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Maybe young men and women aren’t so ideologically different

A viral graph isn't the full story.

- January 29, 2024

John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times posted a viral graph showing a growing ideological difference between men and women ages 18 to 29:

In the U.S. graph, this is the difference between how men and women self-identify. This is known in the political science literature as “symbolic ideology.”

But symbolic ideology is not the same thing as having liberal or conservative views on issues – or what is called “operational ideology.” And it turns out that younger men and women in the U.S. are not nearly so different on many specific issues.

See, for example, this graph from the political scientist Tom Wood (and see also Jan Zilinsky):

The graph shows the difference between men and women in four age groups on many different political issues. Two findings stand out:

  1. The differences between young men and women are MUCH smaller in terms of average operational ideology than symbolic ideology. The average is about 5 points, compared to a 30-point gap in the Burn-Murdoch graph.
  2. On average, the gender differences are NOT larger for the youngest age group than for older age groups.

Already I’m seeing a lot of ink spilled trying to come up with specific explanations for would produce a growing ideological gap among young people. Except more comprehensive data show that the gap isn’t that large and any gap isn’t confined to young people.

So, as usual, beware the viral graph.

[A footnote: The ideological difference among young men and women in the 2020 American National Election Study isn’t nearly as large as in the data in the Burn-Murdoch graph. Among men 18 to 29, 36% identified as liberal, 22% as moderate, 27% as conservative, and 15% did not know. Among women 18 to 29, the comparable percentages were 39% liberal, 18% moderate, 26% don’t know, and 18% conservative. In terms of the different in percent liberal vs. percent conservative, men are +9 and women are +21. The difference between then is 12 points, not the 30 points in the Burn-Murdoch graph.]