In “This Be the Verse,” British poet Philip Larkin memorably wrote, “man hands on misery to man.” He wasn’t wrong. But does it have to be that way?

Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

Captured in images of eye-rolling, of long, skinny limbs flopped over the arms of chairs, sprawled across pillows and coffee tables and beds heaped like shingled beaches in a spiny array of books, devices, and clothing, adolescence reliably amuses adults with its costume of extravagant weltschmerz, its unearned ennui. “How can someone so young be so tired?” we wonder, forgetting.

Perhaps we chuckle, or perhaps we grow exasperated, as the asked-for loading of the dishwasher remains undone, the damp clothing moulders in the washing-machine, ignored, trash-cans overflow. “What have you been doing all this time?” we cry. “Nothing.” So much nothing. If I can remember only snippets of my own adolescence, the one thing I know I reported doing a lot of was “nothing.” As if, straining to condense and convey all the mulling (over what I was supposed to be doing — really doing — with my life, over why I loved Crime and Punishment and hated The Old Man and the Sea, over the parsing of every single conversation I ever had and many I did not, over, in truth, Every. Single. Thing), the best I could come up with was to call it all “nothing,” that code for the inexpressible, which makes up the bulk of what’s most important.

And so, to us as we get older, maybe what we can see young people doing does appear to be so much “nothing.” It isn’t (of course) what we want them to be doing, they confirm for us laconically that they’re doing “nothing,” and we choose to believe them, neither investigating nor recalling our own youth. When the soft-journalism content-writers post for the umpteenth time an angle on generational divides, painting that familiar chasm unbridgeable, we peer across it, see the teens and twenty-somethings doing “nothing” over there, and we agree: they really are uninterested in Things That Matter. They do spend too much of their money on (*sniff*) Avocado Toast and pale-pink artisanal mocktails! They really are disasters at forming relationships, screens always in their faces! And how dare they expect to be treated humanely at their entry-level jobs? Don’t they know they have to Pay Their Dues before they deserve to be granted reasonable pay and manageable schedules? Yes, the stories must be true: these green, beginner-adults must be soft and fragile, expecting, as they seem to, not to be treated with aggression and insult, believing, as they seem to, that they have the right to expect that the world shaped by their ancestors can be reshaped by them and to suit them. (This article, from Time in 2013, details ad nauseum the charges against Millennials; it then, albeit more grudgingly, somehow arrives at a conclusion akin to mine.)

While I’m not suggesting that young people have all the answers (no more than we did, twenty or thirty or fifty years ago), that we “elders” should dump the entire, stinking mess of political corruption, economic inequality, religious persecution, racism, sexism, and global environmental crisis into their tender, barely-lined hands and abscond, tooth and tail, into the dying of the light, I suspect that for all our supposed worship of youth on the surface, beneath it, contempt, suspicion, condescension, and fear are still status quo in American culture — to everyone’s detriment.

Perhaps the high value placed on competition in a culture structured by capitalism is part of the problem. Perhaps it even goes further back, to whatever in European-derived society dictated that the right to respect and equitable treatment must be earned through abuse and hardship (even by those born into the privileged class, race, and gender, and in most cases, only by them). If hazing entails one or a series of tests meant to measure not applicants’ qualifications for a position, but their aptitude for enduring abuses of power, embracing humiliation, and accepting that to be torn down is to be remade as something better, then the strength of the conviction that hazing is the price we must pay for privileges is evident everywhere there is a “club” to gain entry to. Hazing serves to consolidate power in the hands of the already-powerful and to prevent the transfer of power into the hands of those who would change the rules. By those who engage in it, it is disguised and defended as the only method by which the worthiness of applicants can be challenged and thus, reinforced. Fraternities and sororities infamously employ it, but under well-maintained disguises, it is nearly everywhere: in professions that demand that beginners work far more than forty-hour weeks, losing sleep and sacrificing physical and mental health; in politics, where those who are young, less experienced, (female) and dare to challenge party pieties (Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) are treated with contempt and derision; in military training; in academic training; in athletics. And it is there in the cultural belief that young people sometimes require “tough love” to make them grow up into competent, responsible adults.

As the story goes, permissive, overly receptive, and “paranoid” parents are to blame for Millennials’ reputed fragility and narcissism (for examples, this article and this one). I’m not so sure about all that — neither the asserted crisis of “helicopter parenting” nor the handwringing about Millennials’ shortcomings seems to me to have the ring of truth. Both diverge from and divert attention from something more profound, a constant theme and persistent mechanism in this country: the failure of imagination.

It takes imagination of someone else’s experience to conjure compassion for them. Collaboration requires one to imagine other people as having, like yourself, intentions, goals, ideas, emotions, many of which you might recognize and possibly share in. And for older people to reach out, inviting young people into the halls of power and privilege (to reorganize and democratize them, perhaps, seeking their insight and energy and perspective instead of dismissing them), imagination is necessary. In fact, if one exercises imagination (which is the only way we can think about the future), then the enthusiastic embrace of young adults, who, with all their sprawling on the furniture have only, after all, been conserving their (considerable) energy for the long road they can see ahead of them, is revealed to be exactly what we need right now. Instead of defending the old rituals of power and authority long past their rightful expiration date, clinging to age-old practices of dismissing the intellectual and creative energy of young adults, what if, instead, we didn’t?

What if, instead of insisting that “name recognition” is more important in a politician than creative ideas and/or ethical principles, we let those who have been in power long enough that everyone recognizes their names retire gracefully (I’m looking at you, Joe and Bernie), perhaps offering their vast experience and knowledge to support someone with fresher ideas, as-yet-untested? Instead of insisting that the way things were done to us is the way they must continue to be done, despite ample evidence of harm (28+ hour shifts for medical residents, for example, and up to 80-hour weeks; see this article), what if we imagined — and implemented — better procedures? How terrible would it be if we listened to our young colleagues when they asked for things like documentation rewritten in gender-neutral terms, and if we listened and joined in with the Parkland students calling for a national sea-change on gun control rather than sneering at their audacity in speaking out at all?

The beauty of being eighteen or twenty or even thirty is that you haven’t had quite enough time, as a rule, to lose faith in the possibility that you and your peers can reshape the world. Twenty years or so past that, it becomes more difficult to marshal the energy; change seems less plausible. We turn, more and more often, to the chestnuts of age, starting to believe what we never thought we would fall for — that cynicism is wisdom; that ethical compromise is pragmatism; that the world is and can only ever be this way.

What if none of that is true?

What if the kids — whether we’ve tough-loved them or helicoptered them, the idealistic, ambitious, restless, creative, slightly annoying kids, so much like we were once — really are all right? How much worse (seriously!) could things get if we welcomed them in, listened to what they were mulling over all that time we thought they were doing Nothing, and allowed them to inspire us?

  • Now that I’ve written all of this, my memory has helpfully piped up to inform me that Timothy Kreider wrote a piece for the NYT about a year ago that hits some similar notes — but first, and better. Read his essay here.