Listen to this story
Why Older People Have Always Trashed Young People
It’s partly fear, partly self-flattery, and partly delusion, and it’s been happening for thousands of years
Ira S. Wolfe is a business consultant in Pennsylvania. A decade ago, all his clients were worried about the same thing: millennials. “Millennials at that point were mostly either teenagers or just getting out of college,” Wolfe recalls, “and they were this horrible, spoiled, rotten, narcissistic, egotistical, lazy generation. Every hiring manager and every manager in the universe was saying, ‘What are we going to do about these young kids?’”
Wolfe’s job was to answer that question. So he did, in a book he wrote in 2008 called Geeks, Geezers, and Googlization. He was 58 years old at the time and meant it as a guide to intergenerational workplaces — a how-to for getting everyone to work in harmony. Chapter nine was dedicated to the workforce’s newest members. He titled it “The Dumbest Generation?”
It is not an exercise in subtlety. Wolfe begins: “What a difference a few decades can make. A young student was once embarrassed and his parents shamed by poor grades on a report card. A young worker was remorseful if he disappointed his boss.” No longer, he wrote. The basic decencies of past generations were absent in this one. Something fundamental had changed. “This is a generation who grew up reading blogs instead of books. They read updates about friends on Facebook instead of reading current events in newspapers. They know more about World of Warcraft than they do about World War II.”
Wolfe, of course, wasn’t saying anything terribly original here. He was parroting what he heard, and what is still said today — that the new generation is a weak echo of the old one. Here’s TV host Joe Scarborough’s version, in a 2017 tweet: “Young men in the 1940s liberated Europe from Nazism and the Pacific from the Japanese Empire. Today, too many stay home playing video games.” And here’s Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, in a 2017 New York Times column: “When I saw students doing their campus jobs, they seemed to have a tough time. Over and over, faculty members and administrators noted how their students’ limited experience with hard work made them oddly fuzzy-headed when facing real-world problems rather than classroom tests.”
This is a refrain as old as time. But these dyspeptic fogies who love to sound alarms about the fatal defects of the youth always seem to forget how the story turns out: The next generation is fine. Capable. Better, even. Some of its members will slouch off, sure, but others will step up and carry the world forward. Look around: Everything we know — everything we have ever relied upon, or been impressed by, or adored, or treasured, or desired — was created by a generation who had been dismissed by the one before it. If we worsened over generations, rather than improved, we’d have nothing. We’d be banging our heads against the ruins of the pyramids. Instead, we built the modern world. Our lives today are incontrovertible evidence that Ira Wolfe and Joe Scarborough and Ben Sasse and the untold billions of grumps that came before them were wrong. All of them. Every time. Without exception. Period.
So why do they keep saying it? And why can’t we stop the cycle — each generation being unfairly dismissed, only to grow old and repeat the same mistake?
Simple: Because we’re afraid.
To understand why we keep doubting the young generation, we first need to appreciate the full scope of the problem. That means we can’t just look at any individual grump. In the vastness of history, a guy like Joe Scarborough is meaningless, his biases blended in with every other dumb thing anyone else has said.
Our earliest texts are littered with youth bashing. From 600 to 300 BC, texts of the ancient Greeks complain of children becoming tyrants, contradicting their parents and wolfing down the best treats at the table. The comedies of Plautus, a Roman playwright who died in 185 BC, often feature a disappointing son with a taste for prostitutes. “In the plays, ancient versions of sitcoms, there is a debate about whether fathers should be strict or indulgent toward the moral failings of their sons,” writes Richard Saller, professor of history and classics at Stanford University.
By the first century AD, Seneca the Elder is writing, “Our young men have growth slothful. Their talents are left idle, and there is not a single honorable occupation for which they will toil night and day.”
Scholars of European, African, Chinese, and Japanese history all tell me their texts contain some versions of youth hating. Pick a time, pick a place, and you’ll find it. Renaissance writers complained of rowdy youth who’d sing bawdy songs in inappropriate social settings. In precolonial Africa, a youth wasn’t considered a full-fledged person until they’d gone through an initiation — and even then, they were not fully respected until they became a parent. One of the reasons Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, says Mark Elliott, professor of Chinese and Inner Asian history at Harvard University, “was that he feared the younger generation, lacking the experience of the older generation of revolutionaries, would be too ‘soft.’”
Older generations blame this softness — or today, millennials’ entitlement — as a tangible loss. Something was good, but it will crumble in the next generation’s hands. Today, it’s work: These coddled kids won’t grind at the office the way their forbearers did. For the 14th-century Japanese monk Yoshida Kenkō, it was language: “The ordinary spoken language has also steadily coarsened,” he writes. “People used to say ‘raise the carriage shafts’ or ‘trim the lamp wick,’ but people today say ‘raise it’ or ‘trim it.’” For writer Anna A. Rogers, writing in the Atlantic in 1907, it was the institution of marriage: “The rock upon which most of the flower-bedecked marriage barges go to pieces is the latter-day cult of individualism; the worship of the brazen calf of the Self.”
Youth bashing isn’t the exclusive province of older people. Young people get into it too, especially those inclined to sentimentality. Consider the journalist Gregg Easterbrook. In 1980, Easterbrook, then in his mid-twenties, noticed something troubling. The young generation seemed detached from the world, putting up a wall of indifference between them and anything meaningful. So he took to the pages of the Washington Monthly, condemning the collective youth in a piece titled “Fear of Success.” He accused the era’s twentysomethings of longing for boring and unchallenging jobs, self-sabotaging their romantic relationships, and even refusing to vote for fear of believing in change. This damaged generation, he wrote, “believe[s] it foolish to gamble for accomplishments when accomplishments will cause more to be expected of [them].”
Where did his youthful negativity come from? He has at least one culprit: The generation before him. “My generation heard all the rhetoric: ‘the greatest generation wins World War II, overcomes the Depression,’” says Easterbrook today, 38 years after writing his essay. “You think, ‘These are great achievements. What have people of my age ever done that compares to that?’ I think you could find that cyclically in history. The young worried that they’re not as good as the old.”
Talk to any millennial or Gen Zer now and you’ll see the front end of this cycle. “Right now, in this day and age, people are constantly trying to schedule the next thing, check on this, on that,” Jace Norman, 18, recently told me. “It’s so much noise and not much substance.” Norman is the star of a Nickelodeon show called Henry Danger, and his (less famous) peers have told me the same sorts of things — that they’ve become too distracted by their screens or have become slaves to frivolity. It’s a strange way for young people to talk: They’re not speaking about their own experience, but rather, they’re speaking in contrast to someone else’s. “In this day and age,” Norman tells me. As compared to what? A time no teenager saw themselves. An invented past.
What monsters we become. We bring a new generation into this world, only to convince them of their shortcomings so they can wield the same charges against their peers. We send children off into the future, telling them the greatest moments have already passed.
And why do we do it?
Again, because we’re afraid.
Let’s talk about land for a second.
To the Anglo-Saxons of the Middle Ages, land was everything. “The basis of all legal relationships in the Middle Ages was land,” says Andrew Rabin, an English professor at the University of Louisville with a specialty in early medieval law and literature. Owning land meant having status in the community and providing stability for a family. Life and liberty took place upon one’s land. “From a legal perspective, the primary purpose of the family unit was to ensure the proper descent of land,” Rabin says. And the descent was predictable for a patriarchal society: A son reaches a certain age and the land becomes his.
But that’s not always what happened. Instead, many sons ended up like Edwin, son of Enniaun, who lived sometime between the years 916 and 935. His father died, and his mother wouldn’t hand over some estates that Edwin believed were his. So, like many sons of the time, Edwin sued his mother in court. That kicked off a chain of Game of Thrones–grade one-upmanship, replete with a host of quality medieval names: The judge, Thurkil the White, sent a delegation to take the mother’s testimony. The mother (whose name wasn’t included in the records) then summoned Leofflaed, Thurkil’s wife. In the presence of the court delegation, the mother swore the land rightly belonged to her and then dispossessed her son of the land. Instead, she said, Leofflaed and Thurkil could have it after she was gone. With this, Thurkil ruled in the mother’s favor. She’d keep her land for the rest of her life, and Edwin would never grow up to get it.
There are a lot of morals to that tale, of course, about power, and wealth, and gender. But Rabin says that, as he read historical tales of land disputes, he saw a recurring theme: Parents did not want to pass down their land, because it meant also passing down their power. If the children own land, the parents do not. If the children prove themselves to be good landowners, then then parents aren’t needed.
“A child is a reminder of mortality, right? Once you have a child, you can get displaced,” Rabin says. “And so when you dismiss children — when you say that they are not living up to the standards of the older generation — part of what you’re saying is, ‘This child cannot replace me. This child isn’t good enough to replace me. I am, in some sense, irreplaceable.’”
We talk of children in terms of continuation. They carry on our traditions. They take our names. We delight in how they look like us, act like us, think like us. We want our kids to adopt our politics, our causes, our sense of meaning. In our children, we seek immortality.
But then they grow up, and we discover they’re not us. They are their own people. They’ll find their own politics, their own causes, their own sense of meaning. They’re more interested in the future than the past. They’ll know their parents’ names, of course, and probably their grandparents’ names, but perhaps not their great-grandparents’ names, and certainly not their great-great-grandparents’ names. Which means one day they’ll have children, and those children will have children, and our names will begin to be forgotten too. We will slip into nothingness, remembered by nobody, having left no recognizable impact.
That’s why we say these kids are no good. We can’t accept that life goes on without us. And instead of accepting it, we lay the blame for the whole state of affairs at the feet of the next generation.
And yet, every once in a while, the cycle is momentarily broken: The old grump, the one bitterly protecting his own mortality, will stop and look around with clear eyes.
Easterbrook did. Today, at age 65, the once-self-hating baby boomer thinks his peers turned out “relatively accomplished,” leaving the world at least a little fairer than how they found it.
But Wolfe really did. The author of Geeks, Geezers, and Googlization stopped to meet the millennials he’d mocked. And it changed him.
The process was slow. Even as he told his clients that millennials were a problem to be managed, he was going out to dinner with friends, or sitting at a bar, and listening to the young people around him. These supposedly lazy, entitled kids were talking about the companies they were starting, or the three jobs they were working, or the education they were getting — and all this despite having graduated college during a deep recession. It made him remember that his baby boomer generation, too, was once doubted. “Oh, yeah, it was the same thing,” Wolfe says now. “We were lazy, narcissistic, egotistical, idealistic, promiscuous.”
Slowly, Wolfe began to shift his message. He started calling himself a “recovering millennial basher” and told his clients to hire these amazing young workers. If they hired lazy ones, they just weren’t doing a good job of recruiting. “Every generation,” he explains, “has good and bad people.”
Find the good ones, he’d say. There are so many of them.
Additional research by Elisabeth Brier.