Why Do so Many People Grow More Conservative as They Grow Older?

When Winston Churchill abandoned the liberal party for the conservative party, he rationalized and defended his decision by famously stating: “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.”

Now, unlike Churchill, I’ve found that the more I’ve learned the more liberal I have become on most issues.  So I sometimes wonder why so many people grow more conservative as they grow older?  Do most people simply stop learning at 30? Or is there, as one might suspect, something more to it than that?

Today, I was able to ask a conservative friend the question and he gave me two reasons.  In the first place, he said, “Perhaps because they are realists and have accumulated some hard earned assets they would like to keep. It is easier to want to share the wealth when you are on the receiving end of the bargain.”

I should mention here that my conservative friend tends to think liberalism is mostly about taxing the rich to give to the poor. At least that’s the first thought that seems to come to his mind when you say the word “liberal”.

His second reason was a bit more interesting to me: “I believe when we are young, we think we can change the world. Later on in life, we just learn how to play the game to our advantage which just happens to be the goal of both sides if you really think about it.”

So, do you think he’s answered the question, “Why do so many people grow more conservative as they grow older?”  Is there anything he’s overlooked?  How would you answer the same question?

 

35 thoughts on “Why Do so Many People Grow More Conservative as They Grow Older?

  1. He’s overlooking a few things. One, the financially secure person, to say nothing of the rich person, depends on a stable society, which in turn depends on common resources – externalities – that are not part of the capitalist model. Two, he should look at the size of the pie and find out where his taxes really go. The answer might surprise him.

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    • Excellent points, George!

      As Thomas Paine somewhere states, it’s only prudence to give up a portion of one’s wealth through taxes in order to make secure the remainder of ones wealth. But besides security, the state, if well run, offers us numerous other services that are advantageous to us both directly and indirectly. So, like you, I reject my conservative friend’s tendency to dismiss taxation as something of no benefit to him.

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  2. I’m not sure if I’ve grown more or less conservative (whatever that means) as I’ve gotten older, but I do agree with your conservative friend to the extent that I too have matured and become something more of a realist. I prioritize (I hate that word) differently. I see some problems as intractable, or just not worth what I perceive to be the required effort.

    Certainly, preserving the value of investments is a very legitimate concern for an older person or couple. Most people are living longer, need that bigger nest egg to stay big, but don’t really have the energy or desire to start over again from a major financial setback. Sadly, this has happened to a great many people lately.

    Picking up and agreeing with george w.’s point too, I’m also at a point where I need to care about certain, different things more than I did or chose to care about them twenty some years ago. Education, medical issues, traffic, financial issues just take on a different dimension when one is now twenty, twenty five, or thirty years older.

    For instance, today I care much more about a place to live with a low crime rate. That was important earlier in my life, of course, but now I care from the perspective of a guy old enough to have no illusions about living a chic, cool, edgy twenty-something life on the fringes of a marginal neighborhood.

    I care about certain services (police, fire, ambulance, hospital, medical specialists) being maintained, available, and easy for me and the wife to access readily. That sometimes puts me on the side of the, if not conservative, at least the crowd that is unwilling to see riskier changes that might lead to a loss of something that works well enough for me — that might even be a reason I relocated to my current address. In other words, some types of change, or sometimes the pace of change is important to me in a different way at this point in my life.

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  3. I guess my answer would have to be given as an example. When my daughter was a teenager she couldn’t understand why the boys seemed to have more freedom than she. She kept telling me that it just wasn’t fair to have a double standard. It just wasn’t right. I told her…”You are absolutely right and maybe some day you can change that, but in the meantime you have to live in reality.

    She is now in her thirties and has a daughter of her own. While my grandaughter has a bit more freedom given to her by her mother, she also has to live in the reality that there is still a certain amount of double standards. My point here is the young are more ideological and the older we get we realize that while things are slowly changing we must live in the reality of out time.

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    • You raise a key issue, Smtwnredneck! It’s all very well and good to want to change the world for the better, but how should one behave before the world has changed? Does one pretend boys and girls run equal risks when they in fact don’t? Good point!

      Welcome to the blog!

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  5. We live in the “ME FIRST” era, the triumph of egotism. Sharing, a liberal idea, is no longer a basic value for many people. Sadly many under 30 people have already become conservatives. It bodes no good for the future. You better get rich quick or prepare to die young.
    And as you grow older and you are on a fixed income all that conservatism is dangerous because that is when you most may need a state with some “socialist” measures…financed by taxes not tea.

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    • The whole modern tendency to demonize “socialism” worries me. About the only people in any society who can get along well without some measure of socialism are the uber-rich — and even they do not fare that well without some measure of it.

      Good points, Paul!

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  7. The opposite is true for me. When I was conservative, I was much less educated about the issues, much less informed about the facts, more more susceptible to meaningless speech peppered with hyperbole and fear-mongering. My perceptions were heavily influenced by my inherently arrogant ethnocentric beliefs.

    The simple honesty of “I don’t know” has opened my mind and my heart.

    And as far as fiscal conservatism goes, let’s be honest folks: Conservative fiscal policies are not designed to benefit a single one of us unless we happen to be among the wealthiest 1-3%. Eh? “Tax breaks for everyone! Including that very small percentage of people who hold most of the wealth!! And we’ll keep increasing our national debt [… until something breaks (again) and then we’ll dump yet again on the already breaking backs of our venerable middle class that is looking poorer and poorer all the time, while the wealthy get wealthier]. Don’t penalize those poor rich people simply for being rich! That’s like blasphemy. Viva the American Dream (TM)!!”

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    • I had a very similar experience with conservatism as you, CD. I was at my most conservative when I owned a business. At the time, I thought I was quite well informed and I thought I thought for myself. Looking back, I can now see that nine in ten of my opinions were derived straight from the conservative talking points of the day! So much for thinking for myself or for being well-informed.

      I believe you are onto something when you say, “The simple honesty of ‘I don’t know’ has opened my mind and my heart.” Conservatism today (as opposed to traditional conservatism) seems to require — or at least, it thrives on — a confidence bordering on arrogance that sources like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are reliable sources of truth.

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  8. I think the asset management side of things probably has a lot to do with it, the idea that the older you get the more wealth you’ve accumulated. You realize that you have yours, and feel much less obligation to pay into the commons. It’s easy to not consider the value of police, fire protection, roads, public schools, etc. when you’re asked to pay your share.

    As far as social conservatism, I imagine having children will start the push, and having them turn into teenagers and seeing them experiment and rebel can really drive home the conservative morality issue.

    I think it’s safe to say that over time most people are increasingly short-sighted and place their own well-being above the community’s. Considering that the paramount value of the individual is a bedrock of conservatism, and liberalism requires long-term thinking and optimism, it’s not too hard to imagine why we shift right over time.

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    • “…liberalism requires long-term thinking and optimism…” If so, Sean, then one might have one reason Americans are increasingly shifting Right — we are notoriously poor long-term thinkers.

      Good post!

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  9. I’m not even sure what the two terms mean any more because they’ve been co-opted and distorted so often. After watching a conservative administration spend money like drunken sailors in port — to include “helping the poor” by giving my tax money to church groups who promise to help the poor, or funding school abstinence programs as an alternative to teaching sex education programs — I have to assume it’s not about using revenue sparingly. And after noting that liberal Presidents have prosecuted wars at about the same rate as conservative presidents, it’s not about militarism. I’ve laughed at the quip that a liberal feels entitled to tell you what to do with your money and a conservative feels entitled to tell you what to do with your genitals. But then you get Log Cabin Republicans. So I throw up my hands. I’m not sure that we can even use these labels any more.

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    • That’s a good point, Sledpress! The modern conservative and the modern liberal are near impossible to define.

      I think we have to go back a bit to a more classical conservatism and a more classical liberalism before we can make proper sense of the question.

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  10. Amen. The broad-brush characterization associated with the terms liberal and conservation are morphing with the current reality being they are gross exaggerations of what the average person is or isn’t.

    Media driven, we take the extremes and use them to define the rest of the group. I don’t buy into the observation that the older you become the more conservative you become. But then I don’t live with or like the average Joe or Josephine.

    So what was the sample size of this survey that determined that old age equals a move to conservatism? Hmmm…

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    • “Media driven, we take the extremes and use them to define the rest of the group.”

      Well said, Gandalfe! I also think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your question about sample size. So far as I know, Churchill never consulted science in arriving at his opinion about liberals and conservatives.

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  11. Forgoing the modern political definition of conservative for one more in keeping with my Yankee tradition…

    I think it has to do with the fact that, as one ages they become the power structure they once rebelled against. Additionally, I think there is some “back in my day” youth worship. Everything was better when they were kids and if only modern kids acted like they did then everything would be OK. (I grudgingly admit to catching myself doing this so perhaps I’m projecting?)

    Youth is a time of hormonal excesses that drive you to want to go out and change everything, make your mark, get a mate and all those other biological urges that get modified by cultural pressure.
    Once the hormones start to recede, the priorities become preserving what you have against the ravages of time and nere-do-wells.

    Having said that… my parents have actually grown more liberal in some ways as they have aged. Mostly in the acceptance of groups once thought of as “bad”.

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  12. I’ve always thought there is a certain personality “type” that lends itself to conservatism: those black/white thinkers who can’t see shades of gray or who are uncomfortable with uncertainty and a lack of control. As people age, they have less control over more and more: fewer job opportunities, physical challenges, etc. Conservatism, with its pseudo-certainly can be very reassuring to those type of people. I see it as a fear-based, closed way of dealing with reality, but conservatives might say the liberal point of view is naive, or overly optimistic. Interesting post and responses to ponder. Thanks, Paul!

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    • Hi Laura! I think your analysis is spot on for some of today’s conservatives — especially, the Fox conservative, the neoconservative. Loyal Fox viewers do indeed seem to be disproportionately represented by black/white thinkers who are uncomfortable with uncertainty.

      I’m not nearly as sure whether the same might be said of classic or paleoconservatives. Paleoconservatives seem more motivated by a preference for tradition and the familiar, than by black/white thinking. At least that’s my guess. Does that make any sense?

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  13. Yes, Paul, it makes a lot of sense. I saw that a lot in the church I was raised in. There seemed to be a lot of resistance to change and hanging on to traditional practices (in spite of their ineffectiveness in dealing with real-world/modern problems), and that led to some very conservative perspectives.

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    • That’s interesting! It seems the behavior was quite dysfunctional, given its ineffectiveness in dealing with modern problems.

      “As people age, they have less control over more and more: fewer job opportunities, physical challenges, etc. Conservatism, with its pseudo-certainly can be very reassuring to those type of people.”

      The above seems to me to be an especially sharp insight.

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  14. Churchill was a spoilt aristocratic brat in love with his super rich American mammy. I doubt mama would have approved of liberalism. The peasantry were revolting enough as it stood.
    I think there’s a lot of mammy pleasing in conservative circles.

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    • I am an enthusiastic admirer of Churchill despite his many sins, and they were many (internment camps, tacky antifeminism). He could speak and write. What he thought of his Mammy is not a question I have pondered much.

      But there is a distinct mother complex among the politically conservative and reactionary I have known — for better or worse. The funniest thing I ever heard tell of was a Republican organizer confronting the probable conclusion that the “nice old man who used to visit all the time and would bring him presents” after his dad died in his infancy was, as his interlocutor suggested, “totally doin’ his mom.” It is terrible to see a man’s face crumple like that.

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  15. LOL On the face of it he does seem to have been.
    But I think history gives him too much credit. He was basically a grumpy, bullish high functioning alocoholic.
    The British people as a whole stood up to Germany – Churchill was a figurehead.
    I think it’s noteworthy how long he lasted as Prime Minister after the war.

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  16. “I believe when we are young, we think we can change the world. Later on in life, we just learn how to play the game to our advantage which just happens to be the goal of both sides if you really think about it.”

    I’ve had exactly the opposite experience. I was much more conservative when I was young, and I’ve got more and more liberal as I’ve grown older — to the point where I hesitate even to call myself a liberal, considering how often that seems to mean something like “compassionate conservative.” As I’ve grown older, I’ve also come to a greater appreciation of how urgent it really is to change the world. The brokenness of the system has become more and more apparent. My 20-year-old self would have considered my 50-year-old self a borderline Communist; my 50-year-old self regards my 20-year-old self as something of a fool.

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  17. A conservative is just someone who doesnt want to change. Think about all the people who are used to how it was or how it is right now. In 20-30 years people they will think back to these years and remember how good some things were.

    Maybe its just people who dont want to let go, cant let go. Doesnt mean anything bad, its just that the younger crowd can always adapt faster to an environment, thats why when we interact with an older crowd, they seem conservative. Young people want change!

    my .02 cents

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