The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders…So it was that Socrates complained about the youth of his era. It’s a commonplace reaction to the younger generation that seems to echo throughout history. As a Baby Boomer I clearly remember how my generation was regarded as hippies, ungrateful and spoiled brats. The fact of the matter is that history is replete with examples of the older generation blaming youth for many of society’s problems.
It’s nothing new to hear that young folk are “know it alls” who have yet to experience life enough to form a valid opinion about how things should be. Older folk boast about the good old days when we walked five miles uphill in snow to get to school. They seem to forget the days when they too were approaching adulthood with risky behaviors and lots of experimentation. In fact, few people in the United States realize how very young many of our Founding Fathers actually were. James Monroe was only eighteen when he joined the revolutionary cause. Aaron Burr, Nathan Hale and Alexander Hamilton were only twenty-one. James Madison was twenty-five. Fighting for independence was in reality a young man’s cause. So many of those with major influence on our Constitution make today’s icon of youthful political thought, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, appear to be an older woman.
The hue and cry about the younger generation is as vocal these days as ever. I hear people constantly voicing concerns about their work ethic, their lack of critical thinking skills and their propensity for addiction to video games, social media and drugs. While there are some youth who very much struggle to demonstrate maturity or at least an attempt to grow wise, the truth is that they are the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of teens and young people in their twenties and thirties are not only hardworking but they are also filled with the kind of wonderful ideas that transform the world for the better. They earnestly look at life with vision and optimism that sometimes has been beaten down in older people who grow weary and simply want to return to times that are more familiar to them. The young see possibilities and are willing to try new ideas and ways of thinking while their more conservative elders sometimes cynically insist there is no hope unless we return to days gone by.
Perhaps the best approach is to trust one another without the constant tension between old and new that permeates history. Our young are actually working quite hard to be prepared for their future. As someone who has spent a lifetime in education I am acutely aware of how advanced the process of learning has become. Today’s students are tackling topics in high school that were once reserved for college. The negative tropes about our schools and the students inside of them are very wrong because we only hear about the minority of bad situations rather than the day to day incredible work that is happening all across America.
Young men like David Hogg, who became a political spokesperson after the shooting, at Parkland High School in Florida, are reminiscent of those impulsive youngsters of 1776 who were willing to literally risk their lives to create a new nation free from the constraints of a tyrannical king. They were no doubt roundly criticized by the one third of the colonial population that had no desire to revolt and the other third that remained silent out of fear. They were a minority that was not always appreciated by the more mature folk who preferred the imperfect status quo to political experiments.
I suppose that there will always be a tension between the young and the old, the risk takers and the conservatives. It is the way we humans tend to be. I suspect that we become more cautious as we age because we no longer have the emotional or physical energy to keep changing. We become set in our routines and when we see our young agitating for new ways of living we become uncomfortable. We begin to look backward instead of forward because the past is more familiarly comfortable than the uncertainty of the future. We fall into outmoded regimens even as we sense that there probably is a better way of doing things. We just don’t want to try those things anymore.
Most of the great inventions have come from young men and women. Many of the finest works of art and thought are the products of young minds. They challenge the status quo and ask us to consider that there may be better ways of doing things. Much of the world in which we now live is the product of ideas that came from young people who envisioned hope and change. Those kinds of things should not be so frightening to those of us who have settled into the comfort of our later years. We would do well to respect our young people the same way we ask them to respect us.
I actually have the highest regard for young people today. I do not see them in the negative way in which they are all too often depicted. Most of them are working hard in an uncertain world that may leave them with a future riddled with problems. They are already considering solutions and appealing to their elders to help them make the changes we need to survive. Instead of wasting air space with complaints about how they do not measure up to the way we imagine ourselves to have once been, maybe it’s time to actually consider that they are our hope for a future that they are more than willing to tackle no matter how difficult it may be. Let’s trust them for a change.