- Older generations have twice as many conservatives as liberals
- Millennials evenly divided between liberals and conservatives
- Generational ideology preferences largely consistent over time
This article is part of an ongoing series analyzing how baby boomers -- those born from 1946 to 1964 in the U.S. -- behave differently from other generations as consumers and in the workplace. The series also explores how the aging of the baby-boom generation will affect politics and well-being.
PRINCETON, N.J. -- Older generations of Americans are much more likely to describe their political views as conservative than as liberal. This includes the large baby boom generation, of whom 44% identified as conservative and 21% as liberal last year. That 23-percentage-point conservative advantage is less than the 31-point edge for the older traditionalist generation, but greater than those for Generation Xers and millennials. In fact, millennials are about as likely to say they are liberal as to say they are conservative.
The results are based on aggregated data from 14 separate Gallup polls conducted in 2014, including interviews with more than 16,000 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older.
The ideological differences across the major generations in the U.S. are consistent with generational differences in party preferences, as older generations tend to be more Republican and younger generations more Democratic.
Older generations are also more likely than younger generations to choose an ideological side -- liberal or conservative -- as opposed to say they are moderate. Whereas 40% of millennials choose the moderate label to describe their political views, 33% of baby boomers and traditionalists do the same.
But those differences in identification as "moderate" do not account for the liberal-conservative differences, as there are increasingly fewer liberals and increasingly more conservatives in each older generation.
Ideological Identification by Generation Fairly Consistent Over Time
Throughout the past two decades, the relative conservatism of each generation has been consistent, even as the members of each generation have aged. Those born before 1946 have been the most conservative generation in every year going back to 1994, based on the percentage of the generation identifying as conservative minus the percentage identifying as liberal. Baby boomers have been less conservative than traditionalists, but more conservative than Gen Xers and millennials each year since 1994, spanning the period when baby boomers moved from being in their 30s or 40s to now when they are in their 50s or 60s.
The consistency in the relative rank of the generations over time reflects the fairly constant ideological preferences of each generation. Net conservatism among traditionalists typically has been about 30 points, while the conservative edge among baby boomers has been about 20 points, and millennials have been close to even.
The ideological preferences of Gen Xers have varied a bit more over time, with the conservative advantage closer to 10 points in the 1990s and mostly in the mid-to-high teens since then. Since 2012, the conservative lead among this generation has shrunk, as there has been a slight drop in conservative identification (from 39% to 35%) and a slight increase in liberal identification (from 21% to 23%). This change has occurred about equally among the younger and older people in Generation X.
These variations in the past two decades could be a product of Gen Xers moving from young adulthood to middle age over the past 20 years, causing them to possibly re-evaluate their priorities and political beliefs.
More broadly, the political mood of the country seems to have affected all generations to some degree, particularly over the past decade. All generations shifted in a slightly more liberal direction in the later years of George W. Bush's presidency, when his approval rating slumped, and to a more conservative direction in the first years of Barack Obama's presidency.
Given the general consistency in ideological preferences over time, the expectation is that baby boomers' conservative tilt will persist as they continue to age into their 70s and 80s. That has been the pattern for traditionalists, who are that age now, and whose ideological profile today looks similar to what it was 20 years ago.
Although the generations' ideology has stayed fairly consistent over time, Americans' ideology as a whole has undergone a gradual shift, with a notable increase in the percentage of Americans identifying as liberal. The data suggest that generational replacement may be a cause of this change, as those now entering adulthood are about as likely to identify as liberal as conservative, while at the same time, the older Americans who pass on are much more likely to be conservative.
Younger Americans' greater likelihood to identify as liberal may be tied to this group's racial and ethnic composition and connected to how this relates to the U.S. political process. The younger generation of U.S. adults is much more racially and ethnically diverse than older generations, and racial and ethnic minorities are much more likely to identify politically as liberal rather than conservative and as Democratic rather than Republican.
The ideological changes evident in the U.S. population more generally also may reflect both younger and older Americans' willingness to use the various political labels to describe themselves. One of the major changes Gallup has documented in recent years is that self-identified Democrats are more likely to describe their political views as liberal than as moderate, while in the past the opposite was true.
Although it is not possible to know from these data if ideological preferences persist throughout people's lifetimes, each major generation's preferences have been largely stable over the past two decades. If these trends largely persist, there should be a continued increase in the percentage of Americans identifying as liberal and decrease in the percentage identifying as conservative in the future, unless the generation born after 2000 emerges as more conservative than liberal.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on aggregated telephone interviews conducted January-December 2014, with a random sample of 16,479 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
For results based on the total sample of 2,977 millennials, the margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
For results based on the total sample of 2,900 Generation X, the margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
For results based on the total sample of 6,513 Baby Boomers, the margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
For results based on the total sample of 3,778 Traditionalists, the margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Prior years' results are also based on yearly aggregates of Gallup polls with sample sizes from 15,000 to 44,000.
All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.
Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.
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