One of the gospels of our new century is that, since Sept. 11, a new global conflict has risen to replace the Cold War as the prime geopolitical struggle of our time. This conflict has been variously described as a Clash of Civilizations; a struggle between East and West, Democracy and Tyranny, Religion and the Secular, the Past (medieval) and the Present (the progressive). All these pairings contain elements of truth, but none ring as fundamentally true, to me, as the tandem that has up to now been largely ignored, and that is: the Generational. Maybe the real war, already visible today, is between Youth and Age.
To examine the “youth” side of the equation, we need only look to the Middle East, the Asian subcontinent, South-east Asia and large parts of Africa. In virtually all countries in these regions of the developing world, youth represent by far the largest segment of the population. The median age in Iran is 27; in India 25.3; Egypt 24.8; East Timor 21.8; Syria 21.7; Saudi Arabia 21.6; Pakistan 20.8; Rwanda 18.7; Afghanistan 17.6; and Uganda 15.
Young people in these countries share more than numbers. Due to a confluence of cultural, economic and political forces, they tend also, often, to be unemployed, politically disaffected, sexually repressed and (though not always) uneducated. In our western world, popular music and music video, movies, TV and the Internet have traditionally provided an outlet for the restlessness of teenagers and 20-somethings (the classic “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll”). But in much of the developing world, particularly where religious fundamentalism prevails, young people aren’t allowed to date or speak to members of the opposite sex who aren’t related to them or take in music or TV or modern media, all of which are considered Satanic.1 As a result, there is in these regions an enormous, dangerously volatile stew of desire and impotence, which, in turn, makes these impressionable youths easy marks for ideologues and fanatics.
It’s a shame that Freud is out of fashion these days because here, surely, is a situation that validates his approach to what makes humans tick. Denied the normal outlets of fantasy and virtual aggression, of dating and dancing, of catharsis through action movies (and even porn), they embrace the only outlet left, which is horrific violence. What, after all, is blowing yourself up if not one large, final orgasm? After which, like a rock star, you not only get the proverbial 72 virgins in paradise but you get your picture in the paper, your close-up plastered on posters all over town and your family lionized. You achieve what every teenager watching American Idol dreams of: fame.
Our demographically tainted language predisposes us to think that young is good and old is bad. Old means mistakes and cynicism; young suggests idealism and the promise of something new. In fact, an argument can be made that young has also been reckless, stupid and ultra-destructive. The Cultural Revolution in China, a national and human catastrophe that ravaged that country between 1966 and 1976, was hijacked by kids. The Tamil Tigers and various African insurgencies2 are notorious for recruiting child soldiers, who commit atrocities. In her 2004 monograph, Female Suicide Bombers, Debra D. Zedalis, a civilian analyst associated with the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., writes that the only thing all experts in her field seem able to agree on is that “suicide bombers are primarily young people.” She adds, “The positive attitudes toward political violence already well entrenched in persons under 17 years of age (14.5 per cent) actually increases in the population up to the age of 24 (14.9 per cent) and decreases thereafter (six per cent at 64). According to Israeli researchers, the average age of the suicide bombers they see has declined from 22 in the 1990s to closer to 20 today.
Yes, we know that the architects of global destruction are often middle-aged; but the human ammunition they exploit is always young.
On the other side of the ledger, opposing all this roiling, agitated youth, is our aging Western world. Here are the median ages of 10 of the oldest countries in the developed world: Japan 44.2; Germany 43.8; Italy 43.3; Hong Kong 42.3; Finland 42.1; Greece 41.8; Belgium 41.7; Spain 41.1; Serbia 41; and Switzerland 41. (Canada, at 40.4, doesn’t even make it into the top 20; the U.S., at 36.7, is a relative youngster.) These 10 countries are, please note, typically 20 years older than their undeveloped counter-parts; and this gap will continue to grow in the next 40 years.
Common sense suggests, and research consistently demonstrates, that people 45-plus are more settled in their ways, less disposed to mayhem and more open to negotiation. In more mature societies, especially democratic ones, people are more likely to suggest talking things out and doing a deal.3
They’re also more likely to be innovative. In a 2005 study that challenged the long-held belief that creative thinkers and inventors do their best work when young, Benjamin Jones of the National Bureau of Economic Research demonstrated that the age at which “great achievements in knowledge are produced” has been increasing steadily over the past 100 years. Jones, who used Nobel Prize winners as the focus of his research, cautions that a factor in this trend may be the sheer increase in the number of 50-year-old innovators relative to the number of 25-year-olds, due to the baby boom population bulge and increased life expectancy in general. Still, the result remains: as time passes, it’s more likely that a Nobel Prize-winning work or the groundbreaking techno- logical development will come from a 50-year-old than from a 25-year-old.
Now, what about the war between the young and the old in the West itself? Is there a conflict here? Call it a skirmish. Our young people comprise a much smaller percentage of the population than their Second and Third World peers, but they’ve still managed to produce some generational tension in our culture in the form of a complaint about baby boomers that by now has become something of a cliché. “You’re an over- bearing avalanche of a generation,” the complaint runs. “You’ve drowned us out long enough. Your culture is everywhere, and you won’t retire! Not fair! You’ve had your turn; now, get out of the way. It’s the natural order of things. It’s God’s will.” To which I reply: three hundred years ago, it would have been “God’s will” that I should die at age 30; two hundred years ago, at 40; a hundred years ago, at 50. Today, it’s 80. In other words, God’s genius and gift has been to give us the brains to challenge the status quo. If we’re healthy, we all want to live forever. Besides, what would the young have us do — take a pill and slink meekly off into that night? Be serious. As boomers and Zoomers, we’ve no doubt been guilty of hubris, sometimes arrogant and obnoxious in our self-absorbed search for self-actualization. But as a generation, we’ve also hustled and produced.
We’ve affected the world. The cultural stars young people revere today are, as oftenas not, holdovers from our era. Our stars were larger than life; to- day’s culture heroes, Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen, are 40-year-old virgins, nerds adrift, sloppy, aimless guys who can’t get a date. Or else they are Paris Hilton /Lindsay Lohan-style airheads.
Any arrows of blame for this phenomenon, though, have to be aimed at us as well. As baby boom parents, we opted to have smaller families and then, well meaning or not, we infantilized those kids, creating a hybrid group of gen-Xers, gen-Ys and millennials with a split legacy. On the one hand, they’re the ultimate post-war children of plenty; on the other, heirs to an undeniable uncertainty about their occupational futures: an uncertainty most of us didn’t have to bear. The recent economic meltdown demonstrates that. We do bear some responsibility for their plight — which, of course, is what happens in family squabbles. Generations are families writ large; things are intertwined in both in inextricable ways, and there’s always enough guilt to go around.
In any war, it’s de rigueur to consign the enemy to hell. It can even be exhilarating. But in the War of the Ages, we’re all complicit. We can proceed as two solitudes and widen the fault lines of disaffection in the world, or we can find common ground in the message of another cliché: we need each other; hell, we’re related to each other. I’m talking about a December/May arranged marriage here, a match made by Darwin. There isn’t a more important social and political alliance on Earth today than the meeting of age and youth. The only question is: who calls who for the first date?
1. The gamut of youth-directed repression runs from an october 2005 edict issued by Iran’s nutbar president mahmoud Ahmadinejad, banning all Western music on state broadcast outlets, to an unmarried 18-year-old girl being publicly flogged this past spring in matta, Pakistan, because she was seen emerging from a home with “a guy who wasn’t her husband.”
2. Somalia’s Islamic terrorist group al- Shabaab (which means “The Youth” in Arabic) is a prime example. Al-Shabaab is known for suicide bombings as well as the fact that it continues its terrorist movement despite the death of its original — and senior — leader.
3. However, “In the war between those who desire death and those who treasure their rrSPs and rIFFs, the outcome is predictable.” (Tarek Fatah, national Post, Sept. 17, 2009).
Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website. Click here for more information.