Gender attitudes – do we get less liberal with age?

Francisco Perales Perez, Philipp Lersch , Janeen Baxter

There was huge change in people’s attitudes to gender in the second half of the 20th century, but egalitarian trends are slowing

Put very simply, gender ideology is the idea that men go out to work and women stay at home and raise families. It’s an idea – or set of ideas – which was very much challenged during the second half of the 20th century. After 1950, we saw many more women in developed countries being educated and in full-time work – and in well-paid, traditionally ‘male’ jobs, too. There were shifts towards couples sharing work in the home, and more women in politics, as well as new laws against discrimination and for equal opportunities.

There were documented falls in support for traditional gender ideology over this period, but this traditional gender thinking still holds some sway today. Women with more traditional views tend to spend less time living independently than those with more liberal view. They tend to become mothers earlier, are more involved in childcare, are in paid employment less often, work fewer hours, and get paid less. Men with traditional views do less childcare and housework, have wives who are less likely to work full time, and sometimes use their traditional beliefs to justify abuse.

What’s changing our views?

Gender ideology affects women’s lives, but there is evidence that trends towards egalitarianism are slowing, and even of a backlash in some developed countries. As a result, many researchers are interested in what drives changes in people’s attitudes. There are two main theories:

  • Cohort replacement – the idea that early life experiences affect people’s beliefs, which stay stable as we age. This means that society gradually becomes more liberal as ‘old-fashioned’ attitudes die out, to be replaced by more liberal views in successive generations.
  • Intracohort ageing, meaning that our views change as we age. Education, for example, can expose us to egalitarian ideas, and employment can allow us to see women doing jobs as well as men can – although, typically, people become more conservative as they get older.

Previous research has looked at these two factors separately, and tended to use cross-sectional data. We wanted to look at the two theories in more depth, and to understand how they affect each other, to see if this can explain the slowdown of the movement towards gender equality, and help us to predict future trends and assess the prospects for achieving gender equality. We also wanted to do this using longitudinal data, which allows us to observe the same people over time.

Our hypotheses

In particular, we wanted to test six hypotheses:

  1. older cohorts have more traditional views than younger ones
  2. ageing leads to more traditional attitudes
  3. this increasing traditionalism as we age will be stronger in older cohorts
  4. these differences in the effect of ageing on gender ideology can be explained by the different life experiences which different cohorts have
  5. there will be more variety in the way younger generations’ attitudes change
  6. these changes will, again, be partly explained by the wider variety of life experiences enjoyed by younger cohorts

Our research found that the first two of those hypotheses held up. The third didn’t, however. Ageing did make people’s views more traditional, but this effect appeared to be stronger among younger cohorts. In other words, younger cohorts appear to start from a more liberal standpoint, but the swing to traditionalism in these cohorts, when it comes, is stronger than it was for their elders.

The fourth hypothesis also didn’t appear to be correct. It seems that something other than life experiences is causing this change in their views. However, we know that people’s life courses are becoming more varied and less standardised as time goes on, so it may be that we don’t know enough about these life courses – or have enough data on them – to answer this question yet.

Hypothesis 5 – that there will be more variety in the way younger generations’ attitudes change – was true, but, as with 4, we also couldn’t confirm hypothesis 6 – that the change was down to life experiences.

Comparing cohorts and ageing

Looking at cohort replacement and ageing together allowed us to consider the effect they have on each other. This meant we could compare how attitudes change in different cohorts – pinpointing which stages of life are crucial in which cohorts when it comes to this traditionalising effect. If we know that, it can help to inform government policy – making it possible to target interventions which discourage worldviews which hamper women’s futures.

The thing which concerned us most was traditionalisation among younger cohorts. These attitudes could influence their life decisions and the results of those decisions for many years to come. Our findings for Britain were not optimistic – without intervention, younger generations look set to replicate the life-course model of gender ideology of their predecessors.

Next steps

There are some caveats to our findings. For example, we couldn’t look at the complete histories of the people we’re studying, because the data only covers a maximum of 17 years of any respondent’s life. Because of this, we couldn’t completely separate ageing effects from cohort replacement. As Understanding Society progresses and gathers more data, we’ll be better able to watch attitudes change (or not) over longer periods, among different cohorts.

And in the future, we’d also be interested to see research which considered the historical context, to understand how outside events might be affecting people’s changing views.


Francisco Perales Perez

Francisco (Paco) Perales Perez is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Queensland

Philipp Lersch

Philipp Lersch is Associate Professor of Sociology of Social Policy in the Department of Social Sciences at Humboldt University of Berlin and Senior Research Fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research

Janeen Baxter

Janeen Baxter is Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course in the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Queensland