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Youths more conservative than their elders on issues involving religion and abortion, new UC Berkeley survey reveals
24 September 2002

By Janet Gilmore, Media Relations

Berkeley - The generation gap between youths and older adults might not be what you'd expect, and on some political issues involving religion and abortion, young people may be the most conservative of all, according to a new survey by University of California, Berkeley, political scientists.

The report, released today (Tuesday, Sept. 24) by the campus's Survey Research Center as part of the center's Public Agendas and Citizen Engagement Survey (PACES), is based on interviews nationwide with Americans ages 15 to 92. It provides a comprehensive assessment of the generation gap in American political opinions.

UC Berkeley political science professors Merrill Shanks and Henry Brady were the lead researchers, along with Indiana University professor Edward Carmines. Douglas Strand of the Survey Research Center was the study's project director. Topics and results include:

* School prayer. Fifty-nine percent of adults ages 27 to 59 want public schools to allow prayer at official school activities, such as commencements. Among teenagers, 69 percent support school prayer.

* Federal aid to faith-based charities. Forty percent of adults ages 27 to 59 support such funding. But support reaches 59 percent among the college-aged and 67 percent among younger teens.

* Religious conservatives. Young Americans show somewhat more warmth towards religious conservatives than older adults. Individuals ranked their feelings for these groups on a scale from zero for "cold" to 50-100 for varying degrees of "warmth." Although no age group showed much warmth to Christian fundamentalists, 33 percent of youths ages 15 to 26 gave them a rating over 50; 26 percent of Americans over age 26 gave a similar score.

* Abortion. Government restrictions on abortion are supported by 34 percent of adults over 26, while about 44 percent of youths ages 15 to 22 support such restrictions.

"We were surprised by the greater support among young Americans for some aspects of the conservative cultural agenda," said Shanks. "Young Americans show more conservatism on religious politics and abortion even though youths, as a group, appear to be less likely than their elders to attend religious services regularly or consider religion a guide in their daily life.

"If the youth of today maintain these positions on religious politics and abortion as the years go by, then the American public as a whole could become more conservative on these issues."

In the case of social security and education, if there is a generation gap in opinions, it is the elderly who stand out, not the youth. Youth are just as supportive as their parents and grandparents when it comes to government spending on health care for seniors. However, older Americans don't show a corresponding supportiveness for the education programs that benefit youth. While 70 percent of young and middle-aged Americans support more spending on elementary and secondary education, only 52 percent of those over 60 favor increased school funding.

Some traditional political differences between young and older Americans continue to prevail. Youths are more inclined to want the federal government to do more to protect women and racial minorities from job discrimination. They also are more likely to consider job discrimination against gays and lesbians to be a serious problem. And they want more federal programs to assist the poor and protect the environment.

Differences between the young and old are most dramatic when it comes to sex and violence on television. Among Americans ages 27-59, 67 percent think "the amount of sexual content on television" is a serious problem, while just 47 percent of teens and the college-aged feel that way.

And while an overwhelming majority of the adults ages 27 to 59 - 74 percent - thinks TV violence is a serious problem, the majority of teens and young adults - 55 percent - disagree.

On many other issues, however, there was no generation gap. The study found no dramatic differences between younger and older Americans on such issues as military defense, gun control, tax policy, criminal punishment, and government support for health care in general.

"The next step for us and other scholars is to solve the puzzles in our overall picture of the generation gaps in political opinions," said Strand. "We need to explore why youths seem to be more conservative than their elders when it comes to religious politics and abortion politics, but not other issues."

Strand speculated that messages criticizing abortion and supporting school prayer and government aid to religious charities may have been more prominent in the media while the youngest generation was developing political views. He noted that older generations developed their basic positions on these issues before religious conservatives began mobilizing politically in the late 1970s.

The study is based on telephone interviews completed during the latter half of 2001, and most occurred between late April and September 10. About 1,250 people were interviewed, a standard sample for academic survey research.

The project was funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which support nonprofit activities in the areas of culture, education, the environment, health and human services, public policy and religion.