Explanatory note: an article written for a school magazine which may or may not get printed. Some English terminology, but if you click on the relevant link you should be OK.Though the specifics are very english public school, I think the theme is fairly universal.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I love spending time with my parents' friends. Aside from all the fascinating sub-Ayckbourn parental interplay (Who’s having an affair with who? Who snubbed whose invitation to dinner last week in favour of a better party?) there's the pleasure of those joyous conversations with other people’s mums and dads. You know the ones, because we’ve all had them. It will suffice to only provide one side of the conversation:
- -Yes, only three weeks more. Very strange.
- -Yes, I’ve enjoyed it. Looking forward to moving on, though! Hahaha!
- -Home Economics, hopefully, at Hollyoaks Community College.
- -2As and a B.
- -yes, there is a new system. How clever of you to notice. AS in the fourth year nowadays.
- -Yes, I am! Really looking forward to it. Going to Uzbekistan and the Shetland Islands.
- -Well, I don’t know for sure yet, but I’d like to get into something involving heavy machinery and 12 hour shifts. Failing that, PriceWaterhouseCoopers is an option.
- -Isn’t it remarkable that I haven’t tried to garotte you yet?
(the last one sotto voce, of course.)
This is a sixth-form only example, but you know how it goes. New boys will be used to churning out the standard phrases about just how much they love their new school and tolerating comments on how much they’ve grown – those ones, at least, seem to be finally drying up for me – whilst those in their second and third years will doubtless have had many a sympathetic ear about GCSEs and been absolutely spellbound by accounts of how it used to be with O-Levels. The absolute pits, of course, even lower than this, is being asked by red-faced middle-aged men with paunches and wearing tweed about your lovelife: anyone who’s been through this nightmare will be familiar with the cringingly embarrassing nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone and the tragically obvious desperation to relive past glories by telling you in lurid detail about the crazy shenanigans they got up to at your age. Imagine the reaction if we were to ask them the same question! ‘Your sly liasons with the frustrated and frankly desperate Mrs Petty from number 32 still going ahead, Mr Cholmondley? What about that suppressed homosexuality? Any closer to its final devastating release?’ Spare us, please, and save it for your grandchildren. At least they have a blood tie which may dissuade them from doing you serious and irreversible damage.
The specifics are much of a muchness, really. The point is it’s a lazy excuse for real conversation, a stop-gap until the next refill comes around. I don’t know about you, but I’m bloody sick of it.
I’m sick of tolerating those people who laugh nervously to fill the void of silence left by their brief but awkward inability to think of something else to interrogate you about. I’m sick of pretending I really want to explain exactly why I’m not taking a gap year again. I’m sick of pretending I like their son, who may well, if he’s anything like his parents, be about as much fun as repeatedly hitting myself in the head with a brick. I’m sick of being asked if I bloody shoot by men who’d be astounded if the answer was anything but a resounding yes. I’m sick, in essence, of the fundamental failure of imagination which underlies such dullards and their conversation.
Why do they patronise us so? Why do they think we are interested in nothing save school and our future careers? Do they not remember being a teenager themselves? Have they no recollection of being, in fact, interested in other aspects of life like art or literature or current affairs?
Lest there be some confusion, let me make it absolutely clear that I’m not advocating any attempt to ‘get with the kids.’ Jesus God no, anything but that. Nothing worse than people who clearly like UB40 and Celine Dion trying to show off by telling you how great Eminem is. I’d much rather they took their mid-life crisis out on their own children.
No, what I’m advocating is a much more radical departure. Talk to us like you talk to adults. I know this is pretty revolutionary stuff, but I think it’s worth giving a go. If you credit us with enough intelligence to hold an articulate conversation, you may find we’ll be transformed into conversational dynamos. You’d also be stunned by just how charming we can be: it’s so rare to meet someone at one of these God-awful pseudo social occasions who is actually interested in what one has to say that the usual response is to make a genuine effort to repay the favour and make it worth their while.
Young people aren’t, in fact, necessarily stupid. We do have interests beyond our own immediate sphere, as remarkable as that may seem. We are also not by definition wrong about everything: it’s occurred to me that perhaps the reason our opinions are rarely listened to by our elders and betters (love that phrase) is that they complacently believe that our lack of experience automatically makes our opinions less valid than theirs, that they imagine that they’ve already been through our stage and know all there is to know about our beliefs. If so, it’s just silly: we are perfectly capable of making informed judgements and our (relative) lack of cynicism might be a help, not a hindrance. The world would be a better place if people were unselfish. People become more selfish as they get older, earn more, and see that everyone else is selfish so they may as well be too. See a connection? We aren’t unrealistic about the way the world is, we’re hopeful about the way it could be, and to ignore us simply because we’ve got fewer wrinkles is the kind of mindset which has created many of the problems our generation is going to have to deal with.
This is not just the social frustration it may sound like: it’s important. As the media is forever telling us, there’s an increasing gap of understanding between the young and old. The best way to nurture that and create the apathy which people are always complaining about in ‘the youth of today’? Why, it’s simple. Ignore what they think. Make it patently obvious when you do speak to them that you’re only doing so out of politeness. Assume they know nothing and treat them accordingly. The result? A generation trained to think that its opinions don’t matter because they’re never heard, that older people aren’t interesting because they aren’t interested in them, that – above all – there is nothing they can do about the way the world is, so they may as well not even try. Tomorrow’s leaders won’t just step out of a vacuum: they’ll be created by the way our generation is treated today. So take us seriously, dammit, and stop asking about our gap years. If things don’t change soon you might just find that in 30 years time a pretty radical solution is found to our overpopulation problems, grandpa…
In response to 876, I feel I need to say that this was written with tongue firmly in cheek for at least part of it; and that it's deliberately rhetorical rather than even-handed. I appreciate that it is rather self-righteous in tone, which is certainly a fault of the writing. But I think my main point remains: that the older generation does patronise young people and expect them to be incapable of intelligent thought, and that this is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don't say anywhere that they ought to read our minds, just that they ought to keep their own open.
Perhaps some of this is highly culturally specific, because you wouldn't believe how many of the English middle classes with children at private schools are like this. And it's hard to be more forthcoming when one is asked the same questions again and again and again. I wrote this in the aftermath of a school open day which all the parents attended: I had almost identical conversations with, no exaggeration, 10 different people, and any other topics outside of the school world which came up were instigated by me. There were two exceptions to this, who I had interesting chats with, but that's a pretty small proportion, especially when you consider one of them was my mum. When I asked my friends, they almost all said exactly the same thing. Now, maybe you're right that when adults speak with adults the same thing applies, but if so it's to an extent culturally conditioned: in my experience teenagers move on to interesting stuff much faster, partly because we're more likely to share interests, but also partly because we're all thoroughly aware of how annoying the alternative is.
It may also be the title that makes people angry about this: so I'll just reiterate that large chunks of this are tongue in cheek, and say that of course the title isn't literal. There are plenty of old people who don't piss me off that much.