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The Idealization of Youth
Contemplations on the Sapling of Woe
I’ve made a habit of doing long-form, sometimes multi-part, articles on this blog, but occasionally there’s thoughts on my mind that are interesting enough to merit an article but perhaps not so well-developed as to justify my usual approach of Meta-Post-Physiocracy: Beyond Post-Physiocracy via the Work of this Obscure Metaphysician Reconsidered, Part VII. Today’s article is one of these interesting-but-immature (one might say “youthful”) digressions.
The Idealization of Youth
I’ve long been puzzled by the idealization of youth in the modern world. Now, by this phrase, I mean something very specific.
I do not mean the prioritization of the care, love, or nurture of youth. Obviously, in order for a culture to survive, every generation of its adults must produce another generation, and in most (though not all) cultures, the progeny of the adults is cherished and educated in order to ensure that occurs. Love for one’s children is as ancient a tenet as civilization itself.
Nor do I mean the idealization of youthful beauty. The Ancient Greeks, for instance, revered the beauty of youth, presented it in sculpture, and praised it frequently in their poetry. However, they did not idealize youth in the way that our society does.
Nor do I mean the simple belief that youth is special. Historical cultures have always understood youth to be a special phase in the development of the adult, and have often created important cultural rites and rituals to characterize coming-of-age. But in such societies, it is the coming-of-age that is prized, and one does not gain the respect of society until one has done it.
No, by the idealization of youth I mean that cultural tenet which views younger people as intellectually and morally superior to older people. What are the signs that such a tenet has taken hold? Things like:
Artistic representation in fiction that consistently presents youth as more cunning, clever, smart, and savvy than the adults they interact with.
Artistic representation in fiction of adults as clueless, incompetent, and unaware of how the world works.
Attempts to assign the authority of adulthood earlier and earlier (such as reducing the voting age to 16) while postponing the responsibility of adulthood to later years (avoidance of “adulting”).
Constant clamor for youth to redeem or save civilization.
Contempt for youth of adults in direct proportion to their age. (OK, boomer.)
Desire by the adult to have, not just the beauty of youth, but the social status of youth and the moral values of youth, that is, to be seen as “cool,” “hip,” “with it.”
This is the diametric opposite of the view held by, e.g., Confucian China or Patriarchal Rome. It’s a very unusual view — virtually no society before modern society has held it.
Causes of the Idealization of Youth
Like most complex phenomenon I think the idealization of youth has many actual causes. Some are probably accidental, byproducts of happenstance in culture. Others, I think, are probably chemical or hormonal, such as the impact of pseudo-estrogens. But I think there is also a proximate cause that can be clearly discerned.
To see it, let us first us make a distinction between competence and wisdom. Competence is the ability to perform tasks. For intellectual tasks, it is a byproduct of the talent and training of the mind; for physical tasks, a byproduct of the talent and training of the body. Wisdom is the ability to perceive future (first-, second-, third-, or fourth-order) consequences of actions, either through insight or past experience or both. An important distinction between the two is that competence can be objectively demonstrated to others, while wisdom can only be subjectively experienced by adopting a wise course of action and witnessing the results.
In traditional culture, youth lack both competence and wisdom, while adults possess both. For instance, consider a 14-year-old apprentice to a 45-year-old blacksmith in the year 200 AD. The 45-year-old blacksmith has the competence to forge swords, horseshoes, nails, and other objects. He learned these techniques from his own teacher, and they have changed virtually not at all in decades, perhaps centuries. The apprentice will learn these techniques when and if he is taught them by someone who knows them. At the same time, however, the 45-year-old smith also has wisdom that the youthful apprentice does not. He knows, for instance, what it’s like to fall in love and fall out of love; to have a wife, to have a child; to lose a parent, to lose a child; what it means to destroy a reputation for credibility with a misplaced lie; what it means to create credibility by delivering good work over time, and on and on.
Contrast that to the modern world. Consider a 14-year old teenager (we’ll call him Ashton, because that seems like a Gen Z name) is being raised by a 55-year old parent. How easy is it for you to imagine Ashton’s parent saying things like “Oh, the remote’s not working! Call Ashton, he can re-program it.” “I had my son Ashton set up the X-Box, I don’t know how it works.” “Oh, Ashton uses that TikTok program, I don’t know how he makes those great videos.” Competence has become the characteristic of youth rather than age.
This disrupts the traditional relationship between youth and adult. In traditional cultures, the youth, lacking wisdom, cannot perceive its lack, and it cannot be demonstrated to him; but he can perceive his own demonstrable lack of competence, and look to his adults to train him. The mindset required to be taught competence makes the youth more susceptible to being taught wisdom as well. In opening his mind to learning how to smith, he opens his mind to learning how to be a blacksmith, understood as a man in his society who is a functioning adult.
Conversely, in closing his mind to adult competence, the youth closes his mind to adult wisdom as well. If Mom can’t even use TikTok filters, how can she possibly be helpful in guiding me through the social challenges of high school? If Dad doesn’t even know the difference between LOL and DOTA, what can he possibly know about the value of going to state school and private school for college?
Wisdom cannot be demonstrated, so competence is used as a proxy for wisdom; and when competence cannot be demonstrated, wisdom will be presumed absent.
Thus, when adults are more competent than youth, adults are also perceived as wiser than youth. When adults are less competent than youth, adults are then perceived as less wise than youth, even though they are actually still wiser!
Now, to be clear, youth does not have the advantage in all types of competence. It has the advantage very specifically in competence with regard to rapidly-changing technology. Why is this the case?
The human mind is more plastic when it is younger; it is easier for a child to learn a language than an adult, for a teenager to learn a new coding technique than for a 60-year-old. For most of human history, this was an adaptation that was admirably suited to our lives. As children and teenagers, we learned the competencies of our ancestors, and those competencies not only served us throughout our entire lives, they served our children, our grand-children, and onward. The pace of change was so glacial as to be almost invisible.
When the pace of technological change hastens, however, then our adaptation to “learn when young” becomes counterproductive. The skills we learned when were were 16 may not be relevant when we are 46. Hell, the skills we learned when we were 16 may not be relevant when we’re 26. This, in turn, creates massive disruption for adults, who now find themselves having to under go “continuing adult education,” a project on which countless hours and billions of dollars have been spent to unfortunately little avail — as the problem is hardwired into our human development.
So, from this, we would expect that the idealization of youth would coincide with the hastening of the pace of change in society; and, in fact, that is exactly what we see.
A Caveat on Incompetence
At this point I must address the obvious criticism to my position, e.g, that in fact many adults are not incompetent. That can be sub-divided into two points; first, that some adults are competent with rapidly-changing technology; and second, that many adults are competent with other important things.
With regard to the former, some of you are, no doubt, shaking your head at the notion that “adults can’t program an Xbox” and so on. I do not mean to imply that any of you, personally, are incompetent with technology. But if you’re reading Contemplations on the Tree of Woe, you are almost certainly an outlier with regard to intelligence and education. As such, you are capable of adult learning, probably do know how to set up an X-Box, and could figure out TikTok if you wanted to. Most people are not like you. Spend some time with middle-aged adults in the 90-110 IQ range where most of the population lives and the phenomenon I’ve described is very real.
With regard to the latter, it is absolutely true that many adults are, in fact, quite competent at many tasks. Unfortunately our society is structured so that youth rarely get to see adults they could learn wisdom from (such as their parents) being competent. Indeed, they are so isolated from them throughout the day, kept in the company only of other youth, that the adult world is altogether alien to them. During the COVID epidemic, when many folks began to work from home, there were a number of reports of wives being surprised at how aggressive, competent, and forceful their husbands actually were during work calls — because they had never seen that side of their spouse before. They see them only at home, doing chores or hobbies. So too with youth.
Implications of the Phenomenon
I believe modern idealization of youth is predicated on the superiority of youthful competence in fast-changing technologies, which leads to youth becoming perceived as more competent and more wise than adults.
If my theory is correct, then the following seem to be logical implications of it:
To the extent that fast-changing technology is central to a culture, then adults will not just appear to be incompetent, they will actually be incompetent. But since adults tend to have inherited leadership over organizations and polities, this means that the world is being run by incompetent people who do not understand how it works. And this seems to me to be entirely true.
To the extent that idealization of youth hampers the transfer of wisdom from generation to generation, then we should expect to see a rapid loss of that wisdom, with worsening decision-making, lack of emotional maturity, and poor judgment. For such crippled souls, “adult” becomes, not a noun, not a state of being, but a verb. This, too, seems self-evidently to be the case in our society, for at least two generations.
To the extent that fast-changing technology is built on older technology, but can be used without understanding of the older technology, then youth will appear to be competent but will not be able to sustain the civilization they have inherited. For youth to have the ability to play Minecraft requires that some adult before them could code software and make silicon chips. The youth’s skill does not entail the adult’s. If this is the case, then we should expect to see an enormous inter-generational loss of capability, as the next generation becomes unable to do what the prior generation can do, even as it becomes better able to use the tools that the prior generation created but does not itself fully utilize. This also seems to be self-evidently true in our society, which is suffering skill shortages and talent loss in every field.
To the extent that each generation learns to use particular types of technology, that type of technology will become symbolic of and limited to that generation. This is nowhere so apparent as in social media, where Facebook is for Gen X, Instagram is for millennials, and TikTok is for Gen Z.
To the extent that acceptance of adult wisdom tends to mean support for the status quo that the adults have created, then we should see an inverse correlation between rapidly-changing technology and conservative values. That does seem to be the case, in two ways; one, the world as a whole has been “swimming left” since the Industrial Revolution; and two, liberal or progressive values are most concentrated in tech industries and young people. This suggests that there is an inherent tension between future-oriented capitalism and any type of conservatism.
To the extent that youth presume incompetence in adults that matter (parents) because they are not exposed to their competence, there might be some benefit if society moved away from “classroom” education into internships, work study, and other circumstances where at a younger age more youth are exposed to adults in the workplace. The apprenticeship model is (in my opinion) almost certainly a better way to raise a mature and flourishing man or woman than the “company of your peers” classroom approach.
Now, I cannot claim to have read 16 obscure books that discuss this topic nor can I cite any hard data; but I think intuitively it makes sense and explains a lot of curious features of our modern world. I’ll be curious what others think.
Let’s contemplate this on the Sapling of Woe, which is morally and intellectually superior to the Tree of Woe due to its youthful competence and coolness.