Youth and Age

The young, God bless ’em, are all my heart’s delight. As a teacher, I cannot help but be smitten by the energy, enthusiasm, and self-confidence–the youthfulness–with which they typically go about their bid’nis. A goodly number of them are even decent human beings. But the young are also ignorant, muddle-headed, and arrogant–the unmentionable qualities that make up youth’s inalienable shadow–, and in some cases, downright hypocritical.

I know, I know: I generalize. And as the young have taught us since the sixties, generalization is the arch-sin. But in so doing I am only following youth’s lead (did I mention hypocrisy?); for who but the young could dismiss an entire generation as corrupt, not to say an entire civilization? It was the young, remember, who indicted everyone over the age of thirty as untrustworthy; and in the more Narcissistic cells of youth-worship, it was principally the young who carried the rifles with which the enemies of the State were dispatched in the re-education camps and killing fields of the twentieth century–for the crime of being old enough to remember the way things were before the Revolution. God save us from such youthful enthusiasm and idealism.

Socrates tells us that a man’s character is defined by what he loves. I think what he hates is more instructive. What in particular do the young despise today? Maybe not age per se, as in the killing fields of Cambodia or the lyrics of Dylan, but certainly the retrograde values that the “older generation” has always been demeaned (stereotypically) for upholding: tradition, authority, conformity, crass commercialism, cut-throat capitalism.

Let us take the last two. Though, as an ancient, I plead guilty to supporting the global market, it might be surprising for its youthful enemies to learn that I abominate almost all of its products. When the youth of Paris take to the streets in protest against MacDonald’s as a symbol of American corporate imperialism and a threat to regional cuisine, I generally pop the cork of my finest Eparnay, and begin to sing the Marseillaise. Allons enfants, indeed; the engineered swill that MacDonald’s serves up to the billions is an insult to the good name of food. But a recent in-house corporate survey reveals that upwards of 70% of MacDonald’s sales are to those under thirty. Who, then, is sustaining the American corporatist agenda?

What, in a word, would the multinationals do without the youth market? They’d fold, that’s what. A very significant segment of global capitalism is sustained almost exclusively by the young, who consume, and often get very rich from the sale of, its dubious products. In the global apparel industry, the biggest sellers by far are the jeans, “tees”, and “trainers” to which the young are sartorially addicted, and which are responsible simultaneously for the proliferation of third-world sweat shops and the uglification of the planet. It need hardly be pointed out that the ubiquity and obligatory nature of the younger generation’s uniform puts them in no position to deride the “conformity” of global capitalism and corporate culture. (There’s also something poignantly paradoxical about the jeans and athletic shoes worn through all times and weathers by a generation that seems the least inclined in history to construction work or physical exercise.)