Growing More Liberal as We Age


Robert Frost

It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that we become more conservative as we grow older.  Robert Frost alludes to the belief in a two-line poem:

I never dared be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.

For years I unquestioningly accepted that the elderly are less liberal than the young.  After all, everyone seemed to say so.  For instance, Winston Churchill memorably asserted, “If you’re not a liberal at 20 you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at 40 you have no brain.”

Now, however, researchers have thrown the truism into doubt.  Discovery News reports that a recent study has discovered the picture to be more complicated. Karl Pillemer, a sociologist and gerontologist at Cornell University, has come up with some new observations after surveying seniors, such as the following:

Seniors seem to have become more liberal about subordinate groups, for example, but more conservative about civil liberties. . . [P]eople’s attitudes can evolve as they age. And flexibility often trumps rigidity.

“Older people said very surprising things about being old,” Pillemer said. “One of those things was that old age was a quest for adventure and a time to try new things. Many older people describe themselves as feeling freer or clearer.”

Late in life, his research shows, people often become more open, more tolerant, and more appreciative of compassion. Even if they started out conservative, they may become less extreme in their conservatism.

Looking back at the Frost poem, I am struck by how (as is often the case with Frost’s poetry) it doesn’t say what I first assumed it said.  Just as he doesn’t confidently assert that he took the road less traveled (rather, he thinks that in the future he may look back and claim he took the road less traveled, even though he didn’t), so he isn’t saying that he will inevitably become more conservative.  He just feared he would become more conservative and so chose not to be radical in his youth.

Perhaps this makes him a candidate for one of Churchill’s heartless twenty-year-olds. But look at the payoff.  When he grows old and looks back at his youthful days of carefree birch swinging, he has not shut down. (Reacquaint yourself with “Birches” here.) Even though his life has been like a pathless wood that has torn at him with its branches, he is able to declare, “Life’s the right place for love, I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” That’s a statement that is as open-hearted, not to mention wise, as any you will find.

I have anecdotal proof that the elderly don’t necessarily become more conservative.  When my youngest son Toby married a Carib-African woman from Trinidad, my 89-year-old mother-in-law, a religious conservative from Iowa, talked about how her views of race have changed dramatically over the decades. She now actively resists stereotyping.

As I watch candidates in a bitter Florida primary punching fear buttons designed to stampede elderly Republicans into voting for whoever comes across as the most reactionary, I think of her and see hope.

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