Our culture is, once again, in the throes of its on-again, off-again love affair with youth. In one sense, we’ve never gotten over this particular crush. All you have to do is look the trouble people go to in their valiant yet futile attempts to stave off the inevitable. Oh, you have your token examples of “vintage” celebrities, celebrating their seniority, but for every one of these, there are ten who’ve squandered their wealth applying this or injecting that.
But, it’s not just the jet-set or the fashionistas crowing about the virtues of the juvenile life. The socio-political powers that be are often their juniors’ most ardent cheerleaders. We’ve had calls to lower the voting age to 16, teenaged protesters have garnered a Nobel nomination, and high schoolers skipping classes are portrayed as the height of courage.
Some of this is, undoubtedly, nothing more than a Machiavellian ploy for money and power. The marketing execs at the latest “hip” clothier have an eye more on Millennial money than their avocado infused opinions, and politicians saying all the right things about teenaged enthusiasms likely have more interest in securing the 18-year-old voter for life rather than listening to the 16-year-old’s lecture about complex policies.
Yet, even so, there’s something beneath it all. There’s a wistful nostalgia among older generations for the passion they once had. There’s a fascination with youth for youth’s sake, an expectation that there is a unique wisdom to be found in the innocence of a child.
There’s the sense that “the children are our future,” the suggestion we’d all be better off if we emulated their aspirations and adhered to their insights. We’re exhorted to see in the young all the best of human nature. Young people, so it goes, can be trusted to see clearly because they aren’t yet tainted by the corruptions and compromises that have made their predecessors so opposed to meaningful change.
Last year, we heard pundits tells us of the fading influence of the Baby Boomer generation and the attendant rise to power of the, presumably, far more progressive Millennials. Apparently, the older group is only conservative on this or that issue because they are too close-minded. With their elders’ demise, the diversity-drenched denizens of today’s twenty- and thirty-something culture will turn the tide forever in a more “inclusive” direction.
The irony here is that this supposed rivalry between older and younger groups is an echo of a conversation from decades ago. The very people now derided for their hidebound ethics and narrow minds were once the Young Turks determined to storm the castles of conservatism defended by their parents of the (yet-to-be-christened) Greatest Generation. The champions of progress and the hope for the future a generation or two ago are now seen as the cynical holdouts against a promised era of optimism and tolerance.
In the earlier age, the supposed greyness of the parental cohort mystified the gentle people of the postwar generation. They couldn’t understand how their elders seemed concerned only with themselves and so recalcitrant when it came to ethics and beauty and simply living life. What they did not know was that there was more to life than they’d yet to experience; there was a reason for their fathers’ restraint. As one writer put it,
But the old man did not settle beneath the elms because he was boring or empty or plastic. He did it because, 10 years before you were born, he killed a German soldier with his bare hands in the woods. Many of the boomers I know believe their parents hid themselves from the action. In truth, those World War II fathers were neither hiding nor settling. They were seeking. Peace. Tranquility. They wanted to give their children a fantasy of stability not because they knew too little but because they’d seen too much.
Today, we see much the same mystery. Many in the culture see the vibrant hope of the hippies as faded into the same monochromatic stasis of their forebears. So, what happened? How did the rebels of the “Swinging 60s” turn in to the grey heads of today, holding back the tide of revolution? There’s an old saying that’s something to the effect of, “If you’re not a liberal at 20, then you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative at 30, then you have no head.” That’s a bit simplistic, but there’s something to it. Life has a way of undermining our self-satisfaction. What happened? Life happened.
The complexities of reality turned out to be deeper and more intransigent than the dreams of the Age of Aquarius. As much as the hippies might have warned against trusting anyone over 30, once they’d surpassed that ancient age, they found there was more to life than youthfulness. Life after 30 brings with it both great joys and noted hardships, each of which chips and wears away at the self-satisfied ideals of younger years.
For some of these erstwhile flower children and the “New Left,” this meant a radical change, as much of the leadership of the conservative resurgence of the 1970s and 1980s came from self-exiled progressives. Think of the “Neoconservatives,” former liberals who, in Irving Kristol’s famous words, were “mugged by reality.” Even Captain Kirk himself has run afoul of the guardians of wokedom for failing to keep the faith.
Others didn’t move quite this far but accommodated themselves to the world in more subtle ways. We can look to David Brooks’ fine work “Bobos in Paradise,” where he notes that many of the Boomers who once railed against the capitalist system now play the markets and emulate their parents’ lifestyles, albeit with their own twist.
We’re left with the situation where the septuagenarian with the faded tattoos, ostracized as “the older other” by the woke Twitterverse for his antiquated ways, might once have been the radical, liberally lauded in the pages of the underground paper.
What will we see as the years move on, when today’s DINKs become moms and dads, begin businesses, and start paying higher taxes? For some of them, like the ageing hippies I see in the boutiques near my home in Colorado, still wearing their tie-dyes and beads, they won’t be able to accept that their dreams weren’t as easy to fulfill as they’d hoped. They’ll continue on as museum pieces of an earlier age, theme park attractions for tomorrow’s flock of rebels and freethinkers. But most of them will make their peace with reality.
Instead of the rising progressive tide that so many hope (or fear) is inevitable, the same bumping up against reality’s hard edges that curbed the enthusiasm of their parents and grandparents will blunt some of their utopian presumptions of changing the world by mere fiat. The ordinary facts of life will have much the same effect on them as it had on these earlier groups: trimming, cutting, fashioning them into more mature versions of their present-day selves. They’ll lose some of their passion, but they’ll lose a lot of their naivete and foolish oversimplifications. They’ll keep some of their obnoxiousness that makes them who they are, but they’ll also keep some of their care and concern for others.
The problem with youth isn’t that they lack morals or certainly not intelligence. I taught college for several years, and I can tell you that there was nothing innately stupid about any of my students. Okay, so some weren’t likely to move along to illustrious careers, but plenty of them were as bright as you could wish, and they had as much concern for right and wrong as anyone. But that’s the thing. Along with whatever gifts they undoubtedly possessed, they still needed something else. And that something is not in-born but comes with life experience.
They had the knack, the ability to process information well, and they had a passion for ethical behavior, but they lacked the knowledge and the maturity to know what to do. They had yet to learn one of the most important lessons of life. It’s not that they were never right, but they weren’t quite aware that they were sometimes wrong. If they thought a thing or felt a thing, then it must be true, and it must be right. They’d yet to bet on wrong ideas often enough to know that their understanding of the world wasn’t a mirror image for reality.
Despite the pretensions of their aged acolytes to the contrary, young people aren’t any more clear-eyed or attuned to justice than anyone else. But they’re also not any less. They have passion and strength that enables them to long for great things, but they don’t yet have the wisdom to know how to accomplish them. What they need is the maturity and wisdom that comes with age and experience. They need to be told by those who’ve gone before that just because they have an idea, that doesn’t mean it’s a good one. They need the guidance from their elders to tell them not to give up trying but to keep in mind that changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds at the late night coffee shop.
Most importantly, they, like the rest of us, need to be reminded of the dual fallibility of being human. What the Boomers lacked in the summer of love and the Millennials need in our era today is a proper understanding of human existences. Whatever our generation, we all too often have an insufficient understanding of our created and fallen natures. As finite beings who are all contaminated by a sin condition, and our worst failings in life come when we assume we possess a perfect nature.
When we react to the world as though our conception of life’s problems is perfect in all its details, we assume that we have a privileged vantage point from which to judge the cosmos. But, as anyone with a few years under their belt can tell you, it’s the times you have to face the destructive side-effects your limitations that are the best lessons and most useful tools for avoiding such mistakes in the future. In the same way, when we live as though we have no flaws of a moral nature, when we behave as though all our impulses are as pure as the driven snow, that’s when we’re the most apt to drive others mad with our self-righteousness. It is when we ignore our sin nature that we are the most likely to demonstrate its ever-present reality.
Neither the “new and improved” nor the “tried and true” are sure guarantees against humanity’s flaws. We need to recall that we are but dust. We are fragile, fallen creatures desperately trying to find meaning in a supposedly meaningless world. We must check and recheck and rerecheck our understanding with the world outside our own perceptions, and, most of all, we must constantly work to center our understanding of our selves and our world on the only privileged vantage point possible, the self-revelation of God.
We’ll never find our way forward by being recklessly optimistic about the promise of youth or even by being despairingly “realistic” about our hard-earned wisdom. Instead, we are to lean on God and His word. In the Bible, we find a perception of our lives that is as hard-edged and realistic as our experience painfully presses us and as hopeful about the future as our youthful dreams can imagine.
Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973