Adults Today Care Too Much What Young People Think

On his new podcast Club Random, Bill Maher recently spoke with Dr. Drew Pinsky. Along with millions of other millennials, I grew up listening to Dr. Drew on Loveline in the early/mid-2000s. I listened closely when Dr. Drew began speaking to Maher about generational divides:

During my recent re-watch of the entirety of Mad Men, which takes place in the 1960s, I had a recurring thought: This was the last generation where young adults behaved like they were older than their real age. Don Draper is around thirty-five at the start of the series and carries himself in a more adult manner than many 45-year-olds today.

Until the early 1960s, young people acted older than their actual age. Now, older adults pretend to be younger than their actual age, which is perhaps one of the reasons why boomers are so easy to mock. In a recent article, Abigail Shrier quoted a physician and psychologist who had told her that “Fifty years ago, boys wanted to be men. But today, many American men want to be boys.”

An article in the Wall Street Journal reports:

And this is from an article on the same topic from the New York Times:

A few months after the student eruptions at Yale in 2015, I met with a professor for coffee.

He described how he’d made some public remarks in favor of free speech during a period when activists and protestors on campus were calling for two professors to be fired. He then told me how hurt he was to be on the receiving end of some nasty insults online and from emails from various students because of his remarks. I walked away from that discussion thinking, this person is a tenured professor at one of the top universities in the world. Why does he care what a bunch of undergrads think? It made no sense to me.

About two years later, I was at a breakfast gathering with some other students on campus. Our guest was a former governor and presidential candidate. He was gracious and spent most of his time answering questions from students. And in his answers, he continually returned to variations of the same response: “We screwed up, and it’s up to you guys to fix it. I’m so happy to see how bright you all are and how sharp your questions have been because you will fix the mistakes my generation made.” This mystified me. This guy was well into his sixties, with a lifetime of unique experiences in leadership roles, and was telling a bunch of 20-year-olds (though I was a little older) that older adults are relying on them.

In the military, we thought of those senior to us as the leaders. It was okay to give feedback, of course, and commanding officers would regularly consult lower ranking and enlisted members to see what was working and what could be improved. But that happened only after getting through the filter of the initial training endeavors. 

I remember in the first week of basic training, our instructor declared, “I don’t want any of you [expletive] thinking you are doing anyone a favor being here. I could get rid of all of you clowns and have your replacements here within the hour.” (This was 2007, well before the recruitment crisis). My 17-year-old brain heard that and thought, yeah, he’s probably right. I thought of the busloads of other ungainly young guys I saw waiting in the endless in-processing lines.

And then I got to college and learned that even though any seat—at least at selective schools—can be filled immediately with an equally bright applicant, students are never expelled for disrespecting professors or anyone else. In the military the first message was, you are a peon and less than nothing and we can easily have you replaced (this changes, at least to some degree, as you advance in rank). In college, the first message was, you are amazing and privileged and a future leader (and marginalized and erased) and you will never lose your position here among the future ruling class. That feeling of whiplash will forever linger in my mind.

The author and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has said:

There may be a class element to this. Growing up, I don’t recall adults caring what kids thought. Not that this is always such a great thing because parents and guardians were often neglectful or totally checked out, not really caring what kids were into or up to. School bus drivers regularly told kids to shut the fuck up. Teachers had little time for kids’ interests. There was one teacher in one of my elementary schools in 2000 who knew what Pokémon was (he didn’t pronounce it as “Po-kee Man”) and by default that made him the “cool” teacher.

The educated class seems to have gone too far in the other direction. They care too much what kids think. Poor kids have neglectful parents; rich kids have helicopter parents. For better or worse, culture is largely dictated by this educated class.

Older people in this category are now reluctant to say that they have accrued some useful knowledge to share and wisdom to impart. But there is a massive hunger among young people for this. Part of the reason they behave so erratically is to test where the line is, and to see what knowledge older people can share to steady their anxieties.

Older adults are reluctant to exert authority. They want the prestige that comes with having power, but they don’t want the responsibility of exerting it when challenged by a bunch of naive and pampered kids who have faced zero percent of real life and its attendant hardships.

In Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, Helmut Schoeck writes:

In other words, young people act out to see what they can get away with. They want to test boundaries, which older adults are often unwilling to enforce because they want so badly to be liked by younger people. Some young adults can sense this, which emboldens them. That is, while some young people are implicitly seeking guidance when they act out, others act out because they delight in taunting older adults. 

Older adults crave validation from the youth, which is one reason they are mocked. Young people sense their desire to be seen as cool and deprive them of this by taunting them. This desire for esteem may be why older adults won’t exert any authority in response to energetic young conflict entrepreneurs who yell at or threaten them. Older adults want to be on the side of youth and are desperate to pencil themselves out of the “old” category. Every parent wants to be the “cool parent,” and every professor wants to be the “cool” professor. 

But you can be cool and still be an authority figure. Maybe decades of imbibing the worst of U.S. pop culture made everyone forget this.

Near the end of their conversation, Bill Maher said to Dr. Drew:

Rob Henderson, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, is a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Cambridge.A version of this article was originally published in Rob Henderson’s Newsletter.

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