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Do Reading Tastes Age?

by Jennifer Robison and Steve Crabtree

Many book lovers approaching their golden years may see retirement as a time to catch up on all the reading they've never had enough time for -- perhaps they crack some of the great works they only skimmed in high school and college, or finally fully indulge their love of mysteries or suspense novels. However, a December 2002 Gallup Poll suggests that older American book readers are not much more likely than others to gravitate toward any specific book genres.

The poll asked Americans who had read at least one book in the past year which books they would be likely to choose from a variety of categories: biographies or history books, business management books, classics, current events, horror, mystery, personal finance, and several others.The number of books Americans say they read -- an average of about 16 per year -- varies little by age category*. The most popular genre among book readers in all age categories is "biographies and books about history" -- 73% of those who said they'd read at least one book in the past year also said they'd very or somewhat likely to read a book in that category**. But there are a few age differences with regard to the appeal of other genres:

  • About a third of book readers aged 50 and older (33%) say they'd be likely to read "management and leadership books," compared to 44% of those under 50, who may be more likely to have most of their career goals ahead of them, rather than reaching the end of their careers.
  • Despite the fact that many Americans currently say they worry about financing their retirement years, older readers are actually less likely than those under 50 to say they're likely to read personal finance books -- 29% to 39%, respectively. Close to half (44%) of book readers aged 30 to 49 say they are likely to read personal finance books.
  • With regard to fiction, science fiction and horror novels tend to appeal more to the younger crowd. Just over a quarter of those aged 50 and older (27%) who read a book in the past year say they're likely to read a science fiction novel, compared to 37% of those under 50. And just 13% of older book readers say they're likely to sit down with a good horror novel, compared to 28% of those under 50 (actually, 18- to 29-year-olds account for much of the horror genre following -- 44% of that youngest category say they're likely to read a horror novel, compared to 17% of all other adults).

The lack of difference between the reading preferences of older and younger book readers may be noteworthy with regard to some genres. Those closer to retirement don't appear, for example, to be significantly more likely than younger people to read religion and theology books (55% of older readers say they're likely to read one; 56% of the younger set do), self-improvement books (56% to 60%, respectively) or classic literature (44% to 48%).

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,001 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 5-8, 2002. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

**Results are based on a sub-sample of 835 adults who have read at least one book in the past year, from the Dec. 5-8, 2002, poll. The maximum margin of sampling error for this group is ±4%.

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