In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Youth and Generational Differences in US Politics

  • Introduction
  • Early Works and Foundational Texts
  • Comparative Studies
  • Methodological Strategies and Approaches
  • Data
  • Contemporary Characterizations of Generational Cohorts

Political Science Youth and Generational Differences in US Politics
Candis W. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0203


People are less likely to participate in politics when they are young, and yet for decades scholars have been concerned about what young people think about politics and the political system. This concern was initially motivated by the belief that the political socialization of the young is a primary input function in the political system; that is to say, the values and ideas that are passed onto the young were believed to have implications for the longevity of a democratic political system. This body of literature initially suggested that values are passed down intergenerationally from one cohort to another, and further political attitudes and values attained at a young age are enduring. However, as the subfield evolved, research later revealed that people’s attitudes have a tendency to change over their lifetime. What’s more, it is quite clear that there tends to be a difference in the way that the average member of one generation perceives the world, interacts with their political institutions, and views other members of society in comparison to the average member of another generation. These observations represent some of the forces that influence aggregate change in political attitudes and behaviors over time: age effects, period effects, and cohort effects. Age effects, or life-cycle effects, are marked by the evolution in attitudes, behavior, and beliefs that individuals may see over their lifetime. Period effects result from changes in the social, historical, and cultural environment; these effects are reflected by the shifts in the ways in which a population, on the whole, manages particular attitudes and behaviors over time. Yang Yang and her colleagues explain that cohort effects are “conceived as the essence of social change” in their article “The Intrinsic Estimator for Age-Period-Cohort Analysis: What Is It and How to Use It” (American Journal of Sociology 113.6 [2008]: 1697–1736). Cohort effects describe the aggregate changes in society’s attitudes and behaviors that occur due to the replacement of a group of people who were born at a similar time, and thus were socialized to value and believe certain things, by a new generation who have their own shared, unique set of experiences, ideas, values, and worldview. Ryder 1965 (cited under Early Works and Foundational Texts) asserted, “since cohorts are used to achieve structural transformation and since they manifest its consequences in characteristic ways, it is proposed that research be designed to capitalize on the congruence of social change and cohort identification.” Many have taken Ryder’s call to heart, but there exists the methodological challenge of parsing out period, age, and cohort effects; what’s more, there is the problem of interaction among these three effects. Even in the face of these challenges, research that concerns generational differences has evolved; scholars are increasingly able to move from simple descriptions of generational attributes and trends over time to disentangling these three aforementioned effects from one another with the use of new methodological tools and longitudinal data.

Early Works and Foundational Texts

Scholars across social science disciplines are cognizant of the notion that the one thing that remains the same is change; over time, societies see changes in attitudes about gender and gender roles, racial attitudes as well as policy preferences and political behavior, but pinning down the exact mechanisms of change have been difficult. Early on, works of scholarship like Mannheim 1952 and Ryder 1965 theorized that generational replacement should be at the center of explanations of social change. Works such as Crittenden 1963 and Converse 1969 made some of the first attempts to assess these claims empirically. Hyman 1959 develops the classic definition of political socialization, which is an effort to describe how generations are made. Relatedly, much of the early political socialization focused on children’s attitudes, well illustrated in Easton and Hess 1962. Later, Firebaugh 1992 built on these ideas by using empirical data to gain a better understanding of the role of cohort replacement on social change.

  • Converse, Philip E. “Of Time and Partisan Stability.” Comparative Political Studies 2.2 (1969): 139–171.

    DOI: 10.1177/001041406900200201

    A major debate in the subfield of political behavior is whether and the extent to which partisanship is stable over one’s lifetime. Indeed, this literature is large enough to have its own bibliography. This article represents one of the many that is written on the subject.

  • Crittenden, John. “Aging and Political Participation.” Western Political Quarterly 16.2 (1963): 323–331.

    Crittenden noticed that at first glance partisanship seems to become stronger over one’s lifetime, but political participation declines in older age. The author tries to empirically assess whether this is actually the case, though must rely on rather crude methods.

  • Easton, David, and Robert D. Hess. “The Child’s Political World.” Midwest Journal of Political Science 6.3 (1962): 229–246.

    DOI: 10.2307/2108634

    This piece represents one of the most important early foundational texts on political socialization. These scholars believed it was important to understand how learning about politics (at an early age) influences citizens’ political attitudes, behaviors, and thus, outcomes of the political system.

  • Firebaugh, Glenn. “Where Does Social Change Come From?” Population Research and Policy Review 11.1 (1992): 1–20.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00136392

    The author seeks to disentangle age effects from cohort effects in efforts to explain shifts in attitudes, opportunity structure across groups, and political behaviors. The aim is to determine whether social change over time is primarily due to the fact that individuals may change their personal attitudes or due to cohort replacement. The article also includes an early methodological strategy to parse out the effects.

  • Hyman, Herbert. Political Socialization: A Study in the Psychology of Political Behavior. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959.

    This seminal text is responsible for inspiring the proliferation of work on political socialization. Here, we find the development of the classic definition of socialization (p. 25). Hyman provides a summary of findings about socialization from other disciplines, and explains that since political attitudes and behaviors are learned, social scientists should delve in to understand this process. He asserts that parents’ and their children’s political attitudes are highly similar, suggesting intergenerational transmission.

  • Mannheim, Karl. “The Problem of Generations.” In Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. Edited by Karl Mannheim and Paul Kecskemeti, 276–320. New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.

    Mannheim defines a generation as a group of people who share the same year of birth and, therefore, have a “common location in the historical dimension of the social process” (p. 290). The author explains the mechanisms that allow cohort replacement to accelerate the pace of social change over time.

  • Ryder, Norman B. “The Cohort as a Concept in the Study of Social Change.” American Sociological Review 30.6 (1965): 843–861.

    DOI: 10.2307/2090964

    Ryder theorizes the importance of generational cohorts; he explains what makes a cohort distinctive by delineating the stages and experiences that may lead a cohort to share a certain set of attitudes or values. He emphasizes that cohort replacement is not a guarantor of social change, but rather that “demographic metabolism” permits change.

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