REQUEST FOR SUPPORT :
I am only 30 years old, but I already feel myself disengaging from the tendencies of the youth. What is a TikTok? Who is Pokimane? Sometimes, however, I suspect that I am letting the company down. Shouldn’t I keep up to date, to better relate to – and therefore support – the heirs of the earth? Also, I get annoyed every time my parents call me for help. I should be part of the solution, right?
Dear [ 426 ] ,
That young people are destined to inherit the earth seems to be an indisputable fact, true at all ages. But believing in the next generation requires above all a belief in the future, which is easier in some historical times than in others.
Christ, of course, rather blessed the meek. He wasn’t very interested in the next generation, convinced that he was that the world was going to end with his. (His early followers were so certain that they occupied the last hours of a decadent civilization that they dissuaded themselves from procreating.) Today, with the prospect of a hereditary land still uncertain, the will to believe that children will one day bring together the sustained commitment and long-term thinking necessary to resolve, say, the climate crisis, feels like an article of faith – a prayer sent into the darkening void.
Most of the young people today are, as far as I know, lovely human beings, and the culture they have produced truly deserves our attention. I mean that, although it’s also the kind of thing one is forced to say after reaching a certain age, for fear of being banished to the out of touch island. In fact, at the risk of sounding cynical, I find it hard to believe that your own motives are as purely altruistic as you think they are. While it may be true that we all have an instinctive and evolutionary investment in seeing the next generation flourish (whether or not including our own children), I imagine your most immediate concern is your viability in long term in an economy. who considers cultural capital and technological mastery as assets for his personal brand. If you’re in a line of work that depends on getting and maintaining an online audience, following the culture is all about professional livelihood, a prerequisite for meeting its most basic economic needs.
I’m sorry to tell you that this quest is hopeless. On the one hand, most social platforms are designed to keep users in their demographic lanes. You can download TikTok to satisfy your own illusions that you are not beyond pallor yet, but unless you have the superhuman will to resist dwelling on the opening chords of this Top song. -40 that you liked in high school, or a quiz that promises to determine if you’re a real ’90s kid, algorithms will quickly take you to a ghetto of other millennials.
A lot of people your age are fooled into thinking that they can understand youth culture because so much of it was recycled from their own teenage years. The prevalence of nostalgia – the fact that each new group of children seems more eager to rekindle trends popularized by the one that came before them – seems to provide a link between the generations, a semblance of common ground. But this is rarely the case in practice. Nothing is more alienating than witnessing the naive celebration of music, clothing, and television that yourself mindlessly consumed as a young person, torn from its original historical context and appropriated with ambiguous degrees of irony.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to keep up, but that it takes more time and effort than most of us have at our disposal. When you’re young, of course, that doesn’t work at all – you breathe culture as stupidly as air – but maintaining active engagement as an adult is a full-time job, and the knowledge you get is always tenuous and second-hand. You enter their world as an anthropologist. There are exceptions to this rule – grannies Dionne Warwicks and TikTok who managed to thrive in a much younger environment – although their popularity hinges on somewhat clumsy characters who play out of touch for a laugh (and are, we suspect, orchestrated by much younger PR teams).
I don’t mean to depress you, but reframe the question slightly. If perpetual relevance is a chimerical virtue, as futile as the quest for eternal life, then the question becomes: what will make your life more fulfilling and meaningful? On the one hand, it may seem that gaining more knowledge – staying up to date on music, slang, whatever – will lead to more meaning, at least in its most literal sense. To grow old, after all, is to watch the world become more and more cluttered with empty signifiers. It’s becoming like one of those natural language processing models that understands syntax but not semantics, can use words convincingly in a sentence while ignoring the real world concepts they represent. It is as if you are becoming less human.
But knowledge is not the only source of meaning. In fact, at a time when information is ubiquitous, cheap, and accompanied by expiration dates, what most of us aspire to, whether we realize it or not, is continuity – the feeling that our lives are part of an ongoing story that began before we were born and will continue after we die. For centuries, the fear of aging has been assuaged by the knowledge that the wisdom, skills and life experience one has gained would be passed on to the next generation, a phenomenon historian Christopher Lasch once referred to as “A vicarious immortality in posterity”. When major technological innovations were happening every few hundred years rather than every decade, it was reasonable to assume that your children and grandchildren would live lives similar to yours. It is this feeling of permanence that has made it possible to build medieval cathedrals over the course of several centuries, with artisanal techniques handed down as family heirlooms.