URSABLOG: Mind The Gap

I’ve been out and about a fair bit recently, both in Athens and in Hamburg, and so have had the opportunity to have long and interesting conversations with many different people about one thing and the other. One theme that keeps coming up however is the generation gap, where older, and not so old people expressed their bafflement, concern and frustration about the ’younger generation’, although at what age that starts and stops seems to be a bit blurred. Let’s say around thirty is the dividing line, although allowances can be made in certain cases in either direction; some are old beyond their years, some hold on to youth tenaciously, clinging on like a limpet. Some are – in my eyes at least – a compelling mixture of maturity and childlikeness, beguiling and puzzling in equal measure. 

In the conversations where – for want of a better phrase – the generation gap has been discussed, it has been mostly in the terms of “younger people are difficult and I don’t understand them. They are entitled, demand more than we did without deserving it, and don’t know how to work properly.” The subtext seems to be “Why aren’t they more like us?” Many theories are mentioned: social media, COVID, education, but all in the context of how they don’t seem to have any concentration, they don’t stick at things, they can’t read anything longer than half a page, and they have unrealistic expectations from employment, from relationships, from life. These complaints are so universal that I wonder whether the ones complaining are themselves influenced by social media, the lockdown experience and an outdated education. 

I am not one of those ‘older’ people who complain about this so much, mostly because I work in an office full of younger people (I am the eldest), I teach regularly, and I am blessed with young friends, so I know what and how they think, and at root it’s not actually that different to what and how I think. Indeed as one of my friends recently commented to me, my lifestyle is not that different to theirs anyway: I work in shipping, I like a glass of wine and company, I’m single and I’m not blessed with children. The only thing that is really different is that I don’t watch television and use certain apps: I read instead. But that has always been the case for many years, and being a dedicated reader – especially of fiction – has always put me in the minority, from my teens at least. It is not because of my age that I read, it is because I like reading.

But these complaints from what I suppose I can call ‘my generation’ concern me, because I think we are missing something really important: a fundamental shift in how information is disseminated and then processed. Leaving aside the fact that we didn’t grow up with internet and emails, that a phone was only in a house or an office, and the number belonged to the property not the person, it is information, and how we access it that has changed.

My partner at URSA clarified this for me. When we were young, he said, we had to watch what was on television, and if we wanted to watch a film, play or concert we had to go to the cinema, theatre or concert halls and had to go out and buy tickets, and queue well in advance if they were popular. We had to go and find stuff if we wanted it, and if we were bothered. 

My lunch companion yesterday (and he is significantly younger than me) told me that when he was sitting for his A’ levels in Greece, he spent a lot of time on the phone with libraries in the UK to research his economics project who then faxed him papers (at significant cost) for his research. 

It hardly needs saying that the ease of access to information these days shows no bounds. This is undoubtedly a good thing. But this also has a downside of course: the amount of information not only available to us, but being pushed at us, sometimes to the point of being so overwhelmed that we are submerged by it is the new problem. It is like having a hosepipe strapped to our mouths and then turned on so that the only way to not drown is to drink it. Younger people, I need not remind you, have grown up in this environment and are far more adept at handling it. Indeed, many – contrary to popular opinion – are able to take it or leave it, and concentrate on other stuff in a way that many older people seem unable to manage. Maybe – and I see no reason why this should not change – this is the new normal, and it is because it is so ubiquitous that this new generation is finding their own way to deal with it, and seem to manage pretty well too. I find that they also have a better nose for fake news and dubious quality than we do. 

I suspect that older people are dismissive of the new way of doing things because they are afraid of it. The difference between how things were done and how things are done now is not necessarily a change for the worse or as a result of feeblemindedness, a lack of concentration or discipline. If young people are being more demanding of what they want from work and life, then is this such a bad thing, just because we didn’t? Maybe we did, but did it in differtent ways? Maybe we didn’t have the same choices. Does that make it necessarily worse. Of course younger people may not necessarily get what they demand, and whether they will like it when they get it is questionable, but this pattern surely is not so new either. It’s just change, and the most successful of species are the most adaptable, not the strongest, or the most experienced. 

I like to be thorough in my work, in my reading and can therefore sometimes be, not necessarily slow but not as quick as others to rush to a decision or action, or push others to do so. This has meant that I have missed out on some things – in shipping and in life – where faster action would have been better. But this is not about indecision but about not being in too much of a hurry to make a mistake. When I am sure, I am sure, and then we can proceed properly. However, I can say that as I get older my appetite for risk has increased, and as I look back on my life, it hasn’t been entirely risk averse either.

The opening lines of a poem by Clive James have been rattling around my head recently:

But are they lessons, all these things I learn
Through being so far gone in my decline?
The wages of experience I earn
Would service well a younger life than mine.

Let me be clear, I do not consider myself to be in decline. I am in good health, and have more energy and passion than many younger lives than mine, but the sad fact – that if I knew then what I know now – is one of the eternal paradoxes of the human experience. The young always think they know better, mostly because they are young. The old, at least the wiser portion of that cohort, know better because they know that they don’t know, and know that they didn’t know then either, even though at the time they thought they did. Whether they act on this knowledge is up to them.

My approach is to be as openminded as possible, indeed not just to say I am openminded, but to consciously make an effort to keep my mind open to doubt. I say this with some caution knowing full well that the people who say they are openminded are impervious to alternative opinions, just as those who say they have a great sense of humour are as unfunny as fog.  However, the most accomplished people I know, the ones that I respect and admire are the ones that keep asking questions, the ones that continue to try and learn new things, new ways of doing things, not just dressing up and behaving as young people, but keeping young.

I don’t physically exercise that much. Apart from a lack of time (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it), I’m in fairly good shape, but I don’t really care, and never have, about how I look, much to the bemusement of others. So instead of going to the gym in the evening, I go to the mind gym: I teach, I read, I watch films, go to the theatre, to concerts, and most importantly have conversations. I am not afraid of getting old physically so much, and I do not really fear death itself, but I am very afraid of a half death, brought on by dementia, Alzheimer’s or whatever. Not having full use of my mind horrifies me. I also strongly believe (and I understand now that I always have done) that becoming narrow-minded necessarily – literally – reduces the amount of the mind we have at our disposal. This is a waste.

Dismissing the young is the same as dismissing the future, and if we do that we will be left behind. I would prefer to live in the here and now, and not in the past. If we find it difficult to understand how younger people think and act these days, then maybe this is because we cannot be bothered to engage with them, because it is too difficult, because we may fail, or look stupid, or be hurt, or because we care about what other people think. We have to make an effort to connect because otherwise we will miss out: on business, on opportunities, on life. The generation gap is easily bridged because it only exists in our minds, and it is only our fear that stops us crossing it. Just because younger people behave in a certain way does not mean we shouldn’t change our behaviour, and the same applies for the young too of course. Such a meeting of minds may not always be successful of course, but just as a society that forgets itspast is heading for trouble, a society that dismisses its future will surely meet the same fate. 

Simon Ward