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Bertha HarianBertha Harian


Young people are talking back

Eight years ago, I asked my then class of undergraduates to read an award-winning news feature on a rape-and-murder case in Seattle in the United States, so we could discuss its merits and demerits.  It was a pretty graphic account of how an intruder broke into the home of a lesbian couple and tortured them for hours, leaving one dead and the other clinging to life. It was what can be termed a human interest piece as well, as the article talked about the life the couple had led previously. Some students felt more than a little queasy about the details of the couple’s sex life and the trauma suffered during the repeated rapes. 

A few weeks ago, I showed the same article to another class and nobody batted an eyelid. How quickly attitudes have changed, I thought. What if I showed the same piece to a class eight years later? 

I think teachers who have been teaching a long time would be able to discern the attitudinal changes in young people. My own view is that they have got quieter offline but a lot louder online, especially in asserting their needs, wants and expectations. 

The chasm in attitudes between young and old have widened, as have their opinions of each other. You see this in the numerous surveys on attitudes of different age groups. Norms are changing at an increasing pace. One thing surveys don’t capture:  young people are increasingly “talking back’’ to their seniors. 

It’s human nature for members of every generation to see themselves as a breed apart. They will always be “better’’ than the succeeding generations; they worked harder, studied harder and came out better for all the trials and tribulations they went through. On the other hand, “young people these days…’’ 

Every generation has gone through this process of ageism, which the United Nations defines as “stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination directed towards people on the basis of their age’’.  Sometimes it has a deeper impact, like showing older people the door when they come knocking for jobs. Employers do it, but they would need never say so because rejection can always be couched in politically favourable terms. Now, the older people have legislation on their side. 

You see older people portrayed as frail and more or less unproductive if not diseased, along with examples of young people respectfully caring for them. In my former life, I banned the term “sprightly’’ when journalists used them on active seniors. It’s a label that some reach for too readily, as if the popular expectation is that older people should be immobile and impotent.

It’s common these days for the media to write about how workplaces must adapt to the millennial life-style, and how employers must keep pace with the expectations of their younger employees. It’s like work rigour, discipline and efficiency come second place to ensuring work-life balance for even those who haven’t worked a day in their life. It’s like cultivated experience is less important than unexplored potential. 

Older employers complain about how the younger folk don’t take instructions easily, always asking “why’’. They recall that in the past, they just “do’’. I think in the past, we asked “why’’ as well, but not directly to our superiors who sign our pay cheques. We turn to others for enlightenment, so that a certain workplace hierarchy is maintained. 

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Now, everything is being levelled. To use a Hokkien phrase, it’s increasingly normal to be “boh tua, boh suay’’. 

By now, I guess young people have their pitchforks ready to toss me into a bonfire. I can recite their litany of responses, such as how they are tired of being called “strawberries’’ or “snowflakes’’ by older folk, and how they have other assets, such as digital literacy, creative talent and a larger world view, which the older people ignore. And how the entrenched “mindsets’’ of older people are blocks to the development of the progressive and liberal individual making his or her way in the world. 

I am generalising here but I daresay I can summarise the young person’s view of the older folk this way: mainly Chinese-speaking, Channel 8 viewers who don’t want to be vaccinated or want a China vaccine, kiasu about obeying every single instruction, join in community centre activities – and who think they are always right. The better-educated among them hoard top posts while doing very little; they eat at country clubs, have old-fashioned ideas and are unable to empathise with the younger generation who are more questioning – and who think they are always right. 

Then there are the ill and infirm who deserve empathy if not sympathy – which the young people in social justice warrior mode have in spades. 

Ok boomer, did you say? 

I don’t like the phrase. It’s the catch-all derogatory answer to an older person’s point of view. It is a dismissal.  

When discussions turn on racism, support for the death penalty, homophobia or strict moral codes, it is customary to attribute these features to the older folk. You see it on online chatter. You see it in the legions of young people around the world who berate their seniors for destroying the Earth’s climate.

I see it in my classes too when students feel too cowed to take a position that their peers view as “old-fashioned’’. More tangibly, the Institute of Policy Studies reported in a 2019 survey that nearly six in 10 (58.4 per cent) of those aged between 18 and 25 indicated that gay marriage was “not wrong at all” or “not wrong most of the time”, compared to only one in 10 (9.6 per cent) respondents aged 65 and above. In fact, rejecting gay marriages would be considered as “wrong’’ in some quarters. 

I see the gap or tussle reflected in more tangible areas – like how raising the retirement age could be blocking the progress of younger employees and why GST has to be increased  to build better infrastructure for an ageing population. It won’t be long before age-specific lobby groups spring up to make demands on the public purse. More playgrounds or more retirement homes? More healthcare spending or more investment in education? In a power play between young and old, who will win? 

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I find it sad when  the older person’s view is dismissed simply because “they wouldn’t understand’’ or “don’t understand us’’ or worse, because they are not “intellectual’’ nor “forward-looking’’ enough.  Because older folk are not as exposed to foreign ideas and philosophies, most are unable to articulate their position in intellectual terms. Wisdom and experience counts for much less these days if they can’t be communicated in terms the younger people can understand. They are seen less like role models and more like anachronisms. 

“Talking back’’ to older people is a sign that the relationship between young and old is changing. To young people, it is not “talking back’’. They are simply more questioning of norms and practices and they want their say. To the old, they are just being plain rude even if there was no intention to be uncivil. I blame Hollywood and movies that always seem to portray young people’s insolence to their hapless elders as par for the course. 

Of course, there is the stereotype of the autocratic senior, much resented by the young, especially if they hold the reins of power and access to riches. The younger person is portrayed as the victim who will ultimately emerge victorious and correct. 

Asian movies, especially period dramas, are rather different with a great deal of emphasis on filial piety and respect for hierarchy as virtues. Children, whether emperor or peasant, wait on their parents hand and foot. It’s almost touching to watch except that I wish it would be balanced by the western portrayal of older folk as independent people who have other purposes in life beyond bringing up children.

I daresay most seniors will stay silent in the face of young voices because it is unseemly to be seen thwarting their aspirations and ambitions. I wonder how the world’s statesmen can keep a straight face at Greta Thunberg’s diatribes. Older folk feel obliged to make way, even if they aren’t too sure they should. They know that young people are no longer “seen but not heard’’. Instead, they are told that they should listen more, and talk less. 

Add to that the negative messages that “getting old means going downhill both physically and cognitively,’’ as Kanwaljit Soin said in an ST column on Oct 1.  She added: “Another awful thing about ageism is that older people also internalise the issue and make it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

I agree. That’s why you hear some elderly folk describe themselves as “useless’’ and ready to pass on to the next life. 

Then again, what would happen if the older folk did “talk back’’ instead of feeling that they should bend their attitudes and approaches to fit young people? What if they replied “Okay, kiddo’’ and couldn’t care less about what young people think, much less take the time to berate them? 

After all, “young people these days…’’ they would say. 

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And it is just as likely that the young people will reply : “Ok boomer.’’

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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