This weekend we’ve been celebrating my youngest son’s eighteenth birthday, which has caused me to muse on how we perceive young people.
Society at large seldom seems to have anything positive to say about youth and the whine that begins “young people these days…” never seems to get old. It’s not easy being young. When I was young I didn’t have to take on debt in order to get an education or worry about finding work. My ex-husband and I got a mortgage aged 24 and 21 on the strength of him having an interview for a job arranged and I paid for my PhD with ease – even taking inflation into account, the few hundred pounds fees were much more affordable than the fees my older son is about to embark on. In the area where I live it’s particularly hard for young people to find work or afford housing. Those who want to stay in education beyond the age of 16 also have to be incredibly dedicated – my daughter had to travel over four hours a day to the ‘nearest’ tertiary education college, getting up a 6am to get to the bus and not home till 6pm with a mountain of homework after her twelve hour day. Life is not easy for lots of people in a recession and there are certainly examples of privileged young people to counter my argument, but the young people I know are making their way in the world with grace and optimism often against unpromising odds. We don’t make it easy on them, as Suzanne Moore argues in her opinion piece provocatively starting “Youth are rubbish…”:
Margaret Atwood puts it even more pithily:
I’ve never understood why people consider youth a time of freedom and joy. It’s probably because they have forgotten their own.
The youth of today don’t just have to think about how to afford education and housing, how to find employment, but also how to ensure ecological sustainability, how to forge communities that will endure. And the young people I know care about these things. When Todd Swift was editing the anthology Lung Jazz in aid of Oxfam he had no shortage of incredibly talented young poets queuing to donate work and willing to organise and participate in readings to raise funds.
This weekend I’ve had conversations about the health service, romanticism in documentary photography, historical revisionism and the ethics of portraying graphic war scenes in film. These young people, like any young people, don’t know it all, but then neither do older people. We all keep learning by our mistakes and need to hold knowledge tentatively and with some humility – as Zora Neale Hurston puts it in Dust Tracks on a Road:
Grown people know that they do not always know the way of things, and even if they think they know, they do not know where and how they got the proof.
The truth is that age is a fraudulent thing. We accumulate experience as we age, but it isn’t always useful experience and we often learn as much from the blind alleys as from anything resembling ‘wisdom’. We accumulate knowledge, but don’t necessarily become more rational or creative in our thinking. The truth is that we’re all in this together, whatever our age and need to stop deciding who we take seriously on the basis of how many years they happen to have clocked up. The last word to Milan Kundera:
There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.