Am I doomed to become conservative?

Agony Uncle responds to a troubled 20-something-year-old who worries he’ll lose his radical commitments as he gets older.

Dear Agony Uncle,

I’m a twenty-something-year-old who’s very clearly on the left side of the political spectrum. I’ve tried to be active. I’ve attended protests and organized one at university, tried (and failed) to unionize my workplace and have made my opinions known to thousands of followers on social media. But when I look at my parents, I get worried – they were once radicals in their youth and are now comfortable… propertied. I used to scoff at the dictum, ‘Anyone who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart. Anyone who is still a socialist at age 40 has no head.’ But as I get older, and I notice myself becoming a bit more selfish, less inclined to be active, wanting to settle down, I’m starting to wonder if it’s true. Am I doomed to become more conservative?


Benjamin Button

Dear Benjamin,

One of the most common criticisms directed at the soixante-huitards, the rebellious generation of the 1960s, is that they ‘sold out’. Students who were once dislodging paving stones to throw at police in Parisian streets became ad execs, selling ‘freedom’ as a consumerist ideal: be your truest, most revolutionary self… with Coca Cola™. Communists became social democrats, who became Blairites. They individualized revolution; the horizon of global revolt transformed into tending to one’s allotment.

I think this is slightly unfair. For one, it underestimates just how revolutionary the late 1960s were – they weren’t all peace-and-love hippies, many were committed to real change. For example, former French president Charles De Gaulle was so scared of the students and workers that he fled the country. The soixante-huitards in Pakistan brought down their government. And, as political scientist Melinda Cooper argues in Family Values, so great was the elites’ fear of women living lives independently of men and the breakdown of the traditional family – won by the gender emancipation movements of the 1970s – that it was used to justify welfare cuts in subsequent decades.

Secondly, if some of that generation did become politically defanged, it’s because the economy was able to absorb them. Wages were rising in real terms, there were relatively plentiful public sector and industrial jobs, a fair amount of social and low-cost housing in Europe. As someone who was part of Italy’s student Left in the 1970s once told me: ‘Back then, we were trying hard to not get a job!’ Conservatism was in some ways inevitable because young people acquired valuable assets that they wanted to conserve.

You are unlikely to have this problem. Young people today are underemployed, underpaid or jobless. At this rate, they may never own much of anything. In this sense, you may avoid your parents’ comfortable complacency. Whether that’s a good thing will hinge on whether you can resist a slide into nihilism. It’s easy to become demoralized; it takes effort to think critically about the world you’re in. After you’ve witnessed many failures (like your union drive at work), cynicism floods in and you start to accept the way things are. If you feel yourself moving in this direction, it’s important never to let go of the belief that a radically different world is possible.

Also worth remembering is millennials like you are no longer the young kids on the block. There’s a new generation coming up: the ones leading the school strikes to prevent catastrophic climate change. Brimming with information and connected to each other like no cohort before, they’ve already helped force the UK parliament to declare a climate emergency, in step with Extinction Rebellion. You will also see a fair few grey hairs among the members of the latter – evidence that radicalism can be undimmed by the passing years. And with climate breakdown predicted within the coming decades, it may be that conservatism that comes with age is a luxury no-one can afford any more.