Friday, February 19, 2010

in defense of youth

Is there anything more tiresome and trite than the old decrying the young? Is there? Nothing presently comes to mind.

Get the Old Folks (I'm painting with a broad brush here, so if you're reading you probably just got wet) a'talking about the Young Folks and it won't be long before the tell tale sign of a sigh, a slight shake of the head, and then something like, "The young people of today, they just don't ____." It's always a negative comment. Things were always better. That previous generation, it was always more moral, mature, hard-working, attentive, courteous, respectful, or whatever other would-be positive trait comes to mind.

Guess what, Old Folks, when you were Young Folks, your Old Folks said the same of you, so damn your hypocritical egocentricism. Even Aristotle (I can't remember the passage, so I won't even try), in his day, decried what he saw as a slow generational decay.

The temptation to engage in generational bitchery is strong. I suffer from it myself. Exhibit One are the neighbor kids. Three of them. High school students. From two different families. The only time I see the one outside is when I hang at the bus stop with my daughter. The only time I've seen the other two, who apparently drive to school, is when they were harangued by their mother to help with the snow shoveling. They don't play outside. No throwing the rock around on the street. No garage/driveway fiddling with...whatever. They don't even *gasp* ride their bikes. (They may not even have bikes!)

In the face of that, the temptation to compare their behavior to mine at their age, and unfavorably, is strong. Very strong. But to do so would be foolish. Asinine. I'm not an old man, but I can already see that the world is theirs, not mine, despite the difference in our values. Hopefully I can remain just relevant enough for them to allow me a productive place.

It's the time I spend with the energetic young that's taught me the irrelevance of age, which is not to say that age is irrelevant, but that one grows irrelevant with age. And then there are the facts. James Flynn has shown, as have others, the increase in average general intelligence (g) over time. In fact, it appears that if we were to denormalize (unnormalize?) the results from decades of IQ testing that the Old Folks in the 1930s would score around 20 points lower than the Young Folks of today on an equivalent IQ test. That means that half our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents (the Young Folks of the 1930s) were borderline mentally retarded by today's standards. Wow.

The Flynn Effect is well documented and, for that matter, not really hot-off-the-presses news either. But it points to the deep absurdity (and, as it turns out, irony) of the Old Folks belittling the Young Folks and their ways. We are growing smarter. Why? Well, there are many possible explanations, but the most convincing to me is that the world is becoming an ever more complex place. There are more demands on our time, our professions are more intellectually demanding, and our senses are subject to farm more sophisticated stimuli through our varied and modern forms of A/V media and what have you. As such, we've had to become more proficient in abstract thought (as opposed to concrete thought), and that is the stuff of which intellegence is made (or at least what we measure when we measure intelligence).

An example from the Wikipedia entry. A kid today, when asked what a dog and a rabbit have in common, might answer that they are both mammals, an abstract representation of their relationship. A kid one hundred years ago might have answered that rabbits are caught with dogs, a concrete representation of their relationship.

So there's nothing biological, per se, or even evolutionary, in the sense of natural selection, to explain the difference. The Old Folks started with more or less the same raw gray matter as did the Young Folks, with a few allowances for advances in nutrition and general medical health. The difference, it would seem, is the world in which we live. Simply put, the Young Folks live in a world that makes smarter human beings than did the Old Folks. And that means it's a world they are uniquely equipped to navigate. Old Folks, you're on the Autobahn with a horse and buggy. Pray you don't get hit.

So eat it, gramps. The damn rascals loitering around the Sheets with the funny colored hair, the low-slung pants, who play video games all day and all night, and seem to have every damn piece of available flesh pierced...they are your superior in ways they aren't even aware. It is their world. They need you only to the extent to which you control resources they desire. Money. Power. Prestige.

And, as it turns out, those have been Old Folks' only weapons against the tide of modernity for millennia. Used, history shows us, with more or less effectiveness from one era to another.

1 comment:

mrsmith said...

OK, I'll bite. I can't disagree with the idea of "intelligence" increasing, particularly with regard to abstract thought, but I think that there is another, more important question to be asked. Is being more intelligent better?

Seems like a dumb question, but the general sense from the geezers (a thought club which I find myself joining quickly) is that the young are increasingly dissatisfied with their lives. Does intelligence come at the cost of happiness? Or am I just conflating the intelligence issue with the hyper-scheduling issue that many people deal with today? Or am I just a geezer who doesn't get it?

I ask these questions because I want to know, and because I expect that you'll give it more and better thought than I would. I really just want the snow to melt so I can ride my bike!