Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Worship the Young and Venerate the Old?

This is a youth-oriented society, and the joke is on them because youth is a disease from which we all recover.

American culture idolizes youth. Youth represents strength, both physical and mental, beauty and plasticity. The United States is a young country after all, not just because of its demographics but also historically and architecturally.

An old building in Boston can be no more than 300 years old, compared to Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, China's Qin Dynasty tombs or India's Virupaksha Temple; architecturally we are babies. No ancient structures dominate our landscapes.  Los Angeles  may have its share of crumbling buildings not because any building has weathered more than 200 August heat waves, but because cheap materials with no staying power were used in construction.

So, part of why we venerate youth may be a form of collective self-esteem.  As a culture, as a nation we are young, and so we love youth. To be young and beautiful means higher paying jobs and social opportunities. To be young and bright means hard work and a little luck may land you on NASA's newest mission to Mars or in the Oval Office, regardless of where your parents came from.  Youth are not held back by heavy familial traditions or responsibilities.Old age is perceived as defeat.  People fight it.  Americans want to stay young and any benefits middle-age or beyond may bring are lost to us.

In France, although the beauty of youth is celebrated, age is respected.  The old are seen as not only wise, but deserving of attentions small and large. Ecuadorians honor their elders by giving people of "the third age" steep, sometimes more than 50% discounts, on airplane and theater tickets and there is no set retirement age.  Healthy octogenarians work alongside younger people and are consulted and prized as workers for their experience. In fact, in the small Andean city of Vilcabamba, older people tend to exaggerate their ages, they want to seem older than their true chronological age. The young are seen as inexperienced and look for guidance from the older members of society.

The benefits of providing myriad opportunities for the young in the United States are clear.  Americans believe in possibilities and that is most clear in the iconoclasm surrounding youth. But much is lost with the vilification of old age and with classic American images of  the sunset years as disease-ridden and characterized by mental decline and irrelevance. These perceptions bode well for no one, not even the very young.  What is there to look forward to if your life opportunities and relevance peak within the first three decades of life?  This is simply culturally unhealthy and even pathologically ignorant. 

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