Young People today ain’t what they used to be
This morning takes me back some fifty years. King George Vl, had recognised with gratitude that I, with the help of one or two others, had ensured that democracy had been saved, at least for the time being. So His Majesty graciously granted that a indebted country could now spare me from further military service. I was allowed to exchange uniform for demobilisation suit, and return to my family.
Within a month or two I left home once more. This time to a college in Sheffield to train as a teacher. Part of the training consisted of giving prepared lessons to a class of pupils, while critical tutors looked on, and took notes. Afterwards there followed a debriefing, no doubt kindly meant but rigorous in the analysis of what had gone wrong.
Coming here this morning as an amateur before an audience amongst whom are professional preachers, puts me in mind of those far-off days. It is not so much reading the lesson, and preaching the sermon, which causes the internal butterflies to flutter. It is any analysis afterwards I fear. I come with the humility of the man who married the widow and was conscious that it had all been done so much better before. So just in case any-one is taking notes, I get my plea of mitigation in first.
For what do I know of youth that others have not articulated with much greater eloquence and authority? My thoughts are the result of observation, lightly seasoned with a little experience, rather than grounded in research. Father, grand-father, retired teacher I may be, but that experience has opened my eyes to a depth of personal ignorance, rather than providing a fund of knowledge, or supplying a sackful of answers.
I start by making obvious points. First, we use the term “young people” or “youth” as a convenient collective noun. But in this context, a collective noun can be misleading, if not dangerously simplifying. Collective nouns often gather members within a group who are largely indistinguishable one from the other. A murmuration of starlings is composed of birds of a feather. A farmer might demur at the proposition that a herd of cattle are kine which are much of a muchness, though that’s how it seems to us townies. Some suggest that a college of cardinals, a collection of clergy, or a fraternity of ministers are made up of clones, but I’ll not push that point.
But, to class young people, whatever the age range our definition of youth might allow, as largely indistinguishable one from another except by sex (ignoring the complaints of those who murmur that these days you can hardly tell the girls from the boys, or vice versa), is an obvious absurdity. And yet we hear constantly, and regularly read phrases, about “the youth of today”, “modern teenagers”, “disco ravers”, “youth culture”, and so on, which imply that the collective noun covers a group of identical members feeding, moving, playing together like a shoal of herring. When you have met one, you have met them all.
Intellectually we may know the individuals are just that, individual, independently minded souls. Our mouths proclaim the importance of personal identity, but in practice, when it comes to thinking of the needs of the members of the group, prejudice denies individuality.
The young person may be described as, say, a studious student, a talented musician, a drunken yob, a pop-star crazed teenager, a football hooligan, an insecure adolescent, a love-sick swain, a drug experimenter, a tempestuous spitfire, a rowdy and awkward rebel, to name just a few sub-divisions.
But further than that, any one young person will properly be identified with most or many of the various categories, over a period of time. Not only is it foolish and wrong to try and put young people into fixed groups, it is quite misleading to tag the individual with a simple label which is comprehensive and permanent. Shakespeare described the seven ages of man from birth to death in terms of character actors. Most young people play many parts within one age, often within a single day.
For youth is a time not only of growth, but of experimentation. To play many parts is to learn many lines. Maturity evolves from experience. Experience comes through sampling.
So my plea is that, by thought, word and deed, preserve individuality and beware the simplicity of the filing cabinet; it may look impressively neat but that disguises the fact that once filed is to be lost for ever.
The second obvious point is that we were all young once. But paradoxically, this is both an advantage and yet a handicap. It is advantageous because it proves there is life after youth. The young learn fast. Remember Housman’s young man who sadly reflected,
When I was one and twenty
I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free”.
But I was one and twenty,
No use to talk to me
When I was one and twenty
I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
Tis paid with sighs a-plenty
And sold for endless rue.”
And I am two and twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.
Painful as the learning was, I expect the young man survived.
One who survived youth, Robert Browning, could later write more hopefully.
“Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be
The last of life
For which the first was made.”
For if youth is destined to acquire knowledge painfully, then age enables one to polish memories of joys, and bury away painful recollections.
There can be few of us who do not recall aspects of our youth about which we feel a degree of discomfort. There were those things which we ought not to have done, as well as the occasional sin of omission. The parts we played, whether as leading actors or in supporting roles were not always in contention for Oscars. From time to time appeared critical reviews. So we know what it’s like to be young. Or do we?
Memories are notoriously selective and unreliable. Summers were hotter, winters colder. Doors were safely left unbolted; Samaritans were to be found on every street corner; policemen boxed the ears of unruly delinquents and the reprimand was acceptable and effective; the poor were honest, and the rich man’s word was his bond. Those things must be true, for many a senior citizen will tell you, from personal experience, that it was so.
But the young live in the society of the day. And the society of today is not quickly summarised. It is more complex than ever before. Compared with the those golden years which were our youth, much has changed. Few now leave school and go straight into a job. More grow up, for better or worse, in a family with just one parent, or as a step-child, having first-hand experience of the trauma of divorce. Fear stalks streets that once knew nothing of mugging, and contrary to common belief, the young are in greater danger than the elderly.
The chance of going to University is greater than ever, but, conversely, for many, education has been an unhappy experience. A larger total of examination successes, but for some, no certificate, merely reinforcement of failure. Families where parents are unemployed, or who daily fear redundancy, are common-place. The sour experiences of the elders have set the child’s teeth on edge. Shops are crammed with consumer goods, advertised ad infinitum on the ubiquitous television screen. But the real income of poor families has fallen for at least a decade.
For much of my life and maybe yours, drugs were desirable. They were medicines from the chemist shop (the Americans used to call them drug stores); medicines to cure illness. Cocaine was something the dentist injected before extracting a tooth. I read of opium dens in history books and in the stories of Sherlock Holmes, but had little idea of the characteristics of the drug. How many of us did?
Now, we are told, a large proportion, maybe a majority, of young people sample, at some time, so called soft drugs. A few progress to harder varieties. Alcohol is not only more readily available than was once the case, but the brewers, distillers and importers direct much effort in their advertising and promotion campaigns specifically to appeal to the young. And what of the ambivalent attitude to the tobacco industry? As the law insists on health warnings, it allows sponsorship and advertising on a huge scale. To put it mildly, the message to young people is unclear.
Thou shalt not steal, but cheating creditors is different, particularly if millions of pounds is involved. Avarice is a sin, but apparently not if you head a large multi-national or privatised company. We have learnt of a new phrase; “to be economical with the truth”.
So if we were all young once, perhaps not only have our memories been edited as time has gone by, but the environment in which we dwelt was a radically different one.
It is not surprising that many young people act from time to time in ways that we, who are older and wiser, see as irresponsible and unsociable. It is not extraordinary, though not to be excused, if, living in a consumer led land, where to have is to be successful and to have not is despised, some youngsters seek to acquire life’s comforts by any means, and at any cost to others. After all, does not the devil take the hindmost? It is remarkable is that, in spite of everything, so many thoughtful, idealistic, and altruistic young people stand up for right, rather than be drawn into selfish greed.
I still have contact with a large number of young people, for I act as chairman of two secondary school governing bodies. One of the schools is in the centre of a large pre-war council housing estate with many of the problems associated with such areas. The other school has a truly comprehensive intake ranging from the affluent owner occupier to the dweller in a run down estate. Though I don’t deny that there are some pupils in both schools who exhibit anti-social behaviour, what I do see is a large majority of, and I don’t mean to sound condescending, decent, albeit at times boisterous, socially conscious young people.
In one sense, young people today aren’t as they used to be. How could they be unaffected by the changed environment from yester-year? That is not a value judgement; just a factual observation. But in another sense, they are the same in all their infinite variety. All the same adjectives used over the years still apply to most of them, at one time or another – frustrating, irresponsible, loveable, thoughtless, considerate, immature, idealistic, companionable, unsociable, emotional, intolerant, sensitive, and all the rest. None of that has changed very much, if at all. Let us note that we are gathered here this morning in an ancient Chapel, holding a Christian service. I claim to be a christian, even if an inadequate one. Change and decay in all around I may see, but a central theme of christianity is belief in the eternal. Youth is transitory, but truths proclaimed from many a pulpit are everlastingly valid.
I have no new advice to give as to how to deal with young people. How to solve problems of youth crime, drug culture, mindless vandalism or hooligan behaviour. All I can suggest is that we must continue to preach what I think of as christian values, freely admitting they are not exclusively christian. Values such as truth, honesty, tolerance, respect, consideration for others, faithfulness, forgiveness, understanding, to name a few.
But much more than preaching, we need to practice and not merely proclaim. Pointing the direction is not nearly as effective as leading the way. Youth clubs, Sunday schools, moral initiatives, support schemes and the like are fine, but cannot be completely effective whilst double-standards are condoned, commandments are as pie-crusts, and hand-wringing is substituted for hand-holding. If there are young people who are failing, then surely the responsibility in large part lies with the generations which proceed them. The truths on which a society at peace with itself depends have not changed; they are eternal. A great majority of folk pay at least lip-service to them even today. What is less evident is that through society, thoughts and deeds have stayed in harmony one with the other.
Selfish has become a commoner word than selfless. Hypocrisy is hardly just an old-fashioned word found only on the pages of the Gospels. It is pervasive in public and private life. If it is the case that “young people today ain’t what they used to be”, I doubt if the explanation is in their genes. The generation who criticise could, with advantage, look into the mirror.
So my conclusion is neither original nor profound. It is encapsulated in the lines of a well-known hymn.
“Be what thou seemest; live thy creed”
Not a bad motto for all seasons. Applicable to all human creatures, great and small.
But, if we fail to implement it, then, to the list of adjectives to be applied to young people, routinely we shall have to include “cynical”. Young people ain’t what they used to be, for they never have been. If they ain’t what they ought to be, then the explanation might be uncomfortably near to home.
Hucklow 17 November 1996