Recently our 13- and 15-year-old grandnieces came for a four-day visit. My wife and I had not had any in-person contact with them since the pandemic started, so we were excited by the opportunity to get to know them better as they matured. They are wonderful and interesting kids—avid readers, active in community theater, animal lovers, polite, pleasant and helpful.
Despite our going to bed by 10 and getting up at 6:30 while they were still up at 1 a.m. and slept past 9, we mostly enjoyed each other despite some generational tensions. They pointed out how we wasted too much water while I resisted asking them to shower more often. I was disappointed when they didn’t peruse the bookshelves that fill our house so I could make recommendations, but their faces were mostly glued to their phones for reading, gaming, and interactions with friends. One late morning, my wife introduced them to her daily routine of doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. This rare, for them, engagement with print produced, to me, a startling revelation when they did not know who the second President of the US was. “Don’t you study the early Presidents in American history?” I asked. “No,” the fifteen year old answered, “and they’re all just cis-white males anyway.”
She had recently embraced nonbinary pronouns to describe her gender identity and was playing with sometimes substituting a male name for her female one. I confess that, having been grammatically inoculated by diagramming sentences in junior high school English, I initially balked at referring to the singular person before me as plural and realized I needed to adapt before the academic language vigilantes string me up. I did not state the obvious, that I too am a cis-white male. Neither did I say I resented the implication that I should therefore be dismissed as irrelevant. Instead I asked how they got their news since they neither watched TV nor read newspapers. I assumed some social media sites, but was shocked when they responded that they had no interest in the news since “it was all bad.” I launched into a lecture about how important it was to be informed so you can participate knowledgeably to change the world for the better, but their glazed expression revealed my high horse had strayed into another dimension.
I have reflected a lot since on this teenage insouciance, remembering my own adolescent rebellion. I was a child of the ’60s, with long hair, spouting counter-culture philosophy, active in anti-war protests, and believing deeply that I could help change the world. Absorbing the news in order to understand and then denounce corruption, from Nixon to Trump, has continued as fundamental to my identity and my sense of mission. My go-to music, for driving or my morning exercise bike rides, remains rooted in the ’60s. I pedal effusively to songs about righting injustice, promoting equality, and addressing existential quandaries even though my pace grows increasingly labored with age. So why does the optimism of my youth seem so removed from the pessimism of my grandnieces?
Indeed most of the news is bad, and it’s delivered in blaring neon tones. We’re a long way from the three-channel option anchored most notably by a measured Cronkite. Limited but consistent and never fake, at least we believed so. Current TV options now offer strained concern expressed by fashion model clones with ten-second injections of expert analysis by a long-retired official or think tank denizen all segueing to endless pharmaceutical commercials replete with dire warnings about potential side effects. Or we can flip between high-pitched Hannitys issuing proclamations as removed from factual reporting as they are syntactically imprecise and satirical send-ups with laugh tracks. Most people under 40 eschew these sources entirely, instead choosing from an array of social media alternatives that vary widely in political slant and accuracy.
What leaks persistently through the sensationalism and conflicting messages are expanding economic inequality, pandemics, accelerating climate change, cascading species extinction, proliferating demagoguery, blatant assaults on democracy, and exposure of systemic racism and sexism. It must be difficult to have faith in the future if you’re a young person. Believing in the butterfly effect of small actions having nonlinear, larger impacts must seem a remote delusion to a contemporary teenager when it comes to reversing the seemingly cacophonous decline they have inherited. No wonder the lure of self-absorbed distractions.
Is resentment by the young for the old justified? Will more fully recognizing my white, male, straight, Boomer privilege help me better understand my grandnieces’ rejection of that privilege? Is there a cipher, a Rosetta Stone decoder to translate common values? Maybe we found it in cooking dinner together, talking about our family while we ate, then all cleaning up. We voiced opinions, frustrations, laughed, and petted the dog. They learned that freshly grating aged parmesan cheese made their pasta taste much better than the already grated stuff in a Kraft shaker. We didn’t watch the news.
This morning I listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s iconic album Deja Vu as I rode my bike. Along with David Crosby’s plaintive vocals on “Helpless,” I kept on pedaling.