Complaining About Young People Is Nothing New

We are young in 2012. We are told on a regular basis that we are degenerate creatures who waste our time with frivolities like the Internet, hyper-realistic X-Box games, and mysterious designer intoxicants.

The world is descending ever more rapidly into hell, and it is at least partially our fault. How are we, as young people, expected to respond? There is no way to repudiate being young—and so many of us conclude that we will work hard and do the best we can, and ignore the various horrible things our elders say about us. (Chief among those horrible things is the claim that we are not working).

As it turns out, young John F. Carter in the Atlantic has already written an eloquent and thought-provoking essay on being young in a time of social and economic confusion – and he did it in 1920. 

How many of us have made the same observations about the ruin of the world that’s been passed down to us as Mr Carter did in 1920?

“In the first place, I would like to observe that the older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us. They give us this Thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up; and then they are surprised that we don’t accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it, ‘way back in the eighteen-nineties, nicely painted, smoothly running, practically fool-proof. “So simple that a child can run it!”

But the child couldn’t steer it. He hit every possible telegraph-pole, some of them twice, and ended with a head-on collision for which we shall have to pay the fines and damages. Now, with loving pride, they turn over their wreck to us; and, since we are not properly overwhelmed with loving gratitude, shake their heads and sigh, “Dear! dear! We were so much better-mannered than these wild young people. But then we had the advantages of a good, strict, old-fashioned bringing-up!”

How intensely human these oldsters are, after all, and how fallible! How they always blame us for not following precisely in their eminently correct footsteps!”

And how have we responded to this somewhat dubious gift of a “leaky, red-hot” world?

“Now my generation is disillusionized, and, I think, to a certain extent, brutalized, by the cataclysm which their complacent folly engendered. The acceleration of life for us has been so great that into the last few years have been crowded the experiences and the ideas of a normal lifetime. We have in our unregenerate youth learned the practicality and the cynicism that is safe only in unregenerate old age…. 

World War I, the financial crisis. Hand-wringing about youth’s new-found caution circa 2012.

We have been forced to become realists overnight, instead of idealists, as was our birthright. We have seen man at his lowest, woman at her lightest, in the terrible moral chaos of Europe. We have been forced to question, and in many cases to discard, the religion of our fathers. We have seen hideous peculation, greed, anger, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, unmasked and rampant and unashamed. 

“Forced to become realists overnight” – we all remember 2009.

We have been forced to live in an atmosphere of “to-morrow we die,” and so, naturally, we drank and were merry. We have seen the rottenness and shortcomings of all governments, even the best and most stable. We have seen entire social systems overthrown, and our own called in question. In short, we have seen the inherent beastliness of the human race revealed in an infernal apocalypse.”

“These Wild Young People – By One Of Them” is a lovely work. Its age would probably go unnoticed if someone happened to post it on a Tumblr without attribution. Our angst is not a new angst, and the complaints our elders make about us in a time of great uncertainty and anxiety are not new, either. Some might find the inevitable, cyclical nature of all this rather depressing – and to some extent, I do.

However, I take some more solace in the knowledge that every generation has gone through this to some extent. True, we’re suffering in a crap economy with no jobs and with massive student debt. True, we are regularly demonized in the press, largely for factors totally outside our control.

But they are getting older. To quote the clever Mr Carter:

“Oh! I suppose that it’s too bad that we aren’t humble, starry-eyed, shy, respectful innocents, standing reverently at their side for instructions, playing pretty little games, in which they no longer believe, except for us.

But we aren’t, and the best thing the oldsters can do about it is to go into their respective backyards and dig for worms, great big pink ones–for the Grundy tribe are now just about as important as they are, and they will doubtless make company more congenial and docile than ‘these wild young people,’ the men and women of my generation.”

You may also refer to my handy Storify of ancients bitching about insolent youth: Get Off My Lawn, Wastrel

3 thoughts on “Complaining About Young People Is Nothing New

  1. sue (55+)

    Old people conveniently forget they were young. As for “working,” there’s no freaking jobs. What do old people – who coast along on their retirement income – expect from young people?

  2. M. Carter

    Thank you for this post. Speaking on behalf of the Carter family, I’m sure that my great-grandfather, Mr. Carter, would appreciate your thoughtful commentary.

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