A Biased Defense of Young People

When then-17 year old David Hogg, along with his fellow Parkland High School classmates, helped to organize the March For Our Lives — a rally in support of gun reform — it sparked a familiar debate on the mainstream news. On the one end, some celebrated that high schoolers were trying to make a difference. On the other, the message was old as time: These are just kids; they don’t know anything; they ought to just sit down and be quiet.

I no longer have a strong position on guns, because as long as money influences politics nothing is going to change on that front — and feeling some type of way about it is a waste of time. But what annoys me more (and this is applicable to most debates in 2018) is the reduced form of dialogue that exists after every mass shooting. It seems like there are only two acceptable schools of thought on the gun issue, and they are reserved by the most unrealistic fascists or conspiracy theorist crackpots. The fascists think the solution is to ban all guns, and the crackpots are convinced that the government is plotting to forcibly take away all guns. Both are closer to fantasy than truth.

Young people needlessly take a lot of shit from the older generations, and the aftermath of the Parkland shooting only reinforced that notion. It is basically common, acceptable opinion that young people have it “easier” than the Baby Boomers or Generation X had it, that young people are too lazy and entitled and preoccupied with technology, that young people just want free stuff, or that young people don’t have any “real” issues worth fighting for. Millennials and Post-Millennials — in other words anyone born after 1981 — are perceived as the generations of rebels without a cause.

Yet after the shooting happened, when high school students a nation over organized walkouts in support of a legitimate cause, it appeared like half the country believed the issue didn’t count specifically because they were 16 and 17 year-olds. Apparently there is no available seating for anyone under a certain age threshold.

So which is it? Are teenagers real people, or aren’t they? Should we care, or should we not, about what they have to say?

I fear this matter essentially boils down to an infinite regression. Back when I was in high school, this would have been 2004-2008, I had disagreements with my conservative relatives, and mostly about stupid shit. I’ll never forget how dismissive my aunt (in particular) and uncle were to my worldview, always in a rush to end the conversations early by saying, quite condescendingly, “You’ll understand when you are older.”

Then I got to be in my early 20’s, and perhaps unsurprisingly the same tactic was implemented. I was definitely “older,” but to them apparently not old enough. Although my politics then were far less progressive than they are now, I do know for a goddamn fact that if I was on their “team,” they would have been in full support of how I felt, and undoubtedly would have admitted that more young people should think like me.

When I was 15 I thought what they meant by “older” was 20 or 21; by the time I was 20 or 21 I thought what they meant by “older” was 26 or 27; by the time I was 26 or 27 I thought what they meant by “older” was when I had a wife and children; by the time I do have a wife and children, “older” will probably mean when those kids are grown, and I am about to retire. . . I assume by now you know what I’m saying.

It didn’t (and doesn’t) matter what I thought (and think). What matters is they don’t agree, and to them I simply need to “grow up” before I can understand where they are coming from. Under this scenario growing up figures to be an impossible undertaking, because I will forever be a generation behind and, in all likelihood, never agree with them on the issues.

This infantilization of entire generations isn’t new, it just feels new when it happens to me personally. Just using the last hundred years as an example: The Greatest Generation, who fought fascism in two World Wars, must have felt like the Baby Boomers were entitled and didn’t have it as hard and didn’t know anything. The Baby Boomers, who lived through the 60’s and 70’s and fought in Vietnam, must have felt like the Generation X-ers were entitled and didn’t have it as hard and didn’t know anything. The Generation X-ers, who lived through the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, must feel currently like Millennials are entitled and don’t have it as hard and don’t know anything.

And certainly when the time is right, at the expense of Post-Millennials, the Millennial generation will prove themselves to be no better.

I don’t think it should be this way, but it does make sense that it is. Everyone, regardless of which arbitrary year they happen to have been born in, feels like they are living out a unique experience. In a way they aren’t wrong. But throughout that experience comes hardship, and when bad things happen they feel like they are only happening to you. So some, I assume, reach a certain point where it’s easier to dismiss the problems of young people, who don’t know what “real” pain is, than it is to make the effort to empathize with them.

I have made the argument before, and still find it plausible, that a large portion of the hostility handed down from generation-to-generation has to do with jealousy. We just know so much more as a civilization now than we did 30 or 50 or 100 years ago, and a byproduct of the immense technological advances over that time span is that kids are smarter now than their parents and grandparents were at the same age.

Again, this is no one’s fault; it’s the natural order. The flow of information once traveled by trains and telegraphs. Now you can get up-to-the-second news by opening your cell phone. It doesn’t require a stretch to understand why older people believe the youth have it easier.

But I hardly see why that should be a criticism, especially considering that Millennials and Post-Millennials have used that technology to come to the correct conclusions at vastly greater rates than any generation that has preceded them. The most glaring example is the question of whether or not humans affect climate change — which the science is and has been very clear on — but the list continues. Young people are less racist, less homophobic, less religious, and believe in fairness and equality more than tradition and competition.

I would never come on and suggest that Millennials or Post-Millennials, or any other generation for that matter, are unimpeachable. There are a tons of dumbasses out there. What I’m saying is if one is so inclined to criticize young people, as a whole, they should at least understand why there is such a palpable angst.

Every generation has at least one signature moment, the specific point where nothing before or after could be the same, and I would argue Millennials had two. The first came on September 11th, 2001, which resulted in the United States going to war with a country that had nothing to do with the attacks. The second was the stock market crash in 2007, which led to The Great Recession and resulted in Democratic President Barack Obama bailing out the major banks with taxpayer money.

I don’t see how any fair-minded person could look at those two items, those signature moments, and not be capable of understanding why so many young people are anti-war and anti-corruption. It should not be a wonder why 51% of Millennials do not support Capitalism. It isn’t crazy that young people don’t want a majority of their tax dollars going to the military so they can bomb more countries. Yet, this is what we’ve got. The same system we were taught to believe was the best, and that separated America from the rest of the world, has failed young people. There is no way around that.

When I was a child, I remember being impressed when my grandpa told me he went to Penn State University after he graduated high school. Penn State isn’t exactly Harvard or Columbia, but even as a child I was aware that it was a major, well-known school because their football team was really good. I assumed my grandpa needed good grades and a decent SAT score to get in.

But that wasn’t the case. My grandpa told me he didn’t really give a shit about his grades, because he didn’t really give a shit about school. He wanted to work in forestry. The only reason he ended up going to Penn State was that his dad made him, and back then it cost very little to attend public colleges and universities.

Fast-forward about 60 years, and I found myself at Virginia Tech — another public school on the east coast. But my cost, as a Californian paying out-of-state tuition (along with room/board/food), was astronomically higher. At that time my parents were at best middle-middle class, but probably lower-middle class, so it was no doubt a challenge for my mom to take out two loans totaling close to $40,000. Here we are a full decade later, and I still owe something like six grand on that tab.

This is where you understand that I am one person, and I spent only one year at Virginia Tech. Think about the millions of students who went for a full term, who graduated, and put themselves in debt four of five times what I put myself in. This is the system America delivered for Millennials and Post-Millennials: it penalizes the best and brightest, puts them in debt for the next 10 or 20 years, if not the rest of their lives, and expects them to get a good-paying job in an economy that doesn’t have very many to offer.

For young people the game is rigged, and even though it’s a setup they are told they still have to play. If this gripe can’t be taken seriously, then nothing they do or say can be taken seriously. Like I said before, it’s a binary choice. They either count as real people, with real issues, or they don’t.

I have heard a lot of the older generations, whether it’s family members or people I work with or customers I deal to, say they are glad they won’t be alive in 50 or 100 years. Because they are convinced everything is going to shit (they are probably right), and that young people don’t inspire much confidence. I could be living in a bubble here, but that’s been the prevailing sentiment for as long as I can remember.

It could be that I am a young person, but I’m not so pessimistic. I believe young people have it right in the areas that matter — like social justice, and economic equality — and that we will spend the better part of our lives cleaning up some of the messes that the older generations have made. The great irony in all of this is that the policies Millennials want to see enacted are not new; they were made popular by President Franklyn D. Roosevelt almost 80 years ago, and carried on fruitfully until the shift in the early 1980’s to trickle down economics.

Under FDR’s policies — featuring the most popular social programs like Medicare and Social Security — unions were strong and the middle class thrived. Most old and retired wealthy people accumulated their nest-eggs at a time when economic policies were more favorable to the working and middle classes. Once they became rich, they grew more conservative because they wanted to retain as much of that money as possible.

Now these same people are the ones who get annoyed whenever Millennials bitch about not having a fair chance in life. Young people are not asking for anything extraordinary that hasn’t happened before. They just want the same shot as those that came before them.

But this is the hand young people have been dealt. This is the torch we carry. I’m not in the business of having pissing contests with older generations, because even I can respect the sacrifices made by men and women far braver than I am for the freedoms I regularly enjoy and take advantage of.

And at the same time, I think if young people just rolled over and said Fuck It, This Is As Good As It Gets, as a group we wouldn’t be worthy of the respect of those whose tradition we keep alive. Since the dawn of time every generation has done the dirty work to make life easier, or better, for those that came after them. Young people are merely following in those footsteps.

Don’t worry, I will be rolling my eyes right along with you the next time I read something about college students protesting a conservative speaker at a university campus. I will roll my eyes further the next time I see someone getting bent out of shape over what’s happening in the lives of the Kardashians, rather than, I don’t know, actual things that directly impact their lives.

But when it comes to real issues, like the minimum wage, healthcare, gun reform, or war, I wouldn’t be quick to discount what a young person has to say. Because even though they lack the comparative experience, there are plenty of reasons to suggest their ideas are closer to the truth than older generations who get their news predominantly from Fox, CNN, or MSNBC.

I’m not carrying any water for 28 year-olds, or for Millennials or Post-Millennials. That’s not my bag. I just know that, even at my relatively young age, the writing is already on the wall, and rather than fight the idea that young people are dumber than I am, or have it easier than I had it, I’m going to accept that they deserve a voice in the world they inherited.

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