We start life with nothing but our instincts. So when we are teenagers, why do we think we know it all? Because everything we’re learning at that age is new to us, so it must be new, period. When we’re in our 20’s, we think we’re going to show the older people at work a thing or two. (In fairness, when it comes to technology, we do master it better when we are young.) Teens and young adults are more likely to be idealistic and see the world in all-or-nothing terms. Therefore, big problems have easy solutions that older people just can’t see. But in reality, it takes decades to develop nuanced ways of seeing the world (if that happens at all), and to acquire real wisdom. Young people necessarily have some learning to do before they truly know it all.
This leads to a great irony: Just when we are getting started in the adult world, we make decisions regarding our education, career, love life, etc., that will affect us for the rest of our days, in ways we cannot foresee when we are only 20. When we finally (hopefully) acquire the requisite wisdom, we’re too old to re-do the important choices of life.
All this has been the case for as long as there have been young people. But today, this predicament is compounded. We live in a youth-oriented culture: activities and ways of life that are most celebrated are those most do-able by young people. (Old age is only celebrated if old people are taking their Viagra.) We are immersed in a happiness-oriented culture. Now that most Westerner’s basic physical needs are well-met, our focus is on keeping ourselves entertained, only working as much as is needed to fund our desires. (I’m not suggesting we all become dull, obsessive worker bees. I’m saying that life needs balance, meaning and purpose. The continual pursuit of pleasure as a lifestyle lacks those things. There are still plenty of worthy goals to work towards, where each of us could play a part.)
In the 1960’s youthful rebellion took on a life of its own, which meant rejecting tradition and all adult advice on how to best live life. Today, it is sheer blasphemy even to suggest that young people might not know the best paths to take in life in order to find the greatest happiness. Yet every indication, from happiness surveys to the relative brevity of today’s relationships, to overall mental and physical health levels, to the fact that more people are living alone than ever before, is that happiness is in decline. This wouldn’t be the case if people were finding improved ways to do life.
Mature adults advising and even constraining young people to follow certain paths was not a cruel conspiracy to deprive yet another generation of happiness. It was an attempt (sometimes mis-handled, but almost always sincere) to guide young people down paths toward greater satisfaction and away from common mistakes.
The inability to redo important parts of life makes it doubly crucial that the major choices we make be made wisely. And young people should not have to figure things out from scratch with every generation. But that cannot happen without input from those of older generations. We can fix this problem and save a lot of heartache, but only by un-enshrining youthful rebellion.