Forty years ago today, the Beatles made
the first of four historic performances on “The Ed Sullivan
Show.” This, the arbiters of culture, would say after
clearing their collective throats, was a moment when “to be
young was very heaven.” We, on the other hand, have not been
so fortunate, according to those lucky Baby Boomers. We are soft
and fat, occupied by fleeting concerns or no concerns at all. We
are weak and malleable; they were strong and pioneering.
Despite the best efforts of the Boomers to infect us with viral
marketing, make us “tip” toward the latest trend,
fashion or fad and use assorted schemes to make our lives utterly
miserable, twentysomethings once again deserve a positive mention
on those obligatory New Year’s “In” and
Look at our accomplishments: One of us is the star witness in
the Martha Stewart trial and titillates the financial press with
tales of designer drug use. In Michigan, if you’re a plucky
member of the creative class, you can be the centerpiece of Gov.
Jennifer Granholm’s set-piece strategy for economic vibrancy.
We even get to subsidize $534 billion worth of Medicare
prescription drug benefits over the course of a decade. Actually,
maybe things aren’t that great in the United States.
But outside of this country, the prospects are more promising.
In Iran, the real bete noir of the ayatollahs isn’t the
United States, it’s the millions of Iranians who are under
25. When more than 70 percent of a country’s population is
younger than 25, politicians have to maintain a wary eye on the
whims of youth at all times. This is a particular concern in a
nation where many young people have sought out space for creativity
in the form of novel genres of music, blogs and, in many cases, a
revolutionary posture toward the state. While Iran’s Guardian
Council bans reform candidates from running in parliamentary
elections and the government arrests student leaders, this
burgeoning youth movement ensures that the quest for
“personal space” will continue.
The age of youth isn’t just limited to regions with
exploding population growth. Japan stands out as an example of
youth seizing control of a nation’s culture and injecting it
with a sense of urgency and relevance. While most of Japan has
experienced a decade of ennui and drift, the “gross national
cool” associated with the nation’s youth has made Japan
a superpower once more. Cultural might has replaced the dreams of
economic hegemony in a country where the youth have pioneered new
approaches to the challenges of post-historical boredom.
Examples of youth wielding political power abound as well. In
South Korea, the vaunted 3-8-6 generation, after its successful
battles against military dictatorship, effectively controls the
national agenda. Its power and influence has achieved diverse goals
from altering the state’s foreign policy to installing public
libraries on the trains of Seoul’s subway system.
The kids exist to change culture. They are the only ones who
can. They are the ones who create new ways of solving problems, new
values and new systems of conduct. Forty years after the Beatles
were beamed into the living rooms of 73 million Americans, these
lessons have been eclipsed by the Baby Boomers’ celebration
of themselves. It wasn’t always this way. There was recently
a time when Wired magazine, the dot.coms and the citizens of
Generation X were going to take over the world, or, at the very
least, the networks of information which would eventually control
it. Angry Boomers sneered at their successes. Of course, these
brash young upstarts were hubristic, decadent and arrogant, but
they had some great ideas.
In his memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering
Genius,” Dave Eggers, one of the iconic symbols of this brief
era, recounts how his fledgling magazine ran a glowing profile of
the founder of Teach For America. Wendy Kopp, the Princeton
graduate who turned her senior thesis into one of the most
successful volunteer organizations in the United States, was the
model for a new type of activism. But Eggers et al. soon grew bored
with Kopp and decided to trash her as a self-indulgent prig,
motivated by a sense of haughty noblesse oblige. Maybe the best
part about being young is the opportunity to destroy
everyone’s heroes and not have to think about the
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