Just days away from another ‘late-30s’ birthday, I fear I’ve become a fogey. Truth be told, I probably turned 50 on my 14th birthday. I had a premature love of Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March’ and once implored my father to give me the cravat he had bought when he was 26, but which Mum had forbidden him to wear ever since.
Sometimes I comfort myself with the delusion that 40 is the new 30, so I still have a couple more years before I must become seriously adult. But another part of me looks forward to the milestone, to the greying flecks of hair around the temples and the gravelly voice.
Why? Because I still believe that age confers respectability and a wisdom we would do well to honour.
Thanks to Khali Bendi
At this juncture in history, we are dangerously obsessed with the cult of youth. I’m not referring to the fanaticism for cosmetic surgery or the embarrassing phenomenon of mid-thirties women dressing like 12-year-olds Ã la Kimberly Craig (nÃ©e Day) of Kath & Kim but to the presumptuous notion that the most original ideas and blinding insights come from 24-year-old ‘cultural studies’ graduates.
I fear these are probably the same people who helped make Noam Chomsky the ‘world’s greatest intellectual’ according to Prospect magazine (he makes the occasional valid point, to be sure, but in the most stultifying way) but look perplexed if you ask if they’ve ever read Down and Out In Paris and London or The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.
These are the people who think that because they can master the HTML codes on their personalised web page they can also redesign the penal code or the United Nations. The mere thought of them gives me that cringing sensation I got in the early 1980s at school prize nights when the head prefect would give one of those ‘We are the youth, we are the future’ speeches.
Despite my unrepentant anglophilia, I blame the British for much of the problem. Last year, I read an interview in the Washington Monthly with the Glasgow-born, Oxford-educated historian Niall Ferguson, in which the writer, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, pointed out that the Brits anoint their intellectuals ‘at age 22, rather than 42’. Wallace-Wells continued,
It is hard to imagine that those tapped as geniuses at a young age and called brilliant their whole adult lives, don’t have a greater tendency to think that they are smarter than the rest of the academic gang, and with only a brief stretch of intensive thinking, can master topics they had not previously paid attention to, and discover profound new truths.
The great mistake the Brits have made is to confuse intelligence with wisdom. Intelligence can be innate and ‘environmental’ a combination of nature and nurture. A child can exhibit genius from infancy, with extraordinary powers of perception and an uncanny ability to absorb words and concepts. Wisdom, however, is not so much instinctive as learned, and that takes time. True wisdom seems out of favour right now, particularly in politics.
Take, for instance, the argument over the regeneration of Labor. The push is not so much to improve the quality of thinking as to accommodate ambition. Those catapulted prematurely into positions of responsibility think that energy alone can compensate for knowledge or that much derided attribute commonsense.
It is this impatient ambition that I have also witnessed in the media industry these past 15 years and, until I grew out of it and realised my limitations, I possibly shared in it. Journalism is an unhealthily young business these days, largely because it’s cheaper to hire freshly minted graduates.
Again, it’s the British trend, where people have become editors in their 20s, acutely aware of the passing trends in popular culture but lacking any historical perspective. Sorry, but the Canberra Press Gallery is, in my view, not the place for people who were in Year 10 when John Howard came to power. It’s been a long nine-and-a-half years, I’ll agree, but not that long.
In the United States, by contrast, you’d struggle to find an editor of a major metropolitan newspaper under, say, 45. The Americans actually see value in a crusty 60-year-old editor, who, when faced with a young gun panting excitedly about his ‘scoop’ can lean back in his chair, put his feet on the desk and declare that ‘I’ve seen some doozies in my time, but this takes the cake.’ It’s not cynicism they bring to the job, but simple realism.
The greatest myth to emerge from this ‘yoof’ culture is that twentysomethings are just brimming with new ideas. Let’s be brutally frank: in politics, at least, there are very few truly new ideas, only variations on a theme. Economics is about growing wealth or redistributing it; the great unresolved issue in the labour market is how much of the day you work for your employers (or clients, if you’re a contractor) to fatten their profits and how much for yourself; even the ‘new’ politics of ethnic/gender/sexual identity is about 30 years old.
The big stories haven’t changed, only the language.
To my mind, the most important thinker in politics today is not some restless, young neo-liberal consultant telling social democrats to ‘get with the program’ and abandon their core values of economic fairness, but a sixtysomething linguist named George Lakoff who is telling us ‘explain those values in a better way.’
But, you see, Lakoff is old enough, and wise enough, to know that it helps to have lived your own life a bit before you start telling others how to run theirs.
Andrew West writes The Contrarian blog for the Sydney Morning Herald.
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