Will you still need me, will you still heed me, when you’re sixty-four?*

Rob Tisinai

July 14th, 2011

In recent months we’ve seen several polls showing a majority of Americans now support marriage equality (plus one from NOM, less favorable, that merely highlights their own polling desperation).

These polls always display amazing support from young voters. Our opponents dismiss that: People get more conservative as they get older. They’ll change their minds. They’ll come to our side.

Many people do get more conservative as they age. Does that mean we’ll lose them? I’ve got two replies:

  1. No.
  2. It doesn’t matter.

I dove into the ABC/Washington Post poll, which compares results from March 2011 and October 2005 and breaks down the data by age.  It’s pretty damn interesting. First, let’s deal with…

It doesn’t matter.

Support for marriage equality has increased in every age group from 2005 to 2011.

Now, this doesn’t tell us whether we’re losing people as they age.  When you compare, say 30-39-year-olds in 2005 and 2011, you’re not comparing the same demographic group.  The older half of 2005’s 30-39ers aged up into the 40-49 group by 2011, and were replaced by 2005’s older 20-29ers.

But it doesn’t matter. Even if we were losing some individuals as they age, we’re still making inroads into every age group.  According to ABC/WP’s data, we’ve gone deep enough to gain a majority across the population, with momentum on our side.

Still, I would like to know what’s happening in people’s heads as they get older.  Are we losing them?  I can’t be sure, but I think the answer is…

No.

I wish this data were broken into five-year cohorts  (30-34, 35-39, 40-44, etc.).  That would better match the five-and-a-half-year period between surveys:  2005’s 30-34-year-olds would become 2011’s 35-39ers, and we could see how they had changed.

But we’re stuck with these ten-year cohorts. That means about half of 2005’s 30-39ers have aged into 2011’s 40-49er group. Let’s make the best of it and compare those numbers.

This chart compares each 2005 cohort with its aged-up 2011 counterpart.

That’s pretty cool. Except for the oldest respondents, each group in 2011 was more supportive than its younger neighbor in 2005. (And that oldest group spans more years than any other, possibly making  it less susceptible to change.)  So in other words:

For the most part, older people are more supportive of marriage equality in 2011 than younger people were in 2005.

Of course, this on the sloppy side, the result of wrestling with whatever data’s available.  To do this right, we’d want a long-term longitudinal survey, asking a large sample of the same people year after year, preferably with the marriage equality question buried among a bunch of other issues covered by the survey.

That being said, I’d still like to point out this startling result:

Do you see that?

50-64-year-olds today aren’t just more supportive than 50-64-year-olds five years ago…

…or 40-49-year-olds five years ago…

…but are even more supportive than 30-39-year-olds five years ago!

That’s amazing. And it makes it hard to believe we’re losing people as they age. They may get more conservative (I don’t have data on that) but they’re not abandoning us. In fact, they’re joining us. That makes sense. Every year you live is another year you might meet more real, live gay people, decent folk to knock out the demonizing anti-gay stereotypes most of us grew up with.

Lord, I’d love more data. If anyone has other surveys conducted over time and broken down by age, please send them to me.

One last note.

Some people look at these surveys and say, We just have to wait for the bigots to die. Ugh. A gay commenter on another blog made an angry point along the lines of, I’ve been fighting for equality since the 60s. When you’re waiting for the older generation to die, you’re waiting for me to die. I fought too hard for too long — and you’re reaping too many benefits — for me to put up with that bullshit.

We don’t have to wait for anyone to die. And we don’t have to dismiss any generation as bigots. That’s what these numbers tell us. We can reach every age group. We can fight for everyone’s equality, no matter how old they are, no matter how old we are, and we can do it today.

*With deepest apologies to Lennon/McCartney.

Timothy (TRiG)

July 14th, 2011

That’s interesting. And encouraging.

TRiG.

Kevin

July 14th, 2011

I have little to no doubt that support for marriage equality will stick as the younger generation ages. People tend to become more conservative on economic issues but not on social issues, it seems to me. When I was a child, I recall my parents’ generation being openly hostile to minority races. My generation is much more accepting, and the high school students I teach today have no idea, practically, of what racism was all about.

Matt

July 14th, 2011

We don’t have to wait for anyone to die. And we don’t have to dismiss any generation as bigots. That’s what these numbers tell us. We can reach every age group. We can fight for everyone’s equality, no matter how old they are, no matter how old we are, and we can do it today.

Thanks for posting this, particularly this conclusion.

Kelly

July 14th, 2011

I’ve gotten more liberal as I get older. I was pretty conservative in college. One of those whose mind got changed along the way. And I’m far from the only one.

Timothy Kincaid

July 14th, 2011

Jim,

Excellent analysis, as usual. And I completely agree that “wait for ’em to die” is both a callous and an unnecessary strategy.

I still find this anecdote from the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s vote to allow the ordination of gay people who are in relationships to be charming.

Linda Fleming, an elder and deacon at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ladera Heights, which hosted the Pacific Presbytery meeting, said she was among those who had changed her mind on the issue in recent years.

“I finally decided at the age of 63 that it is inevitable,” she said. “I think it’s like letting black people come to white churches, or letting women become ministers. It’s inevitable.”

Still, she couldn’t help but express surprise. “For the Presbyterian Church, which is a mainline church, a graying church, it’s something.”

We are not just winning by attrition. We also are winning because the Linda’s of the world are finally deciding that its time.

Ben in Atlanta

July 14th, 2011

Thanks Rob. It still surprises me sometimes, but old fairies like me aren’t invisible after all.

Maybe I will get my “Old and In The Way” T-Shirts printed after all.

I won’t mind if straight people wear them too.

Young people didn’t invent gay. Eat it and give a creepy old man a hug.

Lymis

July 14th, 2011

The “people get more Conservative as they age” thing is really only meaningful for things that have been around long enough to be part of everyone’s life experience.

So for example, some idea of “casual sex is fine, nobody should have to make any kind of formal commitment” is likely to remain more popular among the young, single, and horny, while life experience, marriages, and raising kids through their own sexual shenanigans unsurprisingly tempers that view.

But in a case like this, we’re supposed to believe that people who, in their 20’s, see their gay peers and neighbors as equals deserving equal treatment are somehow going to back track on that and decide in their 60’s that gay people are subhuman and a menace to society?

Rather than tracking by age, I’d rather see a timeline tracking the views of each cohort by birth year. Compare the views of those born in, say 1970-1980 to that same population’s views every ten years rather than comparing young adults to their grandparents.

Edwin

July 14th, 2011

Hey! Ben send me one of your Tshirts if you print them. I am one of those Old
ones too. I am 67 and I don’t think we were called Gay in the late 50s’ or early 60s’. What we were called was much worse!

Mark F.

July 14th, 2011

In the late 1950’s, I think the most commonly used terms were “fag,” “pervert,” and sexual degenerate.” Being called a “homosexual” was considered nice.

cognitive dissident

July 14th, 2011

There’s some intriguing data here suggesting that age brings more liberal attitudes:

“The surveys assessed attitudes on politics, economics, race, gender, religion and sexuality issues. In some cases, such as racial issues and questions of civil liberties for communists, the researchers measured a greater change toward liberalism in older people than in younger people.”

Thorne Cassidy

July 14th, 2011

This is impressive–and I no longer have to wait for that cantankerous, old buzzard next-door to kill over–sweet!

CB

July 14th, 2011

What should be taken into consideration, is that as people age, many, through their ills, seem to “reaquaint” themselves with God. In doing so, they can become embroiled with the bigotries of the church.

ebohlman

July 15th, 2011

There’s also some evidence that younger people are no longer seeing marriage equality and GLBT rights in general as issues that fit on a left/right continuum; there’s quite a bit less correlation between political orientation and attitudes toward sexual orientation among the young; it’s become depoliticized in some senses.

Loki

July 15th, 2011

There’s some intriguing data here suggesting that age brings more liberal attitudes

Dr. Bob Altemeyer noticed the same trend. He noticed that the mitigating factor in people continuing to become more liberal as they age is raising children. Raising children doesn’t actually make you more conservative, but rather makes you more authoritarian, as you are suddenly an authority figure. Which, in turn, makes you predisposed to agree with authoritarian ideology. And, in America, conservatives have such a monopoly on authoritarian ideology, that it is the single best predictor of political partisanship.

John

July 15th, 2011

I’m 62 and I’ve gotten more liberal as I have gotten older, and I bet I’m not the only one.

Priya Lynn

July 15th, 2011

I’ve read somewhere that judges also often get more liberal as they get older.

cd

July 16th, 2011

The anti-gay activists are quite depressed about these numbers. They gave up on young people a while ago (after Prop. 8) but didn’t figure that anti-gay attitudes among older people would thin so much and so rapidly.

Here’s latest on where they’re taking their foolishness:

“During the April encounter, the governor urged invitees to think in terms of “Hail Mary” approaches to boosting marriage rates and slashing divorce rates in Kansas.”
http://cjonline.com/news/2011-07-02/brownback-program-promotes-marriage?page=4#.ThPHgIIw3l5

I don’t know my ancestors did it, but somehow they didn’t take any marriage courses and did okay. But some poor saps are in for Marriage Reeducation Camp in Kansas if these idiots get their way.

Chris

July 16th, 2011

There is some evidence that people do not, in fact, get more conservative as they grow older. What you’re seeing is older people who grew up at a time when views were more conservative. They’ve ALWAYS been more conservative than people who grew up later at a time when things were less conservative. So it looks as if people are growing more conservative with age but in fact, they are not changing much. They’re just growing older.

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