The Audacity of Youth
Youth, many say, is wasted on the young. We elders admire their energy, but pity their lack of knowledge and experience. As Cicero said, “Rashness belongs to youth; prudence to old age.”
With each new generation, we find new names for our youth. I was a proud member of “Generation X” and therefore a slacker. Now we have the “Millennials” who are said to seek instant gratification and demand to be spoon-fed a sense of purpose.
Whatever you call them, since the time of Socrates we have mourned the irreverence of our juniors, their lack of respect for posterity, propriety and their reluctance to receive our wisdom. Yet, all to often, it is we who forget that much of the wisdom we have to give is the result of past blasphemy evolved into doctrine.
Putting Order to the Universe
In 1665, a Great Plague swept the Kingdom of England. Cambridge University closed as a precaution and sent its students home. One young man, only 23 years old at the time, used the break from his indoctrination into ancient Aristotelian thought to write in his notebooks.
By the time Cambridge opened again two years later, Isaac Newton had discovered calculus, gravity and a new theory of optics. He later went on to build the foundations of mechanics, which survive to this day.
Much of what we now consider common sense notions of how the physical world works were actually unknown until Newton started scribbling in his little book. Newton’s ideas ruled for over two centuries, forming the basic precepts for generations of students.
However, in the late 19th century, his ideas began to fray. The old guard held out, but their world was shattered by another young man working in isolation in a Swiss patent office. In one miracle year, 25 year old Albert Einstein upended the prevailing wisdom once again.
In the great tradition, he found it impossible to accept the next wave, quantum mechanics, declaring that if it was true he didn’t want to practice physics and, indeed, produced little past the age of forty. His successor Richard Feynman mocked string theory, jesting that the young crowd couldn’t even figure out how many dimensions they were living in.
Ground Zero at the Revolution
In 2004, I found myself living in Kiev, Ukraine when the Orange Revolution broke out and was, in fact, running the country’s leading news brand at the time. The event had all the excitement and intrigue of a Tom Clancy novel.
There was a battered hero in Victor Yushchenko, a brutish villain in Victor Yanukovitch and even a beautiful heroine in Yulia Timoshenko. World leaders raced to mediate and crowds filled the streets. We were energized by the promise of a new dawn, but terrified at the prospect that at some point, the tanks would roll in and the shooting would start.
Tales circulated of events being orchestrated by the remnants of the KGB, the CIA, George Soros and even Zbigniew Brzezinski. However, as I walked the streets and visited the tent city which served as ground zero for the revolution, I found kids; students in their 20’s, who could just as easily have been in their dorm rooms playing Xbox.
They were part of a movement called Pora! (It’s time!), which itself was part of a greater movement including the Serbian Otpor that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic and Georgian Kmara which led the Rose Revolution, among others. The bigwigs got the headlines, but youth drove events.
The Curious Case of Ronald Wayne
The recent passing of Steve Jobs has inundated us with images from his youth. The stories of he and Steve Wozniak scrapping together the Apple II in his garage. His ouster from and return to the company he had founded. Even his “insanely great” brand of hyperbole has become the stuff of legend.
It’s a familiar tale by now and not necessarily unique to Apple. A quick survey of tech giants such as Microsoft, Dell, Facebook and Google would yield similar images of youthful dreams becoming commercial realities, disrupting incumbent competitors who scoffed at the same rashness which Cicero complained of over 2000 years ago.
However, the Apple story has one little known tidbit that is particularly telling. They actually started out with “adult supervision” in the form of co-founder Ronald Wayne. He was in his early 40’s when the venture was launched, but dropped out a few weeks later because he felt he couldn’t risk the bumps along the way.
He spent the rest of his career in secure jobs and later retired to sell stamps and coins.
Systemic Failure and Paradigm Shifts
Ronald Wayne reveals what’s at the core of our uncomfortable relationship with twenty-somethings – they scare us. They come with no baggage and feel no loyalty to the system under which we have prospered. They have few responsibilities and are willing to take risks that can disrupt the secure little worlds in which we find comfort.
They are, in effect, outside our bubble and are therefore eager to pop-it. That angers us. In Kuhnian terms, the existing paradigm never worked for them and so they are eager to see its flaws, and ours. We, not surprisingly, are not amused.
Unfortunately, they are sometimes right, which creates an even bigger problem. It’s one thing to have annoying little shits taunting our prudence, but quite another to see them become our bosses. The spoils of generational struggles inevitably belong to the younger generation and there is very little we can do about that except to stay young ourselves.
As Franz Kafka once wrote, “Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” He died unknown at the age of forty and has distinguished the canon ever since.