Are young voters attracted to social conservatism?

Conservative and ‘progressive’ Liberals may disagree on much, but it seems they share at least one attribute – confusing their hopes with our reality. Last December Senator Judith Troeth called for a ‘progressive liberalism’ to restore the party’s electoral fortunes. As I pointed out at the time, the polling does not support Troeth’s conclusions.

And today NSW Young Liberal President Noel McCoy has an op-ed in The Australian arguing that John Howard’s social conservatism resonated with young people.

The evidence for this is rather thin, as McCoy effectively admits. That in 2004 the Australia Election Study found more young people voting Liberal than Labor ‘for the first time’. So the AES surveys in 1996, 1998 and 2001 (and no doubt 2007) are aberrations, and we should rely on the 2004 survey? McCoy is drawing on Clive Bean’s research, but Bean was relying on a sample of 121 persons aged 25 and under (see his chapter in Mortgage Nation). Ian Watson’s analysis of a much bigger sample of Newspoll respondents found the Coalition’s worst-ever result among the 18-24 year olds in 2004.

McCoy relies on an advertising agency report to claim that young people are more conservative than their parents. Apparently today’s young people are more likely to marry – though if the ABS is to be believed not any time soon, as the median age at first marriage fails to decline from its historic peaks. Apparently today’s young people ‘plan to have children earlier’ . Well perhaps they do plan to have children early, but again the ABS cannot find any evidence that they are implementing their plans. The ABS is a bearer of bad news again on McCoy’s claim that young people are more likely to volunteer. Only the elderly are less likely to volunteer than the 18-24 year olds (and the 25-34 year olds are little better).

On only one of McCoy’s claims, that young people are more likely to go to church than their parents (people I assume to be most likely aged 45 to 54), could I find any substantiating evidence in the Giving Australia survey (43% vs 32% once a month or more). But like the AES, the low number of young people in the sample makes this result doubtful.

I don’t think there is any strong evidence that young people are more socially conservative than their parents, though there are a range of issues on which the population generally takes a fairly conservative view. This is one of the Liberal Party’s long-term problems. It will be hard to out-conservative a conservative Labor leader like Kevin Rudd without appearing out of touch with younger voters.

21 thoughts on “Are young voters attracted to social conservatism?

  1. The message I got from that was the same message that the Liberal Party in NSW has been pushing for the last dozen years: there’s nothing wrong with the fundamental direction that a bit of marketing spin won’t cure. If you start questioning fundamental direction, pretty soon people start losing preselections and office-bearers get replaced, and where does that leave you?

    McCoy’s piece was just a rehash of an earlier piece by Senator Fierravanti-Wells, which I unpacked here, and I’d reiterate 80% of it against McCoy. The fact that young people voted Liberal in the past does not mean they will do so if the same warmed-over slop is dished up to them again in 2010, whereas McCoy is betting everything that they will.


  2. Andrew, the census data show a continuing decline in religiosity as you move down the age cohorts, and across time as well.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the Church Life survey had some data on attendance.

    Certainly the Catholic Church doesn’t believe it’s increasing among young people – it’s the whole justification for Pell’s government subsidised Popefest in Sydney this year.


  3. Mark – There is a slow long-term increase in ‘no religion’ among young people in the census, but that is not inconsistent with rising attendance rates among those who are religious. On a quick examination I could not find Church Life data on this subject, but I did remember a question in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, which finds much lower overall numbers than the Giving Australia survey, but did find those born after 1980s slightly more likely to attend once a month or more often than those born between 1950 and 1960. Again, though, a fairly small number in the younger group (n=284).


  4. Yes, Andrew, the Church Life Data is hard to get hold of – it’s essentially proprietary data for their own research for their sponsoring bodies. There may well be a small rise in attendance, but it hardly justifies the “young people are more socially conservative” narrative, as I’m sure you’d agree, as it’s off a very low base.


  5. The church information above is consistent with the long-term decline in the catholic & prodestant denominations, with people either shifting to no-religion or to evangelical christianity (where they are more likely to go to church).

    This is another worrying indicator of the growth of the “religious right”.


  6. Yes, this claim that the young are now more conservative than the old is obvious self-serving nonsense, easily refuted by the data.

    I might buy two different propositions that could explain creeping conservatism amongst the population though:

    – the median age is creeping up. People get more conservative as they get older (I reckon this is the major threat to future economic growth from population aging, rather than the increase in the age dependency ratio. The old ain’t fond of creative destruction).

    – the young are more conservative than their parents were at the same age (possibly true, but it says more about their parents’ cohort than them).


  7. I read in yesterday’s West Australian (so it must be right) of a W.A. poll of 504 members of the iGeneration (18-35 year olds):
    “Findings reveal a generation whose members have been shaped by WA’s booming economy, who are surprisingly level-headed and financially conservative but who are nevertheless liberal when it comes to their individual rights. They’re pro-choice on abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia …”
    Curtin Uni Professor Jon Stratton “said that despite a strong liberal moral code across the iGeneration, there was still a dramatic divide between the younger and older ends of the spectrum, with 30-35 year-olds showing a much more conservative approach to thinking and living in the world.”


  8. Andrew, you don’t measure the opinions, motivations, etc. of the avant-garde by polling those marching further back in ranks. While the current picture in Australia might look less interesting/resolved than McCoy maintained, certainly things are trending conservative (on sex and religion in particular) across the Anglo-sphere.

    Hence, the BBDO survey. Advertisers are interested in where things are going, not where things are right now. Key markets (the US, in particular, but also Japan and other sectors in Asia and the big-capital Middle East) all show the same thing…

    On most reliable measures (abortion, family, life, religion), 18-35 year-olds are more conservative on social issues than their parents are now and certainly, than their parents were at the same age.

    This generational shift is well documented, so it is a little silly to pretend the limited Australian figures/examples and McCoy’s necessarily circumscribed op-ed are the beginning and end of the discussion. One of the reasons we blog, Andrew, is because there is not space to include all the relevant material in a thousand-word article.

    Indeed, Nguyen’s (2005) ‘young fogeys’ are actually Andy Greeley’s (2004) ‘young fogeys:

    although not always A.N. Wilson’s (1980s) ‘young fogeys’…and McCoy’s (2008) young, election-winning social conservatives are my (2007) family-friendly, election-winning, social conservatives:,25197,22933616-7583,00.html

    And the transformation McCoy outlines – while not yet complete in Australia – is well advanced in indicative, forward-leaning sections of the Catholic, US college student, global technology early-adopters (i.e., blogging, social-networking) and pop cultural (‘South Park’, ‘300’, Rascal Flats) populations.

    Take the Catholic microcosm. After forty years of ultra-liberal ‘reforms’, there has been a remarkable turnaround.

    The quickly re-filling, ever more orthodox seminaries; the ever-expanding, already vast youth groups (pace Mark, World Youth Day is a response to incredible youth fervour, they’ve had between 400K and 8Mil attendees at past events); the remarkable Ratzinger-led, youth-carried liturgical ‘reform of the reform’; and the massive growth of home-schooling (especially in the US) and lay-movements like Opus Dei represent the future of Christian culture and belonging.

    It would be strange indeed to view all of these established ‘young fogey’ movements as anomalous, and if current data in Australia does not yet show the kind of transformation many others have described, the Census isn’t asking the right questions and/or Australia is behind the trend.

    The more interesting question is, of course, why ‘Carlton’s lone classical liberal’ blogs so often on social conservativism?

    – JH


  9. *…the current data do not…etc.

    The final question is an invitation, not a complaint. Why are Australian libertarians suddenly so keen to collapse the ‘broad tent’? You don’t see many social conservatives trying to reform the tax-code according to the Summa.

    I wonder at libertarians’ more totalitarian impulses, especially in light of recent humiliations:

    – JH


  10. I think people are confusing young people being more socially conservative for them simply being more free market oriented.

    I think young people today feel capitalism is more likely to work than socialist economic policy, but that doesn’t have much effect on their views on social policy, and remember many young people don’t put much thought into whether their views on free market philosophy necessarily match up with their social policy views.

    Most people who are not policy wonks just decide policy-by-policy where they stand, only policy wonks are likely to notice any contradictions between positions. The trick to winning elections is to hit as many of the right policy positions as possible without the wonks pinning you down as being contradictory.


  11. JH, the attendance figures for WYD in North America or Europe prove nothing about Australia. And liturgical conservatives (and I’m one myself) among the declining number of Catholics attending church just proves that some of those attending church are more fervent then people used to be – which you’d expect anyway as the attenders who were mainly there by inertia or because it was the done thing drop out or drop off.

    DD, the interesting thing about religiosity anyway (and contra JH, it’s hard to think of a better way to measure whether people are religious than asking them if they are religious) is that there’s no particular evidence that the boomers, as they age, are getting more religious. And they’re more religious than all the cohorts after them.


  12. Boomers, as they age …. also can end up having to martyr themselves and, after an absence of 30 years, take their ancient parents to church.

    The generation younger than the boomers HAS to go to church and establish some record of attendance in order to get their children into the better Catholic schools. Hardly a religious revival.


  13. I’ve had a look at a 1979 survey with an equivalent question on church attendance to the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes questions. I find practically identical rates of once-a-month or more church going among the 18-25 year olds, 23% and 22% respectively. However, in 2005 young people were more likely to attend church than people old enough to be their parents, while in 1979 they were less likely.

    The 1979 survey had a question on abortion. 25 and under: 48% women should be able to obtain easily, 45% special circumstances only. 45-55 year olds 45% obtain easily, 45% special circumstances.

    2005 abortion question, 25 and under: 49% strong agree with women’s right to choose, 5% strongly disagree; 45-55 y.o: 35% strongly agree, 4% strongly disagree. About 80% of both groups agree or strongly disagree, with the rest undecided.

    The different questions make comparison a little difficult, but overall opinion on abortion looks stable to me over a quarter of a century, but with the current younger group firmer on choice than their parents.

    It’s hard to compare questions on homosexuality from the 1970s to now. Then the pollsters were asking whether it should be decriminalised; now they are asking whether gays should be allowed to marry. But the changed questions speak volumes about how the culture has shifted.

    While I don’t doubt John’s views that there are conservative intellectuals and sub-cultures, there is in my view no evidence that they constitute a trend, though church-going seems to be holding up while other things are declining, and plenty of evidence pointing to trends going the other direction.


  14. Kenneth – I think you are one of the few people ever to get the expression ‘classical liberal’ into a newspaper. I fear you were too optimistic about the ideological economic liberalism of young people though.


  15. Thought his article was quite a poor argument of his position. Whilst he mentioned that some people think that there is an idealogical contradiction with being economically liberal and socially conservative, he didn’t actually counter that proposition. I am yet to hear a coherent response to this assertion by anybody, I just don’t see how you can say that economically people should be as free as they can to do the things they want unhindered by the State, but socially the State should be telling them whats best and how they should structure their lives. It would actually be refreshing for a conservative to just say, “yeah, there is an idealogical contradiction, but so what”. But I haven’t heard that yet. On my side of politics, the social democratic, I often argue in policy debates with people who have more traditional views that we can’t be socially progressive on the one hand but then be economically conservative on the other (want more government ownership, no free trade, more restrictive and unnecessary regulation) – At least the social democratic side of politics long realised this and that’s why we had all the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating era. It seems that the Liberal Party is still trying to find it’s way and probably needs a dynamic leadership team to help address the major contradictions in their idealogy, just like Hawke-Keating tackled them head on in the Labor Party.


  16. While I don’t doubt John’s views that there are conservative intellectuals and sub-cultures, there is in my view no evidence that they constitute a trend, though church-going seems to be holding up while other things are declining, and plenty of evidence pointing to trends going the other direction.

    Indeed, and there were conservative intellectuals and sub-cultures in the 70s and 60s, for that matter. Just because a lot of the high profile culture warriors from that vintage were then on the left doesn’t mean everyone was. And in the 80s a stock newsprint filler was a story about how teh yoof were all Gordon Gekko acolytes and radicalism was no more. None of this really goes to shifts in cultural practices and values, it’s just a dumb media/political theme.

    Nor do I necessarily see marriage as any indicator of social conservatism per se. A majority of weddings are not conducted in church any more. There are lots of people who are married who hold socially liberal views.


  17. “among the declining number of Catholics attending church…”

    Not usus antiquior Masses and the more liturgically fine novus ordo Masses…again, the trend is conservative and popular.

    “Indeed, and there were conservative intellectuals and sub-cultures in the 70s and 60s, for that matter…”

    And they carried America, Britain, Australia, etc. through nearly two decades of solid, conservative cultural, political, etc. transformation.

    We have Rudd today because of Goldwater’s ‘subculture’.

    It should be noted too, just for fun, that Andrew, Mark, et al are ten plus years older than McCoy and I.

    – JH


  18. “And they carried America, Britain, Australia, etc. through nearly two decades of solid, conservative cultural, political, etc. transformation”

    This gives them far too much credit — I think they simply put up with changes (since there was basically nothing much they could do about them) that were happening that they were not generally the instigators of (many were world-wide phenomena).


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