A trope is haunting America. It was a good trope that served an important purpose in its time. Before it was a trope it was fresh idea that haunted those of a certain generation whose tired notions of social order were stifling and oppressive to their children. These children – generally born and raised in the 50s – embarked on a revolt in the 60s that rudely informed an older generation knew that the youth were tired of things the way they were, were hungry for fairness, and had the will, the intelligence and motivation to make manifest long-term change.
In those days simply growing your hair was a revolutionary act. Dressing outrageously, dancing freely, getting laid, getting high, each in and of itself was a political statement that contributed to social change. The kids knew where it was at. The adults were clueless. We still celebrate that revolution in movies like Hairspray, Footloose, and just about any movie featuring students and teachers, where young kids dancing, listening to music, dressing in ways to upset the older generation either break the chains of oppression or seduce the older generation to be cool and hip. Hip youth vs stodgy old farts. It’s a trope. And lately it’s been turned against us.
The most frequent version of it plays out through new technologies. That’s the domain of the young and hip. Old and stodgy is anyone less than fluent with social media. “Old people”, i.e. anyone old enough to have kids, marvel at kids of today: “They know how to use my smart phone. I don’t even know how to use it”. In corporate culture, if you want to be hip, you’re going to need some kids to come in and run new media department, because “kids these days know that stuff”. They’ll work cheap, they’ll get it done fast, because… “they were born with this stuff”. And kids believe it. They know Facebook, they know Twitter, they know video games better than anyone 5 years their senior.
Kids these days are as fluent with what they’re fluent with as adults were when they were kids. No smarter, no dumber. Likewise, adults are as dumb or smart as they’ve ever been, and they’re more or less in touch with whatever they’ve been involved with. Older people today haven’t forgotten what it means to be hip. They identify with it, and are a lot more likely to be supportive and involved with their kids than the parents of the 60s generation. They’re far less likely to use the crutch of seniority to lord over their kids an oppressive authoritarianism. This ain’t your grandpa’s century. The cult of young and hip is now a stale old idea.
Much of what passes for youth genius is frequently no more than fluency with consumer products. What’s scooped up under the moniker of old stodginess is the value of process — of values and skills accrued over time.
Corporations prey on the youth and the old alike to minimize the security, recognition, and salaries of both. Adorning themselves the patronizing tone of real grandparents, CorporateSpeak waxes incredulously at the incredible skill sets of “kids these days”, within earshot of disquieted older generation workers, who must suddenly worry about the invalidation that comes with age. Forget about knowledge and skills built on years of dedication. You’re not hip enough. You’re replaceable by someone with skills in Facebook, because they’ll get it done for a fraction of the cost. Kids these days are young, talented and eager to please. It doesn’t matter that many kids these days, out of their element, have no idea how to run, much less develop a system that can perform over time. They get a job that’s beyond them and lose twice: either they’re under paid for work they’re good at, or humiliated when failing to perform in a position they weren’t sufficiently qualified to do.
There once was a day when a stodgy clueless older generation, steeped in a tradition of seniority, wore out their own welcome and got their comeuppance at the hands of an enlightened youth movement. Now there’s a generation of youths less fluent with the past, endowed with a false sense of superiority by a corporate culture that pays them more in praise than in salary.
Perhaps its time to consider trotting the trope to the plank and letting it plop into the sea of history. Let it rise again should a future generation need it to right the wrongs of seniority. But right now the world needs to value youth and experience alike. The old want to stay in touch with the hip of their youth, and the youth need the wisdom and experience of the old. The youth and the old of today would do well to let Corporate America know they value each other want the stodgy authority of this generation — the predatory corporate world — to get out of their way.