Example: How age influence values

It is common to speak of three systematic sources of value change in adulthood: historical events that impact on specific age cohorts (e.g., war, depression), physical ageing (e.g., loss of strength or memory), and life stage (e.g., child rearing, widowhood). Each of these sources affects value-relevant experiences. They determine the opportunities and constraints that people confront, and their resources for coping.


Inglehart [Ing97] demonstrated that older persons in much of the world give higher priority to materialist, as opposed to post-materialist, values than younger people do.1 He interpreted this as a cohort effect. People form values in adolescence that change little thereafter. The more economic and physical insecurity that adolescents experience, the more important materialist values are to them throughout their lives. The lower priority on materialist values in younger cohorts is due to the increasing prosperity and security many nations have enjoyed during most of the past 50 years.

What hypotheses does the cohort approach suggest for age differences in basic values? Most of the ESS participants, especially those in Western Europe and the northern periphery, have enjoyed an increase in security and prosperity over the past 50 years. These increases have reduced existential threats and dependence on extended primary groups for subsistence. They have increased individuals’ opportunities to indulge themselves, to be more adventuresome, and to choose their own way. These changes imply that younger groups will give higher priority to hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, and, possibly, to universalism values, but lower priority to security, tradition, and conformity values.

Physical ageing

Strength, energy, cognitive speed, memory, and sharpness of the senses decline with age [Sch91]. Although the onset and speed of decline vary greatly, the decline rarely reverses. This suggests several hypotheses. With age, security values may be more important because a safe, predictable environment becomes more critical as capacities to cope with change wane. Stimulation values may be less important because novelty and risk are more threatening. Conformity and tradition values may also become more important with age, because accepted ways of doing things are less demanding and threatening. In contrast, hedonism values may become less important if dulling of the senses reduces the capacity to enjoy sensual pleasure. Achievement and, perhaps, power values may also be less important for older people who are less able to perform demanding tasks successfully and to obtain social approval.

Life stage

Opportunities, demands, and constraints associated with life stages may cause age differences in values [Wei86]. Gender influences the experience of life stages, but we focus here on the main effects of age. In early adulthood, establishing oneself in the worlds of work and of family is the primary concern. Demands for achievement are great, both on the job and in starting a family. Challenges are many, opportunities are abundant, and young adults are expected to prove their mettle. These life circumstances encourage pursuit of achievement and stimulation values at the expense of security, conformity, and tradition values.

In middle adulthood, people are invested in established family, work, and social relations that they are committed to preserving. Most people are approaching the peak level of achievement that they will attain. Work and family responsibilities constrain risk-taking, and opportunities for change narrow. Such life circumstances are conducive to greater emphasis on security, conformity, and tradition values, and to less emphasis on stimulation and achievement values. The constraints and opportunities of the pre-retirement life stage reinforce these trends. With retirement and widowhood, opportunities to express achievement, power, stimulation, and hedonism values decrease further. In contrast, the importance of security and the investment in traditional ways of doing things make security and tradition values more significant.

Together, the analyses based on cohort experience, physical ageing, and life stages imply positive correlations of age with security, tradition, and conformity values. The analyses also imply that stimulation, hedonism, and achievement values correlate most negatively with age, and that power values correlate negatively too.

Figure 2.1. Correlations of Value Priorities with Age. Source: ESS 1

We can investigate these assumptions using the ESS data. Figure 2.1 presents the correlations between age and the different value priorities. All countries participating in the first round of the ESS-survey are included, using both weights. The pattern of correlations for age fits the order expected according to the structure of values quite well. Age correlates most positively with tradition values, and the correlations decrease in both directions around the motivational circle to stimulation.