“Perhaps you have heard the old line about how a man “would be mad not to be a communist at 20, but would be madder to remain one at 40”. Or something like that. The precise ages and political labels vary with the telling, and many supposed coiners of the phrase include George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill and Georges Clemenceau.
The point – underlined by François Guizot’s original formulation in the constitutionally confused France of the 19th century: “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head” – is that the assumption that people drift rightward with age is timeless. The same received wisdom has always led conservatives to dismiss student politics with a world-weary sigh, and has been exploited by operators on the left from Chairman Mao to Harold Wilson.
The question, of course, is whether such a sentiment is true. Looking at the conventional narrative of austerity Britain – with youth-led groups such as Occupy and UK Uncut opposing government cuts – it seems credible.
But these high-profile movements may just be masking a broader shift: according to analysis of the definitive British Social Attitudes survey (from 1983-2010), today’s young adults are less supportive of the NHS than their parents were, are less likely to favour higher benefits – despite being far more likely than their elders to be unemployed – and feel less connection to society at large than previous generations.”
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