When it comes to “radical ideas,” members of older generations are typically more conservative. This concept is ever-present right now, as people–especially today’s youth–rise up, calling for things like defunding the current police system, putting the Green New Deal into effect, establishing universal healthcare, eliminating the wage gap, and creating widespread change overall.
The bulk of the opposition to such demands is made up of older adults, mostly baby boomers–those who were born between 1946 and 1964. An explanation for this opposition could be their upbringing and the environment in which many of these citizens grew up. Yet, in their youth, some baby boomers were revolutionaries. Looking back at our history, particularly the 60s and 70s, we can observe that baby boomers were actually quite similar to the current Generation Z in their fight against the older establishment. Some similarities could be seen in the Civil Rights Movement, when youth organized many influential sit-ins. Groups of Black students like the Little Rock Nine were some of the first to be a part of desegregation in Southern schools, and hundreds of elementary school kids in Birmingham marched to demand to speak with the mayor about segregation. The youth of the time essentially sparked the movement.
Then came counterculture and the environmental movement. Counterculture was known as the culture of “hippies.” Hippies tended to oppose societal norms and were also very anti-war, especially in opposition to the Vietnam War. Counterculture was a huge factor in early environmentalism which culminated in important reforms as well as the first Earth Day in 1970, which is now a popular holiday.
If these individuals were so influential in their time, what happened?
A possible explanation may come from behavioral science. The standard for our behavior, especially in a scenario where stereotypes are relevant, is based on a combination of both automatic and controlled responses. Prejudice is displayed when our response is solely automatic or solely controlled, rather than a combination of the two. A common method for testing the type of response we have to a situation is the Process Dissociation Procedure (PDP). With the PDP, those participating are given a certain set of tasks, then they are given a slightly altered version of those same tasks. If participants have the same responses for both iterations of the test, their performance is not based on bias (this would be a combination of automatic and controlled response types). If their responses are different, their decisions were probably based on bias (this would be only one type of response). A great example of the PDP in action is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), where test takers are told to associate different faces (old vs. young, Black vs. White, etc.) with different adjectives (old goes with bad, young goes with good). These instructions are switched through a series of around 6-7 tests, and the website comes to a bias analysis at the end.
Because stereotypes are so heavily incorporated into society, we must unlearn and actively reject prejudice. These actions can automatically occur in the frontal lobe, which is the last part of the brain to develop–new links can be forged while in one’s 30s–and is at high risk of damage, especially as we age, considering the substantial amount of nerve pathways it’s connected to. This makes it increasingly difficult for us to eliminate prejudice and process new ideas. This might explain why older adults seem to be less open to change because they slowly become physically unable to process new and more “radical” concepts.
Evidently, this isn’t the only component. It’s likely that the environment in which a generation grows up in, coupled with the loss of ability to dismiss existing ideology, causes this behavior in older citizens. Furthermore, there are numerous other factors, most of the “radical” actions of Baby Boomers occurred when they weren’t in the workforce, or were just entering it. It’s possible some have regressed in their views as they got jobs and became wealthier, as their intentions became more biased towards keeping what they worked so hard for. Nevertheless, this information poses many questions for present and future generations.
With all of this in mind, here are some things to consider:
When trying to discuss topics with older adults that they may not be accustomed to, understand that their views as younger people developed in a different time, and they may be having a hard time adapting to the current political climate. However, this does not mean excusing bigotry or giving up on trying to convey new perspectives. Use some of their existing views to help get a point across. Studies have also shown that we are more receptive when we are more alert and tend to be more argumentative in the afternoon. So, starting discussions in the morning may increase your chances of being listened to and having your points taken into consideration.
These findings also prove the necessity of electing younger adults to be in office, as their motives and beliefs represent some of the most topical and up-to-date ideas.
This may not explain all of the occasionally ignorant behavior of older adults, but it provides insight into some of the science behind it which, hopefully, we can draw upon it in our quest to build better movements.
Lucia Paulsen is a writer for the Science & Technology and Social Justice sections of the Next Gen Politics blog. She is an avid climate action and human rights activist. As a member of Gen Z interested in politics and government, Lucia is a member of her local youth council and has helped organized several events dealing with current and urgent political matters. She loves iced coffee, biking around her town, fashion- as sustainable as possible, and advocating for what she believes in.