It Comes With the Territory

It Comes With the Territory

Recently, I was having a conversation with a woman—a new acquaintance, highly intelligent, a theatre actor, and a feminist—who said she was finding herself furious at young people these days.

They have no discipline, she mourned, they don’t want to work hard, all they want to do is have fun and play and be superficial; too bad if I sound like a cranky old lady (she was only in her late 50s), but I can’t help it—I’m really angry at them.

Since she has a grown son who is perpetually in graduate school and can’t quite make up his mind what he’s going to do “when he grows up,” he apparently jokes, I suspected this tirade was aimed more within her own family. However, now I need to step aside for a moment and make a confession myself.

In certain situations, like for example while having waited for little over an hour for a previously scheduled X-ray and having already finished my book and also counted every square in the patterned floor five times, I am suddenly told by the very young woman at the desk that the also very young technician has gone out for lunch and perhaps I should come back in another hour or two: Well, I admit that I have been known in such circumstances to stalk majestically out while muttering under my breath “Damned 12 year old’s!” That this is unconscionably ageist, however satisfyingly it may strike me at the time, is all too true. In that case, I might have sounded like a crochety grandparent saying “You don’t know how good you have it, I had to walk 6 miles to school in the snow wearing only my socks.”

But most of the time I am fairly civilized. And I do have to say that given what we’ve been through in the USA with Trump, given his effect around the world encouraging autocrats and dictators, and given the highly imperiled current state of the planet itself, younger generations than mine are doing quite well indeed. They lean strongly toward feminism, anti-racism, economic justice, multiculturalism, societal equality, and in particular they are aware—terrifyingly aware—of global climate change.

More to the point, they are organizing and doing something about all these issues and more.

For this reason, but not only for this reason, are the words of Maria Teresa Kumar about Latinx youth encouraging. The president/CEO of Voto Latino, a social justice NGO, she was a recent guest on my podcast, “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan” and, as she pointed out, not only are young LatinX the fastest growing demographic in this country, but they too are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. And they are progressive like the rest of American youth: when Catholic, they are”Pope Francis Catholics, not Pope Benedict Catholics.” They are why Texas will turn blue in 5-10 years, as they are already affecting Nevada and Arizona and the rest of the Southwest.

What’s more, if youth in general is sometimes excessive or careless—as in the cry “defund the police,” when what they really mean is “do fund the police but humanely and responsibly,” well, that comes with the territory of being young—just as creaky joints, relentlessly boring comparisons of doctors, and grumbling about the young come with the territory of growing old. Different ages and stages have their own unique stupidities. But that’s no reason to overlook the good parts: intensifying wisdom, experience, humor, and a “what the hell” attitude that’s attendant on age, and the high energy, defiance, and political will attendant on the young.

Of course, when we’re young we forget that we’ll ever be old. And when we’re old we forget that we ever were young—and there’s the rub. Also, frankly, we elders envy the young, achingly so, whether we admit it or deny it. This is because their innocence about their easily ignorable physical reality plus their Can-Do mental state allow them a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir from which to draw, which is damned well fortunate because it will dry up soon enough.

I used to lecture at universities and colleges across this country and the world, until about 8 or 10 years ago, and felt more in touch with what younger people, women in particular, were thinking, feeling, and doing. Now, I zoom in, even though, in the Q & A period, it’s not the same, lacking a certain immediacy and intimacy. Yet the questions are still probing. Sometimes they are even desperate, often and ironically envious of my generation’s activism (“It’s a renewable resource!” I tell them), and they are always intelligent.

Sure, you can say, “Well, what about the idiocies that fill social media? Where the young are preoccupied with showing off what they ate or their newest boots bought on sale?” I say “That’s not only the young, sister.” You can also point out that my audiences self-select in wanting to hear me to begin with. Maybe so, but the polls seem to back me up. Young women are livid about the Supreme Court decision on Dobbs and abortion—and (here’s a big change) so are the young men in support of them!

There is far more participation in each other’s marches and demonstrations—for the rights of all women, for the rights of men of color, of the disabled, of lesbians and gays, of other disenfranchised and oppressed groups, than there used to be, back when jockeying for press attention and for funding too often separated the constituencies or even put them at each other’s throats. In other words, the young have matured.

Let’s not forget, either, that young people today face overarching crises beyond what all but a few of my generation could have imagined. Oh, we could imagine nuclear holocaust, but even the imaginings were often reduced to those ridiculous duck-and-cover under your school desk warnings. (Nowadays, students dive under their desks in fear of roaming shooters and their suppliers, the NRA.) But really, who, in the 1940s or 50s or even 60s—except environmentalists like the great Rachel Carson—could conceive of climate change threatening the entire planet toward extinction? Young people live with that as a daily urgency, and it has sobered them deeply. Still, even in the face of possible dystopias and disaster beyond our wildest fears, they remain determined to make not just a difference but THE difference. That isn’t denial, it’s optimism–and insistence.

I believe them. I know this will take every one of us, so I still intend to do my part. I also believe that given who we are and given who they are and given the state of this fragile blue marble, that we’re in good hands. But the clock is ticking….