heatwaves have occurred in 2003, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2018 and 2019. Melting icecaps, retreating glaciers, droughts and wildfires are everyday news items, as is the failure of national governments to take the action needed to solve the problem.

Every year earlier a person was born is another year in which they were, at most, only partially aware of the threat of climate change. The result is a sharp decline in concern about climate change with rising age.

Similar trends can be found on other “cultural” issues, including LGBTQ rights. Anyone over fifty grew up at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence in much of Australia. Anyone under thirty can’t remember a time when such a law would have seemed other than absurd.

Of course, attitudes don’t break along the sharp generational lines popularised by memes like OK Boomer. People born in 1963, at the end of the baby boom, have had life experiences very similar to the earliest members of generation X, born the following year. Both have had radically different experiences from those born in the immediate aftermath of the second world war or, like the last of generation X, born around 1980. The lack of a sharp break is reflected in the recent polling data on cultural issues like climate change and marriage equality.

The rise of culture war politics on the political right, based on appeals to nostalgia for an idealised past, has made issues of this kind far more salient. As a result, differences in cultural attitudes are now closely linked to political views. Young people in Britain, the United States, Australia and other English-speaking countries are now much more likely than older people to support parties of the left. This gradient is much steeper than at any time in the past.

What are the long-term implications for Australia? If the strong influence of early adult experiences observed by Ghitza and Gelman continues to affect party preferences, the parties of the right are set for a long period in the wilderness, perhaps as long as Labor’s twenty-three years in the mid twentieth century.

But there are countervailing forces. If the left pushes for more radical cultural change while the right accommodates the changes that have already taken place, we might see a continuation of the existing age gradient. So far there is little sign of this; on many issues, the right seems to be digging in. Alternatively, if other issues, such as foreign policy, come to dominate policy debate, allegiances formed on the basis of cultural issues may dissipate. Finally, there is the possibility that the existing party system will be replaced by a new one, as has happened in a number of European countries recently. •