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by Rebecca Koerselman
Is living in a youth-obsessed culture the same as living in a culture that opposes and disapproves of aging?
I happened to catch a local news station’s rather abysmal morning show, with pasted on smiles, attempts at humor and awkward transitions between segments, when a particular phrase caught my ear. The two hosts, who were not millennials, commented on a particular film of a bygone era. The younger millennial meteorologist made a comment that made no sense, and the other two anchors laughed at his comment and asked, “Did you really not see the ____ film?” Defensively, the meteorologist replied, “Well that came out long before I was born so I don’t know anything about it.”
As a historian, and as a person, this absurd comment put a real bee in my bonnet. If we are not required to know anything about the world before we are born, then history is completely irrelevant. In fact, if I dissect the meteorologist’s come back a little further, does this mean that someone born in 1984 should be familiar with all aspects of Reagan’s second term? Or do we give them a break on cognitive development and not hold them responsible for any historical event or popular culture reference before they reach age 10? Or junior high?
This meteorologist is not the first person to use this defense. And yes, I see this as a defense mechanism aimed at age-shaming. I was talking about the use of this particular phrase, “I wasn’t born yet so of course I don’t know about __” one day with a group of students after class. The very next day, a different student made the mistake of using that VERY LINE in my class. Because this was a student that verbally sparred with me on a regular basis and a student I knew well (and I knew could handle it), I pushed back. “So you aren’t required to know ANYTHING before you were born?” I asked. He backpedaled, hemmed and hawed, before finally admitting that that comment was a fairly ridiculous comment to make, especially to a history professor, in a history class, where virtually all the content occurred before most of the world’s population was ever born. He was a good sport, I’m glad to say.
What bothers me about this excuse of “I wasn’t born yet, so I’m not responsible for knowing ___,” is that it takes a shot at people who are knowledgeable, and typically (although not always), older. The problem with people that insult those who are older than them is that they too will age. Unless the Fountain of Youth has been discovered and diverted into youth drinks, everyone will age. So making fun of people who are older than you is absurd. I once worked a summer job at the ripe old age of 25. The college students I worked alongside of were 19 and 20. On more than one occasion they tried to make fun of how old I was (yes, at 25), and didn’t I wish I could be 19 again? No. I replied. I’ve liked each year more than the last. And I am confident that will continue to be true long into the future. I remember coming home and scratching my head. Really? They thought 25 was old? And assumed that I wished I could be just like them at 19 and 20?
We live in a youth-obsessed culture, particularly targeted at women, that expects them to look young at any cost, lest they be dumped and traded in for a younger model. But is championing a youth-culture the same thing as disparaging the wise and mature?
What becomes of a culture than devalues the past, the old, the wise, and the knowledgeable?
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.