Age and wisdom have been cast out of our infantilised society
There is a strange phenomenon. Britain is getting older. In fact, the population is older now than it has been for over a century. Yet at the same time our culture has never been more adolescent. Young people may be a dwindling minority, but they exercise an extraordinarily powerful influence on the cultural stage, from television and newspapers to film and art.
The turning point, of course, was the 1960s. Until then, young people were largely ignored in a culture that was determinedly and stiflingly middle aged. A generation, who were brought up in very different conditions from those of their parents, rebelled in a way that remains unprecedented in western society. It is not difficult to explain – or understand – the 60s. The young were a product of the long postwar boom, not war and unemployment, and the baby boom lent them exceptional demographic weight. What is far more difficult to comprehend is why our culture, in the decades since, has become progressively more infantile. It is as if the 60s gave birth to a new dynamic, which made young people the dominant and permanent subjects of our culture.
It started with the rebirth of pop music as a youth genre, but the concerns and attitudes of the young generation have since permeated areas that were never self-avowedly adolescent. One only has to think of Britart, for example, whose motif has been the desire to shock, or film, whose preoccupation with violence as spectacle is driven by the appetite of the young, to see how powerful these adolescent values have become. It is not that they are simply negative or offer nothing: on the contrary, there is much to be admired in their energy, scepticism and commitment to innovation. But they are also characterised by transience and shallowness, a desire to shock for shock’s sake, and a belief that only the present is of value. A culture that succumbs to adolescence is a culture that is drained of meaning and experience, not to mention history and profundity.
Nor is this obeisance to adolescence simply a characteristic of the arts. On the contrary, it shapes the character of much mainstream culture. Take newspapers, for example. The broadsheets, as we used to describe them, have become increasingly concerned with, and expressive of, the concerns of a younger audience: the growth of “personal experience” and lifestyle columns, the growing preoccupation with the personal rather than the political, the retreat from the serious. This is reflected in the falling age of journalists: there is less room, and declining respect for, figures of authority and expertise. The currency of knowledge and experience is steadily depreciating.
The same adolescent tendency can be seen in television – with brass knobs on. A major moment in this process was the Big Breakfast, which brought adolescence, nay infantilism, to what had been a rather conventional television genre, namely breakfast time. The Big Breakfast was witty and irreverent. It was also devoid of any substance, childish with not a child in sight, the ultimate in inanity. It signalled the march of infantilism into the citadels of mainstream television. Its icon, Chris Evans, the television face of the new infantilism – which was soon to be joined at the hip to a growing addiction with celebrity – has since been devoured by the process that he helped create, but adolescent television has since come to dominate viewing figures, schedules and budgets. Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! are testament to its hegemony in the popular consciousness. The tabloids feed off these programmes, their agenda driven by adolescent television. And, as in newspapers, the average age of television controllers, editors, directors and producers keeps falling, with grey hairs less and less in evidence at a time when they are becoming evermore visible in society at large.
Even such a conservative redoubt as politics has partially fallen. Once political parties were served by research departments, staffed by people with a range of experience, while the media, for expert commentary, drew on acade mics and specialists, who were possessed of considerable expertise. That was before the rise of the political thinktanks, which have now usurped the role of the research departments and diminished the use of academics and other experts. The thinktanks mark the triumph of political adolescence over experience. This is not to decry all of their output, but as a cultural form their staff are generally extremely young, utterly lacking in experience, devoid of the wisdom that only life can teach, and profoundly voguish in inclination. In short, they travel light.
Nor is it an accident that thinktanks, which measure their influence by the number of column inches of newspaper coverage they get, not the quality of their ideas, exist in a symbiotic relationship with a media that has become addicted to the soundbite appeal of the latest policy wheeze rather than serious reflection. Nor is it difficult to see how New Labour also belongs to, and helps to articulate, this culture – in its rejection of the past, its deployment of the word “new”, and its obsession with recruiting advisers and spin doctors, often from these same thinktanks, who Nigel Lawson might have described as “teenage scribblers”.
I remember, as a student in the 60s, reflecting enviously on the fact that during the second world war a young generation was given its head to invent, administer, spy and lead, such was the imperative of war. It broke the suffocating hierarchy of age and seniority, even if that was to be largely reinstated in the immediate postwar decades. But that wartime phenomenon is quite different from what we are now witnessing, namely a huge shift in society’s centre of gravity – in its preoccupations, emotions, interests, tone and values – away from the older generations towards the young. The consequence is a less serious society, a less wise society, and a less profound society.
But why is it happening? It can be argued that the 60s unleashed a new cultural dynamic, which is still working its way through society. A new mindset was formed, which gave priority to the young. It is plausible to suggest that parents and grandparents who themselves were the rebels of the 60s are more inclined to respect, and defer to, the sensibilities and demands of youth. And this tendency has been reinforced by a new technological dynamic, manifest in the internet, mobiles and the like, which has left older generations feeling a little left out, and lent credence to a misplaced technological determinism among the young. There is more than a grain of truth in all this. But as the proportion of young people steadily declines, one would still expect the sheer weight of growing age to assert itself. So far there is absolutely no sign of this. In fact, extraordinarily, the opposite is happening.
The underlying reason for all this could not be more fundamental. It concerns the western condition. For over half a century we have only known prosperity, never experienced depression or mass unemployment, never fought wars except on the edges at other people’s expense, never known the vicissitudes or extremes of human existence, comfortable in a continent that has enjoyed, for the most part, a similar existence and, having turned its back on grand visions and big dreams, opted for the quiet life.
Yet it is extremes, personal or political or both, which teach us the meaning of life. Without them, the excesses of the young provide a little of the excitement otherwise lacking. The outcome is a growing vacuity and shallowness. Britart may shock, but it hardly provides us with a deeper insight into the human condition. Hollywood movies may entertain, but they barely ever enlighten. Thinktanks may wheeze, but they are never profound. New Labour may spin, but it sure lacks substance. An adolescent culture is one that lives on the surface, unencumbered by memory, light on knowledge and devoid of wisdom.