When You’re 60 You Realize No One Was Ever Thinking About You

Winston Churchill? Will Rogers? Jock Falkson? Ann Landers? Ewan McGregor? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One’s sensitivity to the opinions of others often changes as one matures. The following statement has been attributed to statesman Winston Churchill:

When you’re 20 you care what everyone thinks, when you’re 40 you stop caring what everyone thinks, when you’re 60 you realize no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.

I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for the attribution to Winston Churchill. Historian and Churchill quotation expert Richard M. Langworth signaled his skepticism when he included the statement in an article titled “All the ‘Quotes’ Winston Churchill Never Said”. 1

QI believes that the saying evolved over time, and famous humorist Will Rogers popularized an intriguing tripartite variant in the 1930s. See further below.

A thematic precursor was written by prominent lexicographer Samuel Johnson in 1751 who noted that most people were preoccupied with their own affairs. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

But the truth is, that no man is much regarded by the rest of the world, except where the interest of others is involved in his fortune. The common employments or pleasures of life, love or opposition, loss or gain, keep almost every mind in perpetual agitation. If any man would consider how little he dwells upon the condition of others, he would learn how little the attention of others is attracted by himself.

In August 1934 “The Minneapolis Star” of Minnesota printed an anonymous three-part saying based on the ages of 20, 30, and 40 instead of 20, 40, and 60. The attitudes expressed in the first two parts were flipped with respect to the target quotation. The attitude specified in the third part matched the target: 3

At 20 we don’t care what the world thinks of us; at 30 we worry about what it thinks of us; at 40 we discover it doesn’t think of us.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1935 Will Rogers starred in a film titled “Life Begins at 40”. His character, Kenesaw H. Clark, was the publisher and top columnist of a small-town newspaper. During one scene a worker at the paper read a few sentences from a column by Clark/Rogers to a group which exhibited a hearty approval. QI conjectures that the words were penned by Rogers and not the scriptwriters of the film: 4

At 20, we don’t care what the world thinks of us.
At 30, we worry about what it thinks of us.
At 40, we’re sure it doesn’t think of us.

The saying above was very similar to the statement published in 1935, and QI believes Will Rogers was responsible for both. The line from the script may have leaked before the film was completed and exhibited.

In March 1935 The Bee of Danville, Virginia printed the line and credited Rogers: 5

“Life Begins At Forty.”
Quoting Will Rogers: . . .

“At twenty we don’t care what the world thinks of us. . . at thirty we worry about what it thinks of us. . . at forty we’re sure it doesn’t think of us.”

In April 1935 “The Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light” of Corsicana, Texas stated that Will Rogers delivered the line during the movie although it was actually spoken by another actor who was reading a newspaper column written by the character played by Rogers. 6

In 1968 Evan Esar included an instance without attribution in “20,000 Quips and Quotes”: 7

At 20 we don’t care what the world thinks of us; at 30 we wonder what it thinks of us; at 40 we discover it doesn’t think of us at all.

In 1970 the “Mexico Ledger” of Mexico, Missouri printed a modified instance. The years were changed to 20, 40, and 60: 8

Today’s Smile —
At age 20 we don’t care what the world thinks of us; at 40 we worry what it is thinking of us; at 60 we discover that it wasn’t thinking of us at all. — (K & M)

In 1974 “The Rotarian” printed an instance without ascription while acknowledging a local publication. This version also used 20, 40, and 60: 9

At 20 we don’t care what the world thinks of us: at 40 we worry about what it is thinking of us; and at 60 we discover that it wasn’t thinking of us at all.
— The Wyoming
Rotary Wheel
Wyoming,
Pennsylvania

In 1985 a newspaper in Pittsfield, Massachusetts printed an instance that flipped the attitudes expressed in the first two elements of the saying. This matched the modern version of the saying: 10

At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking about us at all.
— Jock Falkson, quoted in
Frontline (South Africa)

In 1992 the widely-syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers shared the saying with her readers without attribution: 11

Gem of the Day: At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At 60, we discover that they haven’t been thinking of us at all.

In 2004 the book “Getting Your Child from No To Yes: Without Nagging, Bribing, or Threatening” referred to modern saying as the “20-40-60 Rule”: 12

When you catch yourself worrying about what others think of you, remember the Twenty-Forty-Sixty Rule: At age twenty, you worry about what others think about you; at forty, you don’t care what others think about you; and at sixty, you realize that nobody was thinking about you in the first place.

In 2008 “Why Did He Dump Me? Or Broken Heart 911” included the saying: 13

Just remember the 20/40/60 rule:

When you are 20, you care about what everybody thinks of you.
When you are 40, you don’t care about what people think of you,
and when you are 60, you actually understand that people were too busy thinking about themselves.

In 2009 a variant was credited to popular Scottish actor Ewan McGregor: 14

“In your 20s, you spend a lot of time being self-conscious about what other people think of you. Then you hit your mid-30s and start to realize they weren’t really thinking about you that much.”
— Ewan McGregor, in the June issue of Men’s Health

In conclusion, Will Rogers popularized the statement attributed to him in the 1935 movie. QI believes that he also created it. Over time the statement was replicated and modified. The year sequence was changed from 20, 30, 40 to 20, 40, 60. Also, the viewpoint presented in the first two parts was swapped. These changes generated the modern version. Thus, the modern saying does not have a single author.

The attribution of this saying to Churchill may have been facilitated by another apocryphal attribution. QI examined the following saying about attitudinal changes occurring as one becomes older: If You Are Not a Liberal at 25, You Have No Heart. If You Are Not a Conservative at 35 You Have No Brain.

A saying with a similar theme was constructed by Olin Miller. QI presented an exploration here: You’ll Worry Less About What People Think of You When You Realize How Seldom They Do.

Image Notes: Illustration showing wreaths commemorating various anniversary dates from alex80 at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, cropped, and resized.

(Great thanks to Joe McCarthy whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to researchers at Snopes and Politifact who expressed skepticism. Snopes noted that anonymous instances were circulating by 2008.)

Notes:

  1. Website: Richard M. Langworth, Title: All the “Quotes” Winston Churchill Never Said (1), Date on website: November 8, 2018, Sub-section: Caring What Others Think. (Accessed May 31, 2019) link
  2. 1752, The Rambler, Issue date: 1751 September 24, Number 159, (Essay by Samuel Johnson), Quote Page 6, Printed by Sands, Murray, and Cochran, Edinburgh. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1934 August 6, The Minneapolis Star, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 1, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  4. Film Title: Life Begins at 40, Year: 1935, Director: George Marshall, Book: Walter B. Pitkin, Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, Additional Dialogue: Robert Quillen, Screenplay Construction: William M. Conselman, Screenplay Construction: Dudley Nichols, (Quotation starts at 7 minute 45 seconds; a character is reading from a newspaper column written by the character Kenesaw H. Clark who is played by Will Rogers) (Verified quotation with DVD on May 24, 2019)
  5. 1935 March 20, The Bee, Scoop’s Colyum, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Danville, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1935 April 12, The Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light, Life Begins At 40 Coming to Palace, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Corsicana, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Public Opinion, Quote Page 646, Column 2, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1970 September 15, Mexico Ledger, Today’s Smile, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Mexico, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1974 October, The Rotarian, Stripped Gears, Quote Page 56, Column 1, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1985 March 20, The Berkshire Eagle, Quotes (Filler item), Quote Page 9, Column 4, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1992 March 5, The Clarion-Ledger, Smoking causes marriage rift by Ann Landers (Creators Syndicate), Quote Page 3D, Column 2, Jackson, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 2004, Getting Your Child from No To Yes: Without Nagging, Bribing, or Threatening by Jerry Wyckoff and Barbara C. Unell, Chapter 13: “No! I Wanna Wear My Dirty Clothes!”, Quote Page 47, Meadowbrook Press, Minnetonka, Minnesota; Distributed by Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  13. 2008, Why Did He Dump Me? Or Broken Heart 911 by Erica Nevis, Quote Page 74, iUniverse, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Google Books Preview)
  14. 2009 May 24, Sun Sentinel, Quote…Unquote compiled by Phoebe Flowers, Quote Page 4A, Column 5, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Newspapers_com)