One of the most memorable moments of this strange week occurred when President Trump walked past Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, at the United Nations. Greta glared as Trump lumbered by, her angry eyes expressing the outrage of a generation. The president later said she seems like a happy girl looking forward to a wonderful future.
But Greta’s UN speech was not a happy one. She excoriated the adults for stealing her dreams and her future. She said, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Greta’s fury echoes an ancient tradition of youthful indignation. Antigone defied Creon. Hamlet smelled the rot in Denmark. Holden Caulfield called out the phonies. Bob Dylan declared that the times were a-changin’. And the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School demanded gun control.
The older generation responds with patronizing nods of our gray heads. Those of us who have lived a few decades become inured to outrage. The older you get, the easier it is to acquiesce to the status quo. You shrug your shoulders and go about your business. A scandal here, a disaster there. This is the way the world has always been, we say. Some things cannot be changed. You might as well go with the flow.
But to young people, the flow is rotten. To go with it is to sell out to it. In the 1960s they said if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Young people today are as anxious and angry as they were 50 years ago. They fear mass shootings. They are tired of racism. They want a solution to the climate crisis. They are sick of scandals and corruption.
They must also be tired of our geriatric politics. We’ve suffered under a couple of decades of Boomer-ocracy: from Clinton and Bush and on to Trump. Maybe it’s time to let the next generation have a chance.
Of course, age is just a number. Some octogenarians are energetic and wise. Some are not. Some young people are ignorant and dull. Some are not. A person’s age only gives a vague hint about the kind of person they are.
But alienation is typical of youth. Youthful indignation has a developmental basis. The impatient vivacity of youth is related to their short number of years. For the young, each moment is new. Each desire or fear fills the whole of existence. Youth is a time of rapid transformation. The body changes, as does the brain. Relationships are intense. Novel experiences inundate the adolescent mind. The soul of youth throbs with the restless energy of growth.
All of this mellows with age. Old people can remain nimble and curious. The body and brain can continue to learn even in its later decades. But age brings perspective and patience. As a sense of history develops, the urgency of the moment diminishes. We understand that “this too shall pass.” We learn that nothing lasts forever. We respond to the latest crisis with a more complacent attitude.
This means that older people are generally calmer and slower to change. The youth view our mature complacency with contempt. The old prefer incremental reform. The young demand revolution.
Greta said, “You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.”
We ought to listen to the thunder of indignant youth. But we’ve seen this tragedy before and we know how it turns out. Outraged youth take to the streets. The old folks smile and wave. And then we go on with business as usual. We know that the alienated youth will soon burn out and move on to things.
But if we are not careful, our complacence becomes complicity. It is the youth, after all, who will write the story of our time. One wonders what Greta and her generation will write to the future about us. Will they impeach us or will they eventually join us on the other side of outrage?