Yesterday on Twitter Ezra Klein wrote:
Now, granted, at 36 I am only “young” in the sense that if I died tomorrow people would say “oh, such a shame, he was so young,” but that type of young lasts until you’re in your early fifties, at which point by no other metric are you considered young, except by older people who will still say things like “you whippersnapper.” But even so, let me take a crack at it…
Dear old people:
As I look out on this sea of wrinkled, crumply faces today, I have only one thought. It is not “man, you people should smile more,” even though smiling old people are much more pleasant for young people to look at, because when you’re frowny you make everybody more miserable and also you remind us of our own mortality. Seriously, you old people should just smile as much as possible. Unless your teeth have all fallen out, in which case you should stick to a close-lipped grin, or perhaps a magical twinkle in your eyes like Morgan Freeman has.
But no, the one thought I have for you is “get some perspective.” Which is funny, because if there’s one thing older people pride themselves on, it is having a greater sense of perspective. This is, I understand, based on the fact that old people traditionally have more life experience than young people, by virtue of being older. And to be fair, this is not the worst argument in the world. But let’s be honest: about one person in three lives practically their entire life in the same 100-square-mile patch of land, and four people out of five will live in three or less patches of land that size. (And that’s in the First World. In poor countries – let’s just say you’d really better enjoy looking at that one tree you like.) There is a limit to how much experience you can get this way, is my point.
But it’s not completely wrong to say that older people have more perspective, because I know I’ve got more perspective than when I was thirty, or twenty, or ten. In truth, I know much more than I did back then and I can make better decisions then I did back then. But this is the thing I’ve managed to figure out and so, so many of you old people have not: even knowing what I knew at twenty is not applicable to someone who is twenty now. Someone who is twenty now has different challenges than I did – and the gap between me and a twenty-year-old now is only sixteen years. Between you, you loveable old people you, and a twenty-year-old right now, there is a vast gulf, and your life experience means tremendously little – because so little of it is now applicable. Even if you do like Mos Def.
Let us pick a sixty-year-old person in the crowd, because sixty is basically the benchmark where we start considering people “old,” no matter how much we might talk about how many good years you have left – sixty is the age where cancer stops being a tragedy and starts becoming “that, or a heart attack or a stroke.” Someone who is sixty today was born in 1952 – basically you’re Sally on Mad Men. (Speaking for young people, we’re sorry that you had to see Roger Sterling get that blowjob.) You grew up with the Beatles, you remember JFK getting shot, maybe you marched in anti-Vietnam protests if you’re American – but all of that is background, really, because every generation has its music and its deaths and its political struggle.
What matters, really, is that you, the sixty-year-old person, were born into a society where you had it all. You had enormous purchasing power. Yes, computers have gotten cheaper, and that’s great, but the cost of basic shelter has increased and if we’re talking about home ownership it has exploded. At twenty-four, you the sixty-year-old person in 76 (the year I was born!) would be out of university – which cost you much less than it cost me, to say nothing of what it cost a kid today, because university tuition has wildly outpaced inflation over the past thirty-six years. That’s assuming you even decided to go to university, because in 1976 you could get a decent job with a high school diploma – and when we say “decent,” we mean “above the median salary” decent. Depending on what country you lived in, your access to quality healthcare would vary, but generally speaking it was easier for you to get it then than it is for a comparable young person to get it now, be that because a given country’s private system has collapsed or its public system has been chronically underfunded (but not for senior care, which so often manages to escape the knife). And of course you were guaranteed healthy retirements, and anyone my age or younger has been systematically trained to believe that retirement is something we’re never actually going to get to do. (Systematically trained, one would note, by old people. It is convenient how that goes.)
Young people don’t vote – it’s a truism, has been for a long time now. The reason we don’t vote (well, I vote, of course, but I am using the larger “we” here, bear with me) is because from day one in civics class – if we have civics class any more, that is, it may have been cut along with all the arts education funding and everything else that isn’t “useful” – we’re told that the purpose of government is for people to come together and address common concerns. And we keep hearing from every politician how young people are important – and then we see that what’s actually important, in practice, is to address the concerns of old people. Some of the young hippies would say “rich people,” of course, and that’s not incorrect – but other than Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake and LeBron, there aren’t a whole lot of young rich people.
Rich people are generally old people; even well-off people are generally old people. And old people look out for old people, and unfortunately over the past twenty or so years the number of old people has been increasing steadily, which means that the interests of old people dominate over the interests of young people, who just have to eventually take care of the old people. I mean – global warming! We all agreed that that was important, right? And then suddenly rich people, who were also old people, all decided it really wasn’t that important any more – in part because they will all be dead when global warming really starts to screw over the human race in earnest – and lectured us all about how the economy demanded that we pretend climate change wasn’t happening. (The economy demands a lot of things. Like tax cuts for rich people – who are, once again, mostly old people.) And when the economy gets better, it doesn’t get better for young people. The story of unemployment in every first world country right now is the same: young people are unemployed at vastly greater rates than old people, with rates double or triple the general unemployment rate.
And young people could see the writing on the wall, and it said “you’re fucked, young people,” as the cost of simply having a life went up and up and up – to say nothing of the cost of bettering ourselves (which you demanded we do, even to get a shitty job working in a soulless office somewhere). And what was more galling was, again, your lack of perspective when you did these things, because at the same time as it became harder and harder for young people to get by, old people started to lecture young people more and more that they were not being young in the right way – e.g. the way that the old people had been young. Which meant an endless deluge of whiny newspaper articles about how young people were still living with their parents into their twenties and not getting married young like they used to and what about all the video games and the hoodies and the rap music? I am pretty sure Rex Murphy – yes, Mr. Murphy, I can see you over there in row twenty-nine – complains about how young people aren’t doing things properly at least once a month. Granted, in Mr. Murphy’s case “young people” can technically mean “everybody younger than Rex Murphy,” which in turn means “everybody in the whole world” since I am pretty sure Rex Murphy is a lich of some sort. In the event that he is not, could the person next to him punch him in the nuts? – yes, that’s great, thank you.
On top of which, your lack of perspective is truly galling when we consider civil rights. Let’s be honest: all those laws against gay marriage and movements against gay people generally? Are old people. And what’s really offensive, old people, is that you know – you absolutely have to realize – that you can’t win on this issue in the long run and possibly not even the medium run. The demographics are completely against you. Every single year, the polling in favour of gay marriage everywhere goes up a little, as more old homophobes die off and not enough new young homophobes show up to replace them. (Granted, the young ones try harder.) Hell, the people pushing for these restrictive and discriminatory laws are now admitting openly that they won’t survive for more than a decade or two! But you continue to get these laws passed everywhere you can, using the power of Old People Vote And Young People Don’t. On behalf of all young people everywhere (albeit only technically in my case), let me say it for you: you’re going to die, and these laws are going to be revoked. When I say you need to get some perspective, part of that is deciding for yourself whether you want to be remembered by your descendants as a proud, forward-thinking individual or someone who was loved (or not) in spite of (or because of) their bigotry. Because that’s how this is going to go down.
Look. I’m not saying my generation – or any younger generation, really – has any moral standing over you in this matter. If it had been me born in 1952, I’m sure I would have taken full advantage of the opportunities you got, and I’m sure every kid who’s twenty right now would do exactly the same thing. We’re not really trained, as a species, to think generationally about long-term sustainability, and at some point we’re just going to have to learn. (The point at which we’re going to have to learn it approaches us much more quickly as a result of policies you invented and promoted, but again – not judging.) We’re resigned to what we as young people have to do, which is fix your mess. But we’d really appreciate it if you didn’t add insult to injury by judging us for not living life the way you lived it when the way you lived life is no longer possible (no more clueless and patronizing New York Times articles that make a hash of sociology, please), or by making things just that little bit harder by enacting hate-filled laws we’re just going to have to overturn. Presumably Rex Murphy – surviving from the power of a gem which contains the screaming souls of a thousand dead CBC employees – will still be complaining even then. But at that point it’ll just be him. So get some perspective, because you don’t all have soul-gems to keep yourselves alive to a sinful age. Thank you.