Conservative with age: Why your political stripes change over time

"If you're not a socialist at twenty, you have no heart; and if you're not a conservative at forty, you have no brain." The saying has been around since at least the late 19th century, and it's not entirely clear who coined it. But the fact that it's still in circulation today says something about the way many of us do become more conservative as the years pass. Producer Peter Mitton explores why this tendency exists, and what it says about the way we acquire our political beliefs.
A voter casts his ballot in the U.S. presidential election at in Greenwich, Connecticut November 8, 2016. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

**This episode originally aired December 11, 2017.

No one really knows who first coined the saying, "If you're not a socialist at twenty, you have no heart, and if you're not a conservative at forty, you have no brain." It wasn't British Prime Minister Winston Churchill or Oscar Wilde, though it's often attributed to them. The smart money seems to be on a rather obscure French jurist from the 19th century, Anselme Batbie.

Whatever the source, it's been repeated for well over a century because it seems to ring true. Youthful ideals give way to the pragmatism as the years go by. But why do so many of us seem to follow in the footsteps of that old adage? Why do others resist it? And what does the adage reveal about the way we come to hold our political beliefs? 

In this documentary, producer Peter Mitton speaks with a wide array of people — young and old, left and right — on  their thoughts about that old saying, and whether it rings true or false in their ears. 

Sam Oosterhoff, the youngest MPP in Ontario's history when he was elected at nineteen, is definitely no socialist. He's a social conservative, who believes left-leaning people his own age will eventually come around later. "I don't mean to be rude to my own generation but they're often naive," he says, about the costs of demands like free tuition. 

The American libertarian writer and humourist PJ O'Rourke sees his own life following the trajectory of that saying pretty closely.  He was a campus leftist in the 1960s, but sits on the board of conservative think tanks today. To him, the youthful allegiance with the left is only natural. "Kids are naturally left wing," he says, "because kids grow up in the one Marxist-Leninist system that actually works — the immediate family — where, 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,' is an actual rule that's lived by." 

For Sandy Hudson, the maxim doesn't fit with her experience. She's one of the founders of Black Lives Matters Toronto, and describes herself as a leftist. And, while she says she's getting closer to 40, "I don't feel any more heartless".  Ideals and beliefs don't fall away with age, she argues, but the responsibilities of life may make it harder to take part in demonstrations and otherwise act on them.

Guests in this episode:

  • Liz Hodgson is a writer and designer in Toronto.
  • ​James Tilley is a professor of politics at Oxford University.
  • ​Sam Oosterhoff is the member of Ontario provincial parliament, for Niagara West-Glanbrook. 
  • P.J. O'Rourke is an American political satirist and journalist. He's also the  H. L. Mencken Research Fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. His most recent book is How The Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016.
  • Brian Nowak is a Town Councilman-elect in Cheektowaga, New York.
  • Sandy Hudson is a founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto.
  • Harry Leslie Smith is the author of Harry's Last Stand: How The World My Generation Built is Falling Down, And What We Can Do To Save It.
  • Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right.

**This episode was produced by Peter Mitton & Nicola Luksic.