Young Adults on Social Issues: Headed for a Shift?

With pundits now pinning their hopes and analyses on the apparent generational shift in attitudes on social issues like same-sex unions, the question has to be asked: Were you wise enough to run the world when you were 25?

Neither was I. I may be something of a lifelong square, but it would have been a bad idea for a political party to poll me on my opinions at that age and align the party's positions with the results. I was wiser at 35, but I suspect many readers have learned, as I have, that you still have a lot of learning ahead of you even at 40—an age that at one time seemed like the precipice of death.

Having passed that milestone, I can truly understand now how an 80-year-old can look back on being 70 and realize that he was less wise, less polished, more urgent, and even more foolish then. People who are 25 today will almost certainly have different attitudes about a number of things when they are 40 or 65. Marriage, children, responsible employment; mortgages, debt, sorrow, heartache, sheer length of experience: the passages of life deepen our perceptions and improve our understanding.

Like many people, I have found this to be a profound factor in my life. It's not a thin, insignificant thing. Let me give an example. In our 20s, we may have reason to recognize, possibly for the first time, that the "justice system" we live by is imperfect, and usually inadequate to redress pain and loss. It can punish criminals, and perhaps deter them, but it cannot restore or requite. We see that criminal trials produce a limited and flawed form of "justice," and lawsuits a pathetic one. The justice system cannot give us back our dead. It can't restore our limbs, our relationships, our mementos, or our sense of safety.

In our 20s, we may regard this with anger or cynicism, hyper-alert to the shortcomings of our fellow men and burning with the sense that there must be a better way. A decade later, having learned a great deal about ourselves, we understand that imperfection is endemic to the human race. Because we have people we love and responsibilities that fulfill us, we begin to forgive the world for falling short of our expectations.

We begin to understand, moreover, that the people around us are mostly doing the best they can, much as we are. We appreciate, as we did not when we were younger, the overriding importance of character and the inherent limitations of "systems." We come to see that it isn't a good idea to try to use the law to "fix" the people around us, and in any case, it doesn't work. We start to appreciate the wisdom of a law that doesn't preordain outcomes but guarantees us a jury of our peers—because a system written by the hand of politics would not necessarily do right by us, but our peers probably will.

The older we get, meanwhile, the more we realize that our elders had lives full of revelation, discovery, and reflection. They started out untried and learned over time, just as we have. On reaching the age they were back when we supposed them to be stupid and hidebound, we now understand that they were skeptical of our ideas for radically renovating society because they knew more than we did. They knew the cost and the value of all we have, both as a society and as individuals. Only when we reach the age of having paid the same cost ourselves do we gain a sense of that reckoning.

Once we have paid the cost, we will never again see "justice" as a matter of arranging abstractly perfect outcomes or imposing solutions on others. Our respect for others deepens because of our own experience; we cease seeing the others as clay in need of a good molding. We also grow in confidence about the wisdom we have gained, losing our worry about what others might think, while at the same time experiencing a sort of inner expansion and an increased ability to tolerate their dissent without feeling beset by it. It comes home to us how very precious freedom of thought is, and how important it is that our philosophy of law and government be respectful of it.

In the end, young people grow older, as we have. This makes it shortsighted for commentators to proclaim, for example, that the U.S. Republican Party will be obligated to align its platform with the opinions of today's 18- to 29-year-olds. Many of those young adults' opinions will become more socially conservative with time, but that may not be the most profound change they will experience. What they will realize is that law itself is incompetent to impose "just" attitudes and outcomes on us: that law exists to protect the people, not to afflict, refine, or shape us.

We are not equipped to stand in that relation to each other, and it's a benefit of age to recognize that we don't need to—and that when we try to, we make a mess. It remains to be seen what precise opinions today's young adults will hold, in about twenty years, on the social issues in our current headlines. But the issues themselves are only part of the story. How these young adults see the role of law and government is equally important, perhaps even more so. They will have plenty of opportunity to develop skepticism about the efficacy of government—and about whether there is a need for it to harangue and instruct the people on social issues. On that topic, the sentiments of young adults are likely to shift.