I am watching an episode of The Bridge, the Danish-Swedish co-production version, and one of the characters, a young, cool and ‘entertaining’ columnist, is talking with an older, much less cool, ‘married with kids’ reporter. The older man has mentioned that he borrowed his daughter’s CD of a band the young guy was referencing the previous week, listened to it and liked it. The cool guy sneers. The older guy says ‘you liked them last week’ and the cool guy spits out, ‘and now you like them’. I immediately think of a screed I have just read from an anonymous CBC producer objecting to a recent management appointment who, by-the-by, writes about ‘the younger and more creative producers’ and I find myself living both sides of that teenage dilemma we all had with our parents, with both sides thinking that the other knew nothing, and that we knew everything. My whole life I have watched and been part of this divide between energy and experience, fresh perspectives and a deep appreciation of the enduring, the surprise of excitement and the serenity of the given. It is only know that I have come to understand that perhaps there is no real conflict and that in fact we are all players in a more troublesome game.
We, the media, marketers and planners, have institutionalized the idea that youth, the new, and the current are the conditions that truly matter. It is partly a pushback against the remarkable hold that Baby Boomers are said to have on the economy, society, culture and politics. At the same time, it is a really complicated set of assumptions that hurt the young, hurt the aging and devastate the aged. On the one hand, we praise the innocent and inexperienced, ‘out of the mouths of babes,’ while extolling the experience and perspective of the elder, ‘commissions of wise people’. When I was a teen, we didn’t trust anyone over thirty and today we are heading to a moment when even thirty seems past some imaginary ‘best before date’.
You can see the consequences everywhere. In workplaces, there is a generational war for resources, attention, benefits and power. It is a battle that has little to do with quality of work or the larger needs of either the organization or society. It is about which subgroup gets to play with the most expensive toys the longest. You see it all around you in sullen youth, bored adults, crass cynicism and a host of debilitating ‘addictions’ ranging from deadly drugs to soul destroying and mindless forms of entertainment. Way too many of us feel that we are being denied the opportunity to be truly useful, vital and valuable either because we are too young or too old. I know brilliant energetic and deeply creative 80 year olds and dissolute, apathetic and unimaginative 25 year olds and of course the reverse.
The reality is that at the heart of all this destructive ageism is a set of assumptions that have little basis in reality and are largely fueled and maintained by a culture and an economy that desperately needs, demands even, a never-ending series of changes. The culture we inhabit of never-ending consumption and constant early obsolescence thrives on anxiety, psychological dependencies, artificial and real competition as well as true inequalities and misguided anti-human first principles. The wonder isn’t that we experience ‘generational conflict’ it is that the generational conflict doesn’t break out into true terrible violence.
I have no magic bullet for resolving this conundrum. I am simply committing myself to taking note that living long doesn’t automatically bestow wisdom, being young isn’t a guarantee of vitality and innovation and having automatic assumptions about someone based simply on their age is a prejudice as devastating as any other. P