What do I immediately think of when hearing the word “youth”? Increasingly – and most recently hearing young Henmaniacs at Wimbledon – the answer has to be NOISE. Among the many things that have changed in my nigh on four score years and ten, few are to be regretted more than the complete reversal of the traditional rule that the young should be seen but not heard. For example, when a car draws up alongside me in a traffic jam with the drumbeat of a Zulu war dance blaring out of its open windows, it is certain to be driven by a brazen youth who – so long as the jam continues – resolutely refuses to pay the slightest attention to my dumb-show signs begging him to turn the volume down.
Much harder to forgive, however, are the mainly youthful Henmaniacal roars and cheers, aimed unsportingly just as much at discouraging the hero’s opponent as at encouraging the hero. Yet nowadays, such is the deference afforded to youth that the Wimbledon authorities do not raise an eyebrow. Nor does the BBC, which allows its cameras and microphones to give quite as much attention to the demonstrations of youthful gracelessness off court as to demonstrations of youthful grace on it.
The second thing that springs immediately to mind at the mention of youth has to be “delinquency”. This goes back to the days of the Teddy boys and mods and rockers of the late Fifties and Sixties, when we stopped thinking of youth as the embodiment of beauty and innocence and the hope of the future, and began to think of it as an ugly contemporary problem. It was then that articles – memorably by Professor Bryan Wilson – began to appear, and have gone on appearing ever since. They were entitled “The Trouble with Teenagers” or “The War of the Generations” – a war that was soon to be transferred from the pages of sociological journals to the university campuses.
To some extent, money was at the root of this new evil. In the old days, youths tended to be poorer than their parents and, therefore, subject to their discipline. But increasingly, in the last half of the 20th century, it came to be the other way round. Just before sitting down to write this article, for example, I saw a company advertisement in one of the broadsheets offering a job to a beginner at a salary of £43,000 a year, which is just about the size of my Telegraph pension after half a century’s unbroken service.
New technologies favouring youth have brought about this reversal of fortune. It used to take at least five years in pretty well any job before an employee could begin to earn his keep. Nowadays, however, it is a positive disadvantage to have too much experience, since companies are forever introducing new systems that can best be mastered by callow youths who have not yet had time to acquire a lot of obsolete skills and attitudes. So old-hand veterans are at a discount and raw recruits at a premium. Nor is it only at work that the oldies are losing out, since their declining authority there leads to the decline of their authority as the main provider at home and a loss of parental authority in general – political, moral and sexual – to the point where the wisdom of the ancients, in almost every field, has had to give way before the wantonness, ignorance and follies of the young.
The growth in juvenile drug-taking is horribly revealing in this respect. I belong to the generation of parents who let it happen, not so much through negligence as ignorance. While my generation knew everything about the dangers of alcohol abuse – having practised it ourselves for years and years – and could all too plausibly and credibly advise teenagers on that subject, we had little or no experience of taking drugs, and on that subject, therefore, were wholly unconvincing. For example, I remember taking my five teenage godchildren out to dinner in the mid-Sixties and they were all talking about Timothy Leary, the great pro-drug guru of the period, of whom I had to confess I’d never heard. Any further authority I might have had on drugs vanished instantly. It was as clear to my godchildren as to me that they knew more about the subject than I did, and it was I who should have been learning from them rather than the other way round. Thus it was that youth began to get the upper hand, not only in drugs but in much else besides – including, a little later, the mysteries of – computer technology.
In no area was the new power of youth more marked than in the media. My years as editor of the Sunday Telegraph in the Eighties were dominated by demands from the advertising department for more young readers – those judged to have the largest uncommitted incomes. This meant increasingly filling our columns with lifestyle and human-interest features, fashion and, above all, young columnists, largely female, whose verbal fireworks and clever iconoclasm would once have been confined to the university magazines where they properly belong. The emphasis was increasingly on readability, entertainment, style, irreverence, brashness, all of which are the near monopolies of youth, at the expense of judgement, experience, maturity, restraint and, in a word, knowledge. It took me 20 years in journalism before I was given a signed column of my own; nowadays the likes of, say, Emma Jones on the Sun are given their own column after as many months. On television, the emphasis on the priorities of youth – uncultivated taste, animal passion and instant gratification – are even more marked.
Not that the media created the youth problem; they only exploited it. Two momentous changes in the zeitgeist caused the problem: permissiveness and relativism. Both removed the civilising and socialising restraints that had previously served to keep the natural high spirits and rebelliousness of youth within tolerable bounds. Disraeli may have been right when he declared “that everything worth doing in the world has been done by youth”, but in his Victorian days youth was not yet the unguided, out-of-control missile that it has now become. Very far from it. Not only was youth leashed in by lack of money, but also by a whole strand of other bonds – now absent – such as religion and a clear and thorough indoctrination in the difference between right and wrong.
In this way, the glorious physical grace of the young, their sublime optimism and adventurousness, their idealism and courage, were not allowed to run wild but, directed by the superior experience of the old, were put to high and noble purposes. And as for those guilty of corrupting the young to low and ignoble purposes, as the media so often do today, they – even when innocent of the charge like Socrates – could expect to pay a heavy price, unlike today’s Rupert Murdochs who are enormously enriched and rewarded.
So far, so bad: the power of youth has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. But like all other generally bad impressions reached through reading newspapers and looking at television, I have to say that my own personal experience does not alto- gether bear it out. In fact, the young I come across – my grandchildren, stepchildren, nephews, nieces and their friends and contemporaries – are as unlike the young portrayed in most of the media as tin is from gold. That is the trouble with the modern world: we know it mainly through the media, and the media, prompted by commercial self-interest, are interested in entertainment, not truth; in the abnormal, not the normal. As we know, trains that arrive safely don’t get reported, and the same may be true about the worthwhile young who don’t go off the rails. One of our dogs, for example, was recently found miles away from home and returned at some inconvenience to himself by a thoroughly decent youth – driving, believe it or not, a white van. Then there are the Hedgerley Boy Scouts, who have just put up a marquee in our garden and who can be totally relied upon to help out in emergencies with a wholly admirable zest and confidence. Everybody has similar examples of their own stereotypes letting them down. So perhaps those unsporting youths off court at Wimbledon do not represent youth any more than do the cretinous youths in Big Brother.
So let me usurp the hopeful role of youth, and throw off the yoke of crabbed and mouldy old age, and end on a perhaps naive and generous note. Truth to tell, the young people I actually meet often remind me of what ideally youth ought to be: “Beautiful in repose and graceful in action” (Emerson), preferring to perform “great deeds”, at which they excel, rather than “to think idle thoughts”, which, if they live long enough to reread them in their old age, will rightly make them shiver with embarrassment.
So no more nightmares: let us instead congratulate ourselves on having at last fulfilled the poet’s dream of putting “youth at the prow and pleasure at the helm”.