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.

On the contrary, good thinking only began once you had ‘purged the mind of childish ways.’ No classical author, from China to Greece, described their childhood as golden or ever expressed any yearning for it.

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It is the enlightenment philosopher of the 18th century, Jean- Jacques Rousseau, who is credited with inventing the idea of a ‘childhood.’ He was the first to say children should be allowed to be children, to wear clothes that allow them to play and get dirty, rather than dress and behave like mini adults. British Romantics such as William Blake and William Wordsworth idealised childhood as a period of both innocence and wisdom—an idea sentimentalised by the Victorians. Blake declared the “vast majority of children to be on the side of imagination or spiritual sensation.” Wordsworth saw the holiness of the child, writing famously “trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God who is our home.”

Clearly neither of them had met my children.

The 1904 success of J. M. Barrie’s play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, has been credited with setting up the storyline for generational tensions today, by showing a picture of how awful adults are.

Today we have divided ourselves according to multiple identities from ethnicity, to gender, to age. How old you are has become a political identity, and some argue, a better predictor of values, beliefs and behaviour. Pew Research believe that the four generations in today’s workplace are so different that they meet the definition of being ‘different cultures.’

‘Baby Boomers’ is a demographic label given to those born in the post-World War Two era (1946 – 1964), when there was a phenomenal surge in birth rates. Baby Boomers were, until 2019, the largest living adult generation. Now the population is dwindling, and millennials are taking over. Researchers say Boomers are ‘committed, self-sufficient and competitive.’

Generation X lacks a strong identity. Hence the ‘X’. Born between 1965 and 1980, they’re wedged between Boomers and Millennials, the non-digital and the digital worlds. They are ‘resourceful, logical, and good problem-solvers.’

Millennials (or Generation Y) are winning. In the United States they’ve surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living adult generation and are the most ethnically diverse adult generation. They’re the first ‘digital natives,’ and reported to be ‘confident, curious and not afraid to question authority.’

The youngest adults are Generation Z (or iGen). Born between 1997 and 2012 they have never known life without technology or social media. They are ‘ambitious and confident, and even more ethnically diverse than Millennials.’

There’s something to be said for the ‘culture’ of different generations. Each generation shares its cultural icons from music heroes and storytellers (in the movies or on Netflix), to defining events like WWII, 9/11, the Global Financial Crisis, and COVID. But ‘culture’ is a grand word for something more akin to horoscopes. Sure, you may identify with one or two characteristics of your star sign, but you won’t ever fit the description exactly. In the end these labels are meaningless, a short-hand way to avoid naming the real prob- lems. Let’s stop judging people on their age and start holding them accountable for their behaviour. There are plenty of self-absorbed Boomers, delightful Millennials, and vice versa.

Here are a few facts to throw into the mix of our own generation- al warfare today.

Young people of all generations have disrupted the status quo, from the Civil Rights movement in the USA and the Waitangi settlements in New Zealand, to the end of apartheid and the war in Vietnam. But it was adults in the room who made it happen—Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, Matiu Rata, Nelson Mandela et al.

Generational inequality is real. Statistics New Zealand reveals that homeownership rates have fallen for all age groups since the early 1990s, but especially for those in their 20s and 30s. Home ownership is at its lowest in almost 70 years. And it’s younger people who will be paying for both ballooning superannuation costs, and their student debts. But inequality is the problem, not age. A woman who finds herself single and fifty is just as much in need of affordable housing as a Millennial couple with a child.

The costs of climate change need to be distributed equitably. We’re all going to pay for higher electricity prices, so let’s be honest about this—Greta Thunberg telling oldies off isn’t helping. It has to be about a discussion of what is fair, and fairness is not a function of age. The old socialist meme was ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need.’ Let’s look at who is in need, regardless of age, and then ask honest questions about who can pay.

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Stereotypes are always unhelpful. Not all white people are richer than all non-whites. Not all Boomers are richer than Millennial tech entrepreneurs. It’s also not true that Boomers wrecked the world and don’t care. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of extreme poverty. In 1980 around 40% of the world’s population lived on around a dollar a day. Before COVID that had dropped to 11%, thanks to aid, trade, and government funded social protection.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Affairs advisor, was criticised in the media when she walked away from her high-pro- file job to take a teaching role closer to home and her kids. She was young(ish), at the height of her career. How could she blow it all up? It was surely downhill from here. She fought back. Who made the rule you do your best work when you’re young, or you peak in your career by 40? Who’s to say you can’t re-enter the race, and peak in your 50s, 60s, even 70s? Why perpetuate the myth that you are your best self when you’re young, when for many, the 20s are filled with anxiety and uncertainty? By describing life as a downhill decline, from Millennial to Boomer, we’re telling young people to expect very little from it.

Instead, let’s resist this downgrading of maturity, and reinvent the narrative around adulthood as radical. Growing up means refusing to retreat back into schoolroom certainties that can’t survive exposure to reality, while also refusing to lose hope or give in to cynical resignation. The cult of youth, and the fashion for turning your age into an identity cheats everyone of imagining their life as a continual process of learning, believing, and changing.

I have an image of my father in his late 70s, a few months before he died. A pile of unread books as high as the couch is stacked precariously beside him. “I’ve got so much to read before I go!” he announced excitedly as he grabbed the first book on top of the pile. Like my Dad, there are plenty of people who are vital, engaged, determined to be surprised and surprising into old age. A society that celebrates and expects that is surely good for all of us. One that reassures young people their best years are ahead of them is even better.

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Josie Pagani

Josie Pagani is the Director of the Council for International Development, the umbrella organisation for NZ aid agencies. She formerly worked at the OECD in Paris and is a member of the New Zealand Government’s Aid for Trade Advisory Board. She is a regular media commentator on current affairs, and has been involved in think tanks around the world, including Global Progress and the Copenhagen Consensus Centre. In this capacity she has advised ministers, Prime Ministers, and governments.