Is Our Society Young or Old?
Chronological age matters less than who is running the show.
Posted Jun 06, 2018
Some societies are literally youthful. That is true of many developing countries where the average age is under thirty. In the U.S., mean age is rising but older people cultivate habits more typical of the young in earlier periods.
Behavior, dress, and appearance are one yardstick. Other key criteria of societal youthfulness relate to who is in charge, who dominates social life, and who dictates shifts in technology and daily life.
Government and Wealth
Politically, the U.S. is definitely an old country. The government is clearly dominated by elderly males, although more women are entering politics over time. In political matters, the concerns of older people are more influential. Despite recent youth activism focused on school shootings, for example, there has been minimal legislative change to address the concerns of young people.
When one considers entertainment and social networks, the picture is very different.
Social Life and Mass Media
We may be inclined to see the preponderance of youthful influence in music, film, and mass media as a creature of the Internet, but it was well established as a trend in the 1950s or earlier. Young people were icons of the entertainment industry in the 1950s with the emergence of stars such as James Dean and Elvis Presley. They were succeeded by increasingly iconoclastic, and increasingly popular, young entertainers.
Students of popular tastes mark 1963 as a key year in which the overwhelming dominance of youth in entertainment was established. One iconic event of this year was the American debut of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan came across as a repressed square contrasting with the freshness and spontaneity of the British stars who drove teenage girls wild literally as well as figuratively. This event encapsulated the transfer of power from an older generation to the young so far as the music business was concerned.
A backlash against the Beatles in particular, and young entertainers in general, led by religious and political leaders who pointed to the hedonism and degeneracy of many popular figures of the time, failed. We all know who won this contest for hearts and minds in the turbulent decade that followed. By any measure, this was a time of unusual experimentation and creativity in performance arts, just as it also involved flexibility and experimentation in lifestyles.
It was also a time of breathtaking advances in science and technology, as illustrated by the moon landing. Many of the innovations in electronics from that time facilitated the digital revolution.
Technology and Innovation
The Internet was mostly developed by middle-aged government scientists who established the ARPANET platform for rapid exchange of technical information among scientists and engineers. Much of the subsequent commercial development of the Internet was taken over by young entrepreneurs who had grown up in the world of electronic devices and were thus digital natives.
Many of the largest and most successful modern companies were founded by very young entrepreneurs some of whom became billionaires while still in their twenties. These include Google, Facebook, Uber, and Baidu.
The social networks they founded largely dictate how the majority of the global population conduct their lives today, whether they happen to be young or old. In the U.S., as in other countries, the influence of young people is strongly projected on electronic media although they have not yet translated this exposure into political power. Older power elites may have beaten them to the punch in examples that range from Putin to Trump (1).
Whereas societies of the past were mostly controlled by aging politicians and plutocrats, there were revolutionary periods when young leaders upset the applecart, from King Henry VIII to Napoleon, and rewrote the rules of their societies. This may be about to happen but it is premature to write off aging power elites (1).
So it appears that our society is neither young nor old but a strange mix of conflicting tendencies.
Political power may remain in the hands of aging rulers in this country. Yet, it is young people who dictate how we live our lives. In lifestyle, they are the leaders and trendsetters from laying out the ground rules of social media to influencing what we wear, or ingest.
Americans may sometimes downplay the reality of death as an inconvenient falsification of the notion that life can always improve.
We also deny aging in different ways. These range from acting, and dressing, younger than we are to cosmetic surgery.
We are no longer surprised when a person in their seventies goes diving with sharks and we often hear that seventy is the new fifty. Such youthful behavior may generally be a good idea because it seems that those who are optimistic, active and engaged, actually lead longer healthier lives (2).
One is reminded of the legend of Oisin in The Land of Youth. This ancient Gaelic hero emigrated to a mysterious kingdom in the west where he never aged. Then, smitten by nostalgia, he returned under strict instructions never to touch his native soil. Inevitably, he disobeyed and was instantly overcome by the weight of elapsed centuries.
1 Ferguson, N. (2018). The square and the tower: Networks and power from the Freemasons to Facebook. New York: Penguin.