As I’m happily straddling that age between “old” and “young”, I enjoy the benefits that heading into middle age brings. I feel more secure, much wiser and happier than I did in my misspent youth. I understand why the Bible so often embraces age and encourages us to listen to the old. In many cultures around the world this is the norm: the older generations are respected and seen as a source of wisdom. Often they are given authority without question.
In the West, we’ve gone in completely the opposite direction. Since teenage culture took on a life of its own in the 1950s, we’ve gradually become more in awe of the young, and suspicious of the old. Everyone wants to look younger, the opinion formers on TV often appear to be just out of university, anything old-fashioned is seen as boring or even evil, and everyone seems to want change all the time. The Brexit bitterness has brought all of this out in the open: hatred towards the older generations is voiced regularly.
Then of course we have the youngster of the moment, Greta Thunburg. As the mouthpiece of a youth movement that demands more action on climate change, she’s become one of the most powerful women in the world, regularly given audiences with world leaders, and all over the news. Democratic senator Ed Markey recently told the 16-year-old: “We need your leadership.” That’s quite a mantle to handle to anyone, never mind a teenager.
I hope no-one paid too much attention to my political opinions when I was her age. The advice I gave – all too quickly – was patchy at best, and no wonder. I had little life experience, I hadn’t read much, I had little exposure to opinions other than my parents and a few teachers, and even worse, I had the over-confidence of the young: I thought I was absolutely right about everything. I’m now more aware of my limitations, though there's still plenty of way to go on that one! But I’m so glad I’ve grown up and that many of those opinions have changed. For example, now I believe in Jesus. I’m incredibly grateful that God showed me where I was going wrong.
Of course there are plenty of older people who agree with Greta on climate change. So why not listen to them, and have a thorough debate between people of different opinions on the subject? Why has this girl been thrust into the spotlight and treated as if she is a guru? For the older people who agree with her, it’s a useful phenomenon: climate change is getting a lot of attention due to her celebrity. But that’s hardly fair on her, and it doesn’t seem a very healthy way to influence public opinion either.
In days gone by, younger people’s voices were often ignored. When it comes to their daily needs and their struggles, that was a real shame: it’s important children have the opportunity to tell others of what they’re finding difficult in their lives, and that we do listen to their opinions. But it’s also important that they listen to the opinions and experience of those older to them. Paul counsels Timothy, “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young.” (1 Timothy 4:12) That doesn’t mean we should put them in charge: it means we value them, rather than thrust them into positions of great power and responsibility.
Yes the young often have a useful fresh perspective, though often naive, and we need dialogue between the generations. We all have gifts to offer, that vary throughout our lifetime. “The glory of the young is their strength; the grey hair of experience is the splendour of the old.” (Proverbs 20:29, NLT) These attributes can be complimentary if we are thinking rationally and with love.
To give younger people a louder say than the old, or to heap the responsibility of changing the world onto one girl, is bizarre, and a little sinister. Let’s hope for a better dialogue between the generations, as well as those of different political opinions – we need this much more than we need a young and vulnerable girl being put on a very high pedestal, that it’s all too easy to fall off.
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