There’s an internet post – first forwarded through e-mail, then later shared on Facebook – that congratulates the generation that grew up in the Fifties and Sixties for surviving their childhoods. They must have been really tough, argues the post, to survive doing dangerous things like playing out in the streets without adult supervision, riding in cars with no seatbelts, or eating food that hadn’t been checked for peanuts first. They must have been really tough to survive teachers who didn’t have to consider their self-esteem and parents who were actually prepared to punish them when they did something wrong.
The message of this post is clear; the way their generation was raised was the correct one and modern children are spoilt and mollycoddled. Whether or not you agree with this, it’s true that childhood in the Fifties and Sixties was very different to childhood today. Standards change a lot over time, and it’s not surprising that people who were born into a world that worked in one way can find themselves confused and annoyed when it starts to work in another. However, a few months ago, I saw a version of this post that was headed, “To everyone who grew up in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.”
That was perplexing for several reasons. For one thing, I’m almost certain that seatbelts and teachers who worried about self esteem existed even back in the Nineties. For another, the original post dates from around 2002, so I’m pretty sure it was originally written to criticise children who’d grown up in the Nineties. But the children of the Nineties are in our mid-to-late twenties now, so we’ve been deemed old enough to be included in the looking-down-our-noses-at-younger-people club. I’m sure we’re all honoured.
Well, actually, some of us are. Every other day, I see posts on my Facebook page from people in their twenties about how today’s children are growing up to be unholy hellions because their parents don’t beat them enough. Alternatively, they’re growing up to be uncultured morons because they’re not watching Dexter’s Laboratory and Bananaman like we did. It happens in real-life conversations, too; three times in the last month, somebody has told me about working in a school and being shocked at how rude and badly-behaved the children were. It’s nothing like our high school years, they say. (Meanwhile, I left a job in a secondary school earlier this year partly because it reminded me too much of my high school years. Clearly at least one of us has a faulty memory.)
It seems as though every generation can be easily convinced that the one immediately after it is made up of demons from hell. There are writings from the Roman playwright Seneca the younger in which he complains about the youth of today, who grow their hair too long and don’t listen to their teachers. So we can either conclude that the ancient Romans were paragons of virtue and wisdom and every generation since has been a slight decline (which would require us to ignore most of what Nero and Caligula got up to in their spare time), or that, maybe, it’s not fair to judge any generation based on the way they behave as teenagers.
Oh, but we’re right this time, you say. Those kids today are dangerous. They’ve got BBMs and violent videogames and Justin Bieber. They’re a menace. To which I reply: You do realise that’s exactly what people were saying about us ten years ago, right?
Alright, maybe not the part about Justin Bieber, but ten years ago, you couldn’t move for stories about how awful the young people of 2003 and 2004 were. When a teenage girl was arrested for indecent exposure while on holiday in Greece, the tabloids went bananas about how out-of-control modern kids were. The Mirror printed a shock report on teenagers getting drunk and flashing their breasts, and called on the parents of Britain to do something. The Daily Mail printed a photo of a group of teenagers getting on a plane, with a caption stating that the world would be better off if they all crash-landed in the sea. Then there were ASBOs. These were basically just the government’s new strategy for dealing with minor crimes, but the papers treated them as though they were a sign that everybody under the age of twenty was criminally insane. You’d see references to “ASBO youth” and “the ASBO generation” scattered here and there. When the word was accepted into the dictionary, the papers treated it as a sign of the wickedness of the modern age. The verdict was clear- the youth of that time represented a new low.
But now that the youth of that time have grown up, everybody’s changed their minds. We’ve been promoted from the worst generation ever to the last good generation before the rot set in. And, to show our gratitude for being accepted into polite society, we should all turn round and decry the awfulness of children today, in sheer glee that it’s not us anymore.
It’s lazy thinking, plain and simple. It’s egotism. It’s narrow-mindedness. It’s the refusal to accept that any childhood that isn’t absolutely identical the one we had can possibly be healthy, that what was good for us might not be good for somebody else. It’s the refusal to see anybody younger than us as a human being. It’s the refusal to consider that somebody might make mistakes because of immaturity rather than because they’re naturally evil. It’s the choice to throw something away because it’s not working exactly how we want it, rather than trying to fix it. The children who grew up in the Nineties have been asked to join this club, but if we’ve got any sense, we’ll say no. Because we’re still young enough to remember when we were the generation of demons from hell, and we’ll never solve the problem just by passing the bile onto someone else.