Should the Old Obey the Young?

Cenotaph Charlie Gilmour

In debate on a variety of issues from LGBT rights through to UK membership of the European Union the final decisive argument is often that “the overwhelming majority of young people support it.” There are a couple of assumptions in this which bear further examination. Firstly, that youth possesses a level of wisdom and insight denied to those who have merely lived longer than them. Secondly that what they support now represents the future of society as they age and replace the cohort before them. That is, young people are wise now and rigid and unchanging going forward which seems an unlikely combination. It also, incidentally, presumes that their own children will be docile and obedient to them in ways which they themselves are not to their own parents and grandparents.

Many, if not all, the commentators who advance this “listen to the young” argument share a third premise, that of the inevitability of progress. They believe that not only does civilization add to its store of knowledge and productive capacity but that it grows ‘better’ ethically and becomes more free as an unavoidable consequence of this growth. Since today’s young people mostly subscribe to ‘progressive’ values then these commentators support them, not because they are young but simply because they agree with them. That this recourse to the “listen to the young” slogan is purely opportunistic can be seen clearly in the fact that they do not apply it to the youth of, say, Nigeria or China because they do not subscribe to the politically acceptable set of values. I do not have space to expand on the point here but to be clear I think that the notion of progress is nonsense on stilts.

Returning to my main theme. Older people possess one thing necessarily unavailable to the young, that is, long experience. Traditionally this has been seen as giving them an edge in acquiring wisdom and thus being able to form sound judgements on complex issues. If that no longer applies then it can only be because young people have access to a source of wisdom, denied to older people, which enables them to form better considered judgements than their elders. The one word used in this context is ‘connectivity.’ Through the use of technology people can communicate swiftly and directly to each other and can research information and ideas rapidly. Although this is not age-specific technology clearly those who have grown up with it (because their elders invented it for them and/or purchased it for them when they were children) are more adept at its use. Through it they can sweep aside age old prejudices and discover that we are all alike, a mystery hidden to those who subscribe to the ancient belief systems (which each proclaim that we are all alike) and old fashioned ways of doing things.

The strength of this argument lies in the potential of the internet. We can use it to explore new ways of thinking and to learn new things. We do have virtually instant access to a store of knowledge that used to be far more difficult to acquire, though not impossible if we were patient enough. Potential is not actual though. Do young people for the most part really use the net in this way? The ‘echo-chamber’ effect of social media is much talked about. The tendency of each person to use technology to reinforce what they already feel and believe. For example after the UK referendum on Europe one young woman reported shock because she had thousands of friends on Facebook and only three of them were in favour of the Leave campaign which actually won. This may be an extreme example of selecting in the like-minded and selecting out the challenging but it is not uncommon to a lesser degree. If we inhabit a small village we have to get to know people we don’t like and don’t agree with. If we inhabit the whole world we can ignore the different and choose to associate only with the similar.

I would argue that contemporary young people get their ideas about right and wrong, good and bad from the same sources they always have, that is their teachers and their role models. Social media can then play a policing role in that anyone who expresses doubts about the received consensus can expect to receive abuse rather than argument and runs the risk of being unfriended, blocked or otherwise sanctioned unless they keep their doubts to themselves. Because most parents are working much of the time a large part of child and young adult development is now in the hands of State functionaries. Teaching has long been known as a liberal profession and that certainly applies in more than one meaning of the word liberal. Today’s young people overwhelming subscribe to the same set of ideas that their quondam teachers and current lecturers subscribe to and that is no coincidence. It is certainly the case that some people form their philosophies of life through a considered process of ratiocination after careful research and reflection but it would be absurd to suppose that this applies to the vast majority of teenagers and twenty-somethings who are also busily discovering hormones, sex, drugs and partying as well as the challenges of new studies or new jobs. For the most part they are followers not leaders in the world of ideas.

We have no reason though to assume that these ideas are a fixed and unchanging set of data. Experience will become the property of today’s young people as the decades roll by and this will affect the way they view the world and the judgements which they make about it. Most of the British youth of 1975 voted in favour of what is now the European Union, in 2016 many of these same people cast their votes to leave it. People change, life changes them. It always has and it always will. The belief that because young adults now favour the worldview of their teachers and the liberal Left then they will always do so rests on the assumption that they will discover that these ideas are consonant with the real life experiences which they shall have going forward. Obviously the liberal Left think that that will be so but they may well be wrong, they often are. Only time will tell. And time is the one thing most young people have a lot off in front of them.


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The picture shows a young protester swinging from a memorial for the war dead in London




  1. Not so sure that they really believe in progress, though. Perhaps more they believe in novelty, in the old sense, new things, whether they might be bad or good (and usually end up bad). Wasn’t it Locke that stated that government is a bond between those that went before, those here now, and those yet to come?

    Strangely, I don’t know an aware American that didn’t support Brexit, and I know only a very few Brits who did. But the American view is almost entirely based on sovereignty, we know, better than most, that Britain can hold its own in any competition.


    1. In this context Brexit is novelty and Remain is more of the same. The pitch to younger voters was that some sort of Iron Curtain would go up between Britain and Europe thus disrupting their real world connectivity. More than that Brexit was associated with social conservatism and Remain with liberalism so that it was sold as progressive to vote in and regressive to vote out.

      Opinion polls, for whatever they might be worth, show that democracy and sovereignty was the top issue for most Leave voters but as this doesn’t fit the narrative it is ignored. Instead we are talking about migration and racism because it’s much easier to virtue signal on these issues than it is to argue that the EU is more democratic than self government.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. What sovereignty was/is regained? Specifically? And with that list, how will it be adjusted once the UK, or perhaps just England now, tries to renegotiate trade, or other, policies with the EU? For that matter, why does England not leave NATO? It requires reaction to military action, which is a sovereignty issue. The sad fact is that sovereignty is something of a myth, we live in a world where we create alliances, treaties, unions, and negotiations that will put nations into obligations. This is just life, but who would oppose this?

        Truthfully, the sovereignty issue is largely a canard, particularly with regards to the voters in question. All that is regained is subject to negotiation with any future relationships/trade deals. The international trade regime is such that participants agree to the rules of engagement, or they segregate themselves into obscurity. But the Leave voters were not those inclined to this sort of issue.

        The reason is because it is not just youth…

        The Remain vote included the educated, the young, those with passports (the internationally inclined), those with higher income, professionals.

        All those who are inherently tied to the international world voted to stay in that world, which is particularly important in a geographically close knit location like Europe, and this includes the young. Someone who is not well traveled, who lacks higher education, who is not the member of a professional community that deals with international issues, and who do not make significant income would certainly not vote to stay, since their lives largely remain insulated from this world… At least they may think so and have been told so, but it is a fraud. The free flow of capital, labor, goods, services, and everything in between, is what allows growth. Oddly enough, this has been Conservative economic thought for a century plus, but modern “Conservatives” (many of who are poorly educated, insulated, less traveled, non-profesional, etc…) have abandoned it, in no small part because modern “Conservatives” are not actually Conservative. Open economies make better economies. It is what actually improves the lives of those who are less educated, insulated, lower income, etc…

        Having traveled in Europe, it is not that youth is wasted on the young. There is wisdom in age, but there is innovation in youth. How many of the older generation were innovators of the internet economy? How many understand the complexities of being a world citizen, compared to those who have rarely left a small local area?

        How many American supporters of Leave are themselves, the lower educated, blue-collar, poorly traveled, non-business oriented? Likely most. But this is not necessarily an unexpected response, as the experiences that shape a person require them to leave the comfortable confines of the small pond to venture into the world and have the experiences that can break down paradigms and preconceptions.


      2. I do not think you addressed it. What sovereignty is regained that will not then be bargained away when renegotiating the new trade deals? Specifically?

        And the economic situation is certainly one that the young need, this is where the world is and where it is going. The less professional, older generation do not have the same employment needs, and as such they can be flippant about the opportunities they are choking off to the younger generation. Migration is a two way street, and I know many young Britons working abroad.


      3. I am sorry, but I do not see where you addressed this at all. You seem to oppose “creeping bureaucratisation and rule by elite which proceeds from the European Union” but nowhere do you seem to deal with the reality that once “Leave” is implemented, the “creeping bureaucratisation and rule by elite” will hardly change. The only difference is that now England lacks representation that could influence the EU. Again, this was well known and advocated in the Remain campaign, but…


    2. What sovereignty was/is regained? Specifically? And with that list, how will it be adjusted once the UK, or perhaps just England now, tries to renegotiate trade, or other, policies with the EU?


  2. When I have ceased to break my wings
    Against the faultiness of things,
    And learned that compromises wait
    Behind each hardly opened gate,
    When I have looked Life in the eyes,
    Grown calm and very coldly wise,
    Life will have given me the Truth,
    And taken in exchange my youth.

    Sarah Teasdale

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
      and builded parapets and trenches there,
      And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
      When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
      Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
      Neither do anything to him. Behold,
      A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
      Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

      But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
      And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
      Wilfred Owen

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Off topic here–thoughtfullydetached, I think there is something wrong with my computer and I saw another blog you had where you were writing about St Catherine of Sienna there. I tried to comment but my computer was having difficulties with the whole “I’m not a robot” thing. This is what the comment said any way–
    I just finished reading the Dialogue this week by St Catherine of Sienna. Loved her work though of course must take with caution–Jesus also tells us we must be certain to love the neighbor as the self–we have to love ourselves properly and truly to love the neighbor.

    I struggle with depression a lot and so I’ve got the one down to loathe myself and find myself disgusting. The problem is, I struggle with loving myself as well. As such, I stumble into agitation with myself and that can lead to the dangers of despair.
    –Sincere apologies to post it here but couldn’t figure out where else to post it.


    1. Hi, you’re replying to this It may not be your computer Google blogs is a bit unpredictable on comments I sometimes struggle myself to comment on my own blog.

      So far as depression goes not every problem has a solution. Sometimes our wounds never heal and we just have to find ways to live with them. Faith isn’t a magic pill but it gives us an extra dimension of support that may make the difference between despair and the faintest, tiniest, weakest glimmer of hope.

      Liked by 1 person

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