“No amount of hoping, wishing, or begging will make a cutie mark appear before it’s time.” - Cheerliee, “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” episode 12.
When we think of a young person who is wise to the ways of the world, we tend to imagine some belligerent alt-culture punk who sneers at everything with a “yeah, right.” On the other hand, when we talk about an older adult who is similarly savvy, the notion is more like a kindly grandparent, nodding knowingly as younger people figure things out for themselves. Why the gap? How come young people who seem to know it all are considered jaded or aggressive while older people are seen as gentle helpers?
My guess is that it’s because wisdom comes from experience, and so young people who claim to know it all are less likely to be able to make good on that claim. In other words, it’s less likely that the kid is being truthful. However, that points more to deception rather than outright aggression, so where does the stereotype come from?
Perhaps we can better answer this question by examining why the “aggressive, cynical punk” stereotype is NOT applied to older people. When you’ve spent a good amount of time on our lovely planet, chances are, you’ve figured out what you believe in. You have a good solid sense of right and wrong, and so it’s easy for you to hold to it. While this can easily slip into a bigoted attitude, there are plenty of older adults who respect that there are many different valid ways of life, and it’s a matter of sticking to what works for them. This is why many older adults believe in using positive examples. “This is what we should strive for,” rather than, “this is what we should avoid.” Again, this only works once you know exactly what that ideal standard is (at least for yourself).
Let’s say you don’t know where you stand yet. When you are young, you are still discovering who you are. Okay, hopefully, we will learn and grow every day of our lives, but when you are young, there are a lot more urgent blanks to fill in. Young people are on a journey of discovery; about the world, about themselves, and about other people. One would think that this is done best while maintaining an open mind, but be careful not to confuse an open mind with naiveté. When you are a child, everything is new to you. As you grow through your teens, you learn that you are supposed to settle on a path but doing so requires so much information that you can’t do it yet. Making such an important decision - who you are and what you’re going to do with your life - cannot be handled rashly. You also learn that there are dishonest people out there, that some systems are broken, and that most people would rather bury their problems rather than deal with them. By that point, any rational person would know to be on high alert.
Ours is a world of information, and some of it is incorrect, and we have no way of telling which parts. The natural response would be caution, or, in other words, skepticism. Often, this is tinged with a negative attitude, due to the real or perceived inequalities that lead grown adults to become prejudiced. It is up to all of us to approach our challenges with an open mind and a positive attitude. However, what is a positive attitude for an older adult is not the same as a positive attitude for a young person.
While an older adult stays positive by upholding their beliefs, a young person can only be positive about the idea that they will one day have a “settled” way of life to stick to. A young person has to hold out for the right information to prove true to them. They can’t fall for the first path that is offered to them. That is, a young person stays positive by responding negatively. There are things young people need to criticize or say “no” to. This is easily perceived as bitterness or sullen laziness. It’s not. It’s caution.
There’s a story about a person who asked their sculptor friend, “how do you sculpt an elephant?” The sculptor took out a block of marble, set it down on the table, and said “take away everything that isn’t part of the elephant.”
Figuring out your life path is similarly a subtractive process. When we are young, most of us are innocent and open enough to explore the world and acquire vast quantities of information. That’s our block of marble. Our teens and twenties are for chipping the non-elephant bits away. To grow, we must reject things as either untrue or simply wrong for us as individuals. When we reject lifestyles, religions, political beliefs, or career/education options, it’s not a tough act. It’s a filter.
The economy sucks. That doesn’t mean none of us want jobs. Of course we want to continue on and join the world at large. However, because job scarcity has made that difficult, and because we are well aware of corruption in politics, we maintain a skeptical attitude. Did AIG really deserve that bailout money? Young people are going to question that. Okay, I think we’re all questioning that, regardless of age. But how about the idea that a sign of success is having a lot of money? We will question that, seeing as, right now, there doesn’t seem to be a fair and honest way to make a lot of money. That, and the whole concept of money and credit has cost a lot of people dearly. As our generation gets to the age where most of us are supposed to be in the workforce already, and the jobs aren’t there, we are learning that the system as it’s been isn’t functioning properly. Someone needs to change that, and guess whose life choices are going to affect the future the most.
The world has shaped us. Now it’s time for us to reshape the world, and we can only do a good job of it if we’re critical about what to accept. Does that make us cynical? Use whatever word you want. We will draw our own conclusions.