03/21/2003 - Articles

Radical Freedom in The Senior Years

By: Fathali M. Moghaddam, PhD

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Radical Freedom in The Senior Years

Fathali M. Moghaddam, PhD
March 21, 2003

Before you read the discussion below, answer the following questions:

Stability and predictability are always preferable to instability and unpredictability
Definitely No 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Definitely Yes

People should always obey authority figures
Definitely No 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Definitely Yes

Change seldom brings good things
Definitely No 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Definitely Yes

Freedom is always more important than equality
Definitely No 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Definitely Yes

The world is a dangerous place and we have to strike others before they have a chance to harm us
Definitely No 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Definitely Yes

Smashing the Stereotype of 'Inactive Seniors'

One of the most persistent beliefs about aging is that people become more and more conservative, cautious, and cut off from political issues as they age. Associated with this is the idea that in their teens and twenties people are more likely to be politically engaged and radical, and as they age they become increasingly conventional and even authoritarian. Rather than accept these stereotypic assumptions, we must critically reassess them.

Above are some of the kinds of questions typically used in measures of conservatism and authoritarianism. After answering all the questions, add up your total score: conventional wisdom says that you would have got a lower score when you were younger, particularly in your teens and 20s, and that your score on this kind of measure has been rising gradually to reach a high point in the senior years.

But is this view based on myth? Are the senior years the conservative years? As is often the case when stereotypes are involved, the answer to such questions proves to be complex and to contradict received wisdom.

First, when reviewing political trends among seniors it is essential to distinguish between age effects and cohort effects (a cohort is a group of people born in the same year or period of years). Age effects involve changes in the same individuals as they become older. One way to identify age effects is to assess the same individuals over their life-span, as is done in longitudinal studies, such as the classic Seattle Longitudinal Studies (see K. W. Schaie, 1996. Intellectual Development in Adulthood. Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press). Cohort effects involve differences between groups of people born in different years or period of years (for example, people born in the 1920s compared to those born in the 1930s). Researchers use a combination of different approaches to distinguish between age effects and cohort effects.

The more careful reviews of the research literature show that differences in political attitudes between younger and older adults are not as marked as had been assumed. Dr. Christine Day showed in her book What Older Americans Think (1990, Princeton University Press) that there is actually very little difference between the young and seniors on most of the important political issues.

Are The Senior Years A Time To Break Conventions?

Contrary to popular stereotypes, one way in which the two groups are different in political behavior is that seniors are more knowledgeable about, and active in, politics. Political participation by the young is notoriously low, particularly in the United States. As reviewed in books such as The Disappearing American Voter (authored by Dr. Ruy Teixeira, 1992), even in the most important political elections in the United States, only about 35% of individuals in their 20s actually vote, compared to a participation rate of about 70% among seniors.

Despite the low turnout rate of younger voters, they tend to be a special target of politicians. One reason is that the younger voters are seen as more susceptible to persuasion. It is assumed that political attitudes are formed in the younger years and then remain fairly stable after that. Similarly, religious conversions and shifts in attitudes on religion are assumed to take place mainly in the teens and early twenties (see chapter 6 in Fathali M. Moghaddam, Social Psychology, 1998). But this picture needs to be qualified in several ways.

First, in the last few decades there has been a rise in 'age consciousness' and political mobilization among seniors in many western societies. This is clearly evident in the rise of organizations representing seniors. In the United States, these include some more radical groups (e.g., The Gray Panthers), as well as the much larger mainstream senior groups (e.g., American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP). Such organizations are particularly, but not exclusively, concerned with certain political issues that impact on the lives of seniors more than others (e.g., retirement and health benefits). Of course, the rise of 'age consciousness' does not mean that all seniors think the same way: seniors are characterized by the same variety of political opinions as are the young.

A second important qualification to the generally accepted picture of political participation and age is that the relationship between political beliefs and age may be shaped like an inverted 'U'. That is, individuals may be unconventional and rebellious when they are in the teens and twenties, but become more conventional and orthodox when they are middle-aged, and then become less so again when they become seniors. Obviously this is associated with the different career and family responsibilities of individuals over the lifespan.

In some ways the teens and twenties are similar to the seniors years: these are periods when individuals often have fewer professional and family responsibilities. They have either not yet started (in the case of younger individuals), or are at, or close to, the end of a professional career (in the case of seniors); similarly, they either do not yet have family responsibilities, or their family responsibilities have declined (their kids have grown up and left home, and so on). This is very different from middle age, when individuals are still fully engaged in professional careers, and often still have to support children.

Perhaps we get a hint of the potential 'radicalism' in the senior years through the poetry of William Butler Yeats, who, when he was a senior, wrote poems entitled "Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?" and "The Wild Old Wicked Woman".

Related Links
Senior Meeting Place - the mini-site authored by Fathali M. Moghaddam
American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)
Selected Poems of WB Yeats

Related Books
What Older Americans Think: Interest Groups and Aging Policy by Christine L. Day
The Disappearing American Voter by Ruy A. Teixeira
Social Psychology: Exploring Universals Across Cultures by Fathali M. Moghaddam

Created on: 03/12/2003
Reviewed on: 03/21/2003

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