Post-Brexit, it's time to reconsider the Churchillian adage, "If you're not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by 35, you have no brain" — and not just because historians are pretty sure he never said such a thing. As we have done with much of the conventional wisdom pundits held as dogma prior to The Trump Era, it's time to question the association between youth and high-emotion causes versus adulthood and more realistic goals.
We're in a historical moment where it's young people who seem to be showing more deliberation — if not exactly restraint — than their elders. In Britain, 75 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24 voted to remain in the European Union, as did 56 percent of those aged 25 to 49. Forget the "conservative" ideological label, much less the party, associated with the "Leave" movement. Which option was the one of caution, and which one asked voters to plunge into unknown legal backwaters? Which campaign made its argument with emotionally-freighted images rather than facts?
Meanwhile, the young people who so overwhelmingly favored remaining in the EU face the prospect of a future of sharply curtailed job opportunities, travel, and education. The Leave campaign hinged on the largely mythical assertion that immigration was "breaking" the U.K.; millennials who voted to remain did so for the concrete advantages EU membership gave them.
The referendum itself was based on a short-sighted political bargain: Back in 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron (now resigned) promised a vote on the issue, and pledged his career to the outcome. At the time, it was a way to wrangle the support of an unruly nativist constituency and to co-opt the one-issue UK Independence Party. UKIP voters were older (71 percent over the age of 50) and less educated (only 13 percent had college degrees); frustrated with a changing society and economy, they were poised to bolt to another candidate until establishment insiders pandered to their worst instincts. And an election cycle later, those insiders are shocked to find themselves kicked to the curb by angry voters in favor of a blustery, almost comically populist character with terrible hair.
All the worst trends start in Europe, huh? And I thought EDM was bad.
(There is still a chance that former London Mayor Boris Johnson will not gain the position he's favored for; it's also true that Johnson has both somewhat better hair and less xenophobic policies than the walking circus peanut running for president here.)
In the United States, the alignment of young people with a more thoughtful approach to politics is even clearer. Trump celebrates the irrational loyalty of his supporters — remember his boast about being able to shoot someone in broad daylight without losing a vote? He positively delights in the visceral, unthinking nature of his appeal ("I love the poorly educated!"). He creates policy on the fly and makes the confectionary promises of a department-store Santa.
And it's young people who have seen through his well-worn shtick: In one poll of voters under 30, only 25 percent supported Trump; another of voters under 35 found support at just 19 percent. Perhaps they are simply closer to the age when they first learned to distinguish fantasy from reality — it's a skill set still sharp from frequent use. Perhaps they are less susceptible to the tarnished glamor of reality television — their celebrities have elbowed their way into fame via comparatively merit-based (well, sort of) social media.
Spare me your Bernie Sanders counter-proofs — the idea that the youth of Sanders's supporters proves the dominance of "heart" over "head." You may think of Sanders's talk of free college and national health care as the same kind of carny barker come-on as Trump's big, beautiful wall, but the Sanders policies that appealed to young people had the advantage of being, you know, potentially beneficial to young people. On the other hand, Trump's fanciful improvisations often aren't just improbable but, even if they could be enacted, demonstrably harmful to the demographic he's courting; high tariffs and mass deportation hurt the working class more than the rich.
I don't think that young people are always right on policy issues. Polls suggest they take their individual privacy a little less seriously than I'd like; there's some evidence that they have weaker support for women's reproductive choice than the generation before them. Having once been a young person myself, I sure wouldn't turn over the machinery of government entirely to them. I am certainly not letting them pick the radio station.
Gen Xers like me dump on millennials a lot. They've got their quirks! Still, constant selfies and a mild but pervasive sense of entitlement are nothing compared to the damage done by their elders. They have never supported illegal foreign adventures nor destroyed an economy with preposterous house-of-cards lending schemes. Their self-awareness has bred caution, and their sense of connection to the world has bred empathy. They have heads and hearts. We elders could learn a thing or two.