Age_Identity 03

Youth is like a summer romance—an identity with a time limit. You know from the start this exclusive club will tear up your membership the day you turn 30. It doesn’t matter that you’re the same person with the same passions and ambitions. Claiming youth as an identity always made me feel a fraud. There are certain things I can’t change about myself—I’m female and Pākehā—no amount of DNA tests will change that.

At 15 I was at school in England (hiding my New Zealand identity with a broad Cotswold accent) when the BBC came to interview ‘young people’ about the looming threat of nuclear war. ‘How is this existential crisis defining the younger generation?’ (It was the BBC after all). We were buzzing with excitement as the journalist knelt with his microphone, hanging on our every word, his tilted head nodding as we dutifully exaggerated our fear. Even then I felt a fraud. Not because nuclear weapons weren’t a risk, but because I knew no BBC journalist would be interested in listening to my views in a few years’ time, despite those views being more informed and far more interesting.
Yet, I do not want to be the apocryphal 40-year-old woman played by UK comedian Catherine Tate; who keeps turning up to her old school’s netball trials, begging the coach to pick her— “I’ve been practicing my shooting all summer, what am I doing wrong?” It goes without saying, no 40-year-old should attempt to play in her old school netball team. The infantilising of adulthood is not a healthy response to the generation gap.

But today’s narratives around generational differences have not only fetishized youth, they’ve convinced young people their best years are about to be behind them, and that’s a problem for all of us. Every media platform, corporate, or political party congratulates itself on employing and electing more young people than ever before—simply because they’re young. It’s as if we’re telling young people, “Your most passionate and important years are now. We value you at this age only, before you say good-bye to your dreams and join the drab, beige years of adulthood.” What a terrible story to tell our children. Under that scenario, what sane person would ever choose to grow up? The bulk of your life becomes one long disappointment constantly compared to the fleeting glory days of youth.

Instead, this is what I want young people to hear—your best years are in front of you. You will get more courageous as you grow older, and hope is like a good wine—it gets better the more you nurture it.

The worship of youth may have made us better at understanding how to raise children; however, it hasn’t made us better at helping those children grow up. ‘Youth culture’ is a new phenomenon, and a Western one, which doesn’t fit easily into traditional societies, like our Māori and Pasifika cultures, where getting older means more status, not less.

Some argue ‘youth culture’ emerged in the 20th century with the advent of compulsory schooling. Suddenly lots of children and teenagers were hanging out together all day, learning the same stuff. Before that, children mostly interacted with adults (and dressed like them too). Others assume it began in earnest in the ‘60s, where slogans like ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30’ make ‘OK Boomer’ look positively polite. But, the idea of youth and childhood as an identity goes back to the turn of the 20th century.

Before that 17th century philosophers like the French René Descartes thought that the reason for human unhappiness was precisely because we begin life as children. His most famous quote— ‘I think, therefore I am’—didn’t expire with youth.