I spent the past few days at a gathering at which the shortcomings of young people was a frequent topic of conversation.
Or if not a topic of conversation, an aside. An easy joke.
A tour guide pointed out a painting of a figure from classical mythology holding a book. “Kids think she’s got an iPad.” Everyone laughed.
A librarian displays a beautifully handwritten letter and everyone laments the way kids today can’t read cursive script anymore because they aren’t taught it, nor are they able to write letters.
Young people also often stare at their phones at the dinner table. They seek out confirmation of what they already know instead of new information. They don’t read newspapers. And they don’t value the past.
Of course one could refute such nonsense point-by-point. I tended to change the subject, as this was an Official Outing at which I could not ask people outright to stop being the way they are. I could go chapter and verse on why people read and write more now than they have in a century, or ask if Gilgamesh bitched this much when kids abandoned cuneiform. But that’s beside the point.
The point is: Young people aren’t the problem.
It’s not “young people” voting for divisive, uncivil, crass politicians.
It’s not “young people” crowding onto Facebook to share poorly sourced screeds about Michelle Obama putting crack pipes on the White House Holiday Tree.
It’s not “young people” scolding activists and hating on protesters and resurrecting the least fashion-forward of the Nazi trappings with “America First” and concentration camps for migrant refugee kids.
Young people aren’t watching Fox. Young people aren’t watching cable news 24-7 nor demanding their podiatrist and gastroenterologist put it on in the waiting room for everyone to suffer through.
Young people aren’t segregating schools or closing mental health clinics or demanding tax cuts for the uber-wealthy at the expense of public parks. Yes, they’re taking selfies in superblooms and trampling on plants but twas ever thus.
The complaints of totebaggers about the world being difficult and contentious and loud and rude are just that. They aren’t the failings of America’s youth. They’re not the result of smartphones or a lack of media literacy or Common Core Math or not reading cursive or “divisive politics” or anything else we’ve convinced ourselves is the problem.
They’re the faults and failings of nice stable middle class people who are absolutely refusing to admit that they are old and not cool anymore and maybe never were. Not long after Trump’s election someone described this era as the Going Out of Business sale for the Baby Boom and while I don’t disagree, it’s more than that.
This country’s midcentury honkies never fully reckoned with their whiteness and they never fully reckoned with their aging and they’re being forced to do both now and it’s just as ugly and violent as any other reckoning through which America has had to go.
They’re reckoning with gender, too, or rather throwing temper tantrums about pronouns as if it’s some kind of new onerous burden to call people that which they’d like to be called.
All these things — whiteness, age, gender — are things they didn’t think about for five or six decades. They did what everyone does: They lived their lives and expected that to be important someday and it isn’t. They did everything right, and things still suck.
They — we, I am past 40 now and I see shit like this from people my own age as well as my “elders” — are just old, and white, and cisgender, and straight, and not all that smart, and some of us having made money through sheer dumb luck doesn’t make us better or geniuses, and the only thing wrong with any of that is defending it like it’s under attack by the existence of people who are not any of those things.
The only thing wrong with the reckoning is the horrible things we’re doing to avoid having it happen. Being old doesn’t make you old. I have friends from the Greatest Generation who get up every day absolutely fucking stoked to have outlived all the great bastards of their time, and they seem eons younger to me than people I went to school with crabbing about not knowing the names of artists on the VMAs. Being uninterested in the world makes you old, that’s all that makes you old. Google some shit, stop talking about how you don’t watch TV, and quit acting like liking bacon is a personality.
Being unwilling to ask questions makes you old. Not just questions about “what’s Zendaya all about” but questions about your own stuff. What if my music sucks? What if my books suck? What if my clothes were stupid? What if the things I fought for don’t in fact live forever? What if the fight I told myself for years is won isn’t over?
What if I don’t get a parade the way I thought I would? What if nobody’s grateful? What if nobody even remembers? These are terrifying things to think about so for years people just, like, didn’t. Believe me, I know how scary these thoughts are. I have them every day. Writing a book or two about how Bush sucked shit was something I used to think was a powerful statement, dear God.
What if I am just, after all, a person who did some stuff and maybe I wasn’t all that great at it? Maybe I didn’t try as hard as I could have. Maybe I failed. Maybe I convinced myself it’s too late to try again. People will do ANYTHING to avoid that question. To avoid that feeling you occasionally get where you realize you’re looking out of your own head, you know?
But we’ve got to stop making this all somebody else’s problem. Language is fluid and the world is ever-ending and people are inventing new ways to read and write CONSTANTLY and maybe Miley Cyrus isn’t our thing but luckily we’re not contractually obligated to bring her up. We are as much citizens as we’ve ever been, and the only thing that ages us is hating the young.