May 19, 2004
attitudes toward gay rights, by generation
Yesterday, Matt Yglesias wrote on his very popular blog: "Some social conservative types have speculated to me that the overwhelming pro-gay sentiment among young people can be counteracted by the natural conservatizing effects of aging." In other words, people will "naturally" grow more hostile to gay marriage as they enter adulthood. Yglesias disputed this prediction, and he's right. Some pretty specific data show that people tend to grow increasingly tolerant toward gays as they age--at least in the current era.
No one conducted surveys on gay marriage until recently. Our own survey found strong support for gay marriage and civil unions, but it was a snapshot of young Americans, with no adult comparison group, and it told us nothing about trends. However, the General Social Survey has consistently asked questions about other gay rights since 1973. For instance, the GSS asks: "what about a man who admits that he is a homosexual? Should such a person be allowed to teach in a college or university, or not?" This is a useful question statistically, because it divides the population into comparable-size groups that are for and against. (The GSS code name for this question, amusingly, is "colhomo.")
As shown in the following graph (and as one would expect), tolerance for gay college teachers has increased since 1973, when the question was first asked. At any given time, the most tolerant people are the youngest:
However, this first graph doesn't tell us whether individuals become more or less tolerant over time. Perhaps each new generation starts life more tolerant than the previous ones, and thereby causes the average level of tolerance to rise, yet individuals tend to become more conservative as they age. To see whether that's true, I looked at cohorts, and graphed their evolution over time. With the possible exception of those born in the 1930s (for whom we don't have much data), it appears that people grow more tolerant as they age. Each of these lines represents an age cohort (i.e., part of a generation), and seven out of eight lines slope upward:
Social scientists talk about "age effects," which hit average human beings as we move through the stages of the life-cycle. For instance, becoming more interested in politics is an age effect of early adulthood. They also talk about "cohort effects," which are qualities that a group of people has permanently, by virtue of what happened to their society when they were young. For example, Baby Boomers were permanently marked by post-War affluence, suburbanization, and Vietnam. Finally, there are historical effects that hit everyone in a society at a given time, regardless of their age. It's my sense that there may be a small age effect here: people become more tolerant of gays as they mature and get to know openly gay people. (This was a finding of our survey.) However, the biggest effect here is historical. Everyone is becoming more tolerant, regardless of age.