Ever since the “don’t-trust-anyone-over-30” countercultural movements of the 1960s, we have been living in a culture that increasingly valorizes youth. In the view of the noted Harvard University cognitive scientist and author Steven Pinker, a technological change — the advent of television — is what propelled this social change.
The baby boomers of the 1960s, the first generation to grow up en masse with a TV at home, received unprecedented access to each other’s doings. Television “allowed them to know that other baby boomers were sharing their experiences,” giving “rise to a horizontal web of solidarity that cut across the vertical ties to parents and authorities that had formerly isolated young people from one another and forced them to kowtow to their elders,” Pinker said.
Instead of learning from older relatives and teachers and taking time to mature into adulthood, the young instead started to imitate one another. It was now the judgment of their peers, not their elders, that mattered. “Youth culture” — a phrase that, in earlier times, would have been a contradiction in terms — was born.
In our own age, a further technological change—the emergence of social media—has sent that culture into hyperdrive. Such platforms give their more tech-savvy younger user base an outsized voice in public affairs. It is no accident that some of the most prominent political movements that have roiled our cultural waters in recent years, such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, have emerged from these youth-dominated channels.
The prototypical portrait of our elders has shifted from imagining them as bearers of hard-won wisdom and experience to a condescending caricature of a bewildered, squinting grandma deep into her dotage typing with one finger on a keyboard or keypad as her sharp-tongued teenaged granddaughter looks on with an indulgent smirk while Instagramming the experience.
Our youth culture has also produced political actors regularly held up as preternaturally gifted with an almost messianic sense of the moment. Thus, many have found a climate-change messiah in the shrill teen Greta Thunberg, a political potentate in the opinionated Parkland student David Hogg, a viral political voice in the oft-ignorant ramblings of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and an instant poet-laureate in Amanda Gorman, whose cliché-riddled Biden inauguration poem (especially when compared to the lofty first installment in the “inauguration poem” genre) reads like a slightly elevated version of Barack Obama’s bromides.
Let’s Have More of This? No, Thanks
The obvious failings of such youth culture and its exemplars notwithstanding, the Democrat-controlled Congress is now intent on amplifying still further the voices of the young in politics. The “Civics Secures Democracy Act,” now making its way through Congress, threatens to create a national curriculum that would virtually compel teens to plunge into politics.
As discussed in some detail here, the act would promote “Action Civics” to, among other things, get students involved in political action — almost invariably in favor of leftist causes, as research has revealed. This follows on the heels of a 2016 revision in elite university admissions policies that de-emphasized academic achievement for an expectation that students would be “ethically engage[d]” in their communities. We might suspect, however, that working to bring “Trump 2024” to fruition would not garner many “ethical engagement” points from the powers that be.
As many Democrats in Congress are undoubtedly aware, the young overwhelmingly lean politically left. This is a consequence of permitting kids to think that policies like open borders, defunding the police, or all-out socialism are viable, combined with the mass left indoctrination of pliable minds now par for the course in schools and universities. As such, the Democratic establishment has every reason to perpetuate conceptions of the young as singularly insightful and authentic.
But are the young actually clear-sighted this way? In fact, considerations of political slant aside, there is a larger problem with throwing high school kids — or even college kids or 20-somethings — into our murky political waters, in which they have been increasingly active in recent election cycles.
You’re Right: Young People Tend Not to Be Wise
That problem might be best appreciated merely by posing this simple question: Have you ever heard younger people and especially high school kids opine on important political issues? Even compared to the low standard set by the rest of us, most sound like intemperate naïfs, don’t they? Here is another way of approaching the same question: if you are over the age of, say, 30, look back on your own political convictions in high school, and take a moment to ponder just how thoroughly clueless you were.
The insights likely yielded by such introspection are well-supported by research. According to Dilip Jeste, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California at San Diego, “[e]mpirical studies have shown that older people are better than younger ones in terms of control over emotion, knowing themselves better, making better decisions that require experience, and having more compassion and empathy towards others.”
As a result, “[o]lder decision makers make significantly better choices by using their pre-frontal cortex, where more rational, deliberative thinking is controlled.” Not only are older people better at impulse-control and rational decision-making — factors clearly critical in making wise political choices — but, as The New York Times has reported, they also have more knowledge to work with:
A recent study in Topics in Cognitive Science pointed out that older people have much more information in their brains than younger ones…. And the quality of the information in the older brain is more nuanced. While younger people were faster in tests of cognitive performance, older people showed ‘greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences,’ the study found.
Another study found that older people have significantly better financial literacy, an extension of earlier research it described that found older people to have “higher levels of crystallized intelligence — i.e., experience and accumulated knowledge — into their 60s, after which it plateaus,” as well as “better reasoning about interpersonal and intergroup conflicts.”
More rational decision-making, more empathy, more knowledge, experience, and perspective, greater financial literacy and more nuanced thinking about complex issues—older people in general, it seems, have the young beat in almost every category that counts for informed political action. This is something most people understand intuitively.
What’s Good for Democrats Isn’t Good for All of Us
In fact, this very insight informs our Constitution’s minimum age requirements for the presidency, members of Congress, and even those wishing to vote. Age may not guarantee wisdom, especially when the years mount and cognitive decline takes hold, as we are frequently reminded by the gaffes of our 78-year-old figurehead leading a government sometimes reminiscent of the last years of Leonid Brezhnev. But all else being equal, older is indeed wiser.
This is why the Action Civics curriculum thrusting ignorant, impetuous young people into frenzies of political action, while possibly good for Democrats’ short-term interests, is not good for the long-term interests of all of us who aspire to be citizens of a functional democracy. On this, we should all agree: wise, careful political decision-making is a positive good. Such decision-making is not the forté of high school kids.
In reality, the principal thing of which the young have the pulse is the latest trend, so we should not be surprised that our political life appears to have become a frenetic exercise in trend-hopping, as elected officials posture to avoid being outflanked by the latest leftist orthodoxy trending on Twitter.
Slow Down and Grow
Twitter and many other technologies in which the voices and interests of younger people are overrepresented are not going anywhere. Those who wish to do so can continue to use such methods to wield their influence and drive the conversation as they see fit.
But we as a society should not be encouraging young people to control the nation before they fully mature, and should certainly not be deploying formal education to foster political activism. Such activism sends us into overdrive, whereas what we need is to slow our politics way down, to allow time for the kind of percolation and deliberation that dispatches bad ideas and refines good ideas into better ones.
We need to slow American young people down as well. We need to give them time to percolate and deliberate, to dispatch their bad ideas and refine their good ideas into better ones.
That means getting them out of politics and back into the classroom. It means fewer young activists, fewer young Democrats, fewer young Republicans, and more young learners and thinkers whose minds are open and whose political convictions have not yet crystallized.