IN PURSUIT OF YOUTH

When I was a young warthog, there was a sign hanging in our family kitchen that read, “hire a teenager while they still know everything.” My mother would refer to it often and my response would invariably be a Kevin The Teenage ‘nuuuuurg’. It was only in my antique twenties, when the kitchen was re-decorated and it was swept from the shelves – along with the extensive novelty Marmite collection, the low-hanging plastic lobster and zippy racing nuns – that I appreciate its wit. Or, more to the point, its prescience. Because in our tech-savvy world of 2015, teenagers actually do know everything. This tips the balance of knowledge and financial gain towards young adults – who were once getting pissed on Bacardi Breezers and falling in love for the first time and are now fogging up their PJs with weed smoke before the age of 20, a la Bieber – and away from anyone over 30. Once upon a time, Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list was an expression of extraordinary achievement; now it seems an Over 50 list would be more unusual.

I never thought, at the age of 28, that I would feel like an ageing member of the population. Where ‘reach’ is the new wisdom, the youth of today have never been more powerful. For example, it’s rare that anyone founds a billion-dollar ‘unicorn’ start-up over the age of 25. Whitney Wolfe was 23 when she co-founded Tinder. Kevin Spiegel was 21 when he founded Snapchat. And Mark Zuckerburg was about 4-years-old when he launched Facebook (I exaggerate, but hardly.) Post-development, twenty-somethings rule new media. Kendall Jenner has over 22 million Instagram fans; Taylor Swift, over 25. Knowledge has always been about power, but with the aid of wisdom. Now wisdom is like that gnarly old aunt you don’t want to invite to your bar mitzvah.

The cultural impact of this is seismic; the idea of respecting one’s elders is eroding beneath our feet. As American journalist Rich Karlgaard recently wrote in Forbes:

“Ascendant in our culture today is the early-bloomer hero. The story line is almost a cliché now: The prodigy who aces the SATs, graduates from Stanford at 20, starts a company, raises millions of dollars and sells the thing to Google GOOGL -1.16% or Facebook for billions two years later. We’re right to celebrate early success…. But the unintended result is that the late bloomer is getting crowded out.”

Karlgaard’s piece focuses on the technological impact of celebrating an early-bloomer rather than a late-bloomer (most interestingly he discusses that Zuckberg, the young early-bloomer does not induce the same level of cultural respect/iconic status as an older techie like Steve Jobs) but his point can be applied to the whole of society. What is lost when we shift our focus to the youth and youth alone?

As the youngest of 4 children, I believe firmly that you have you earn your respect with every passing year. My mother would never let me have a seat on the tube – I sat on her lap, or held her hand and we stood (I find myself staggered by tiny bottoms taking up a row of seats in a packed commuter train.) Whether I was sitting silently through church, or suffused with boredom during a long adult meal, I always knew that adults knew best. Sure, I may have known more about a Nokia phone or an Apple Mac computer than both my parents combined, but that didn’t mean that society viewed me as higher in the pecking order than my parents. It’s only a matter of time before society’s worship of youth filters down to the way we bring up our children: the way they learn and develop and place themselves in the world. In Asian culture, respecting your elders is at the very centre of familial values. How long, I wonder, before they subjugate the 50-year-old with decades of experience, for the 18-year-old with innovation; in the West, it’s already happened.

At the foundation of this, is the arrogance of youth. Present in all teenagers (hence the sign), this narcissism is more often than not successfully stamped out. But how do you stamp it out when the person dispensing the paycheques is a baby-faced wunderkind? We live in a youth-centric world, where the digital trumps the IRL and it’s not hard to see the average age of those pioneers. In fashion, that could not be more prevalent. 19-year-old Kendall Jenner, just one year into her modelling career, is treated like royalty. At fashion week, I witness 21-year-old fashion bloggers sitting on the front row, in front of seasoned fashion editors with decades of experience.

“Print is dead!” is an exhaustive klaxon. The influence of the written word is fading, over taken by a transient visual imprint. And who looks best in an image? The nubile of flesh. In the same way, it’s not surprising that young adults, malleable and eager to learn, are at the forefront of our technological revolution – a revolution which has come to be the most important facet of our existence. Culturally we are dominated by innovation, rather than experience. That doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon. Our best bet is to roll with it, whilst remembering how much shit you don’t know. I believe in traditional familial and cultural values but I am fascinated with new media. Equally, I am a blogger (new) as well as a print journalist (old). I see these twin impulses and endeavours as complimentary rather than contradictory. In that vein, I think it’s paramount that we learn from both worlds — or is that one, brave new world? To resort to an empty cliche – only time will tell. One thing I do know, though? A tube seat is something earned by years, not apps. Fact.

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