I wish I knew what I thought I knew when I thought I knew everything…

At some point - generally around the time its members hit adolescence - every generation comes to believe that it is smarter, better and/or more “with it” (whatever THAT means) than the generation that preceded it. And all too often, that belief is expressed in a way that leaves members of the previous generation confused, hurt and/or angry.

We’ve all been guilty of it at some time or another, whether or not we want to admit it or even realize that we’ve done it. We do it whenever we roll our eyes at some of the stories our parents or grandparents tell from their childhoods, or dismiss their movies and TV shows and music as “corny,” or simply think to ourselves, “Boy, they just don’t get it, do they?”

Go ahead. Nod your little heads; they won’t roll off.

I have written more than once in the past about the love and respect that I had - and have - for my dear, departed mother and father. That is no exaggeration, and I’ll be forever grateful that I did let them know just how much their wisdom and guidance meant to me over the years.

And yet I, too, went through a phase in which I tended to shrug off their stories and observations and attempts to pass along life lessons as being inconsequential. I may not have ever gone through the sort of outright disdain for and rebellion against my parents that so many of my classmates did, but in my own way I showed a degree of disrespect for Mom and Dad that they simply did not deserve. 

It pains me to admit it - particularly now that they are both gone, and I so often find myself desperately wishing I could receive some of that wisdom of guidance just one more time - but I can recall plenty of times when I would tune them out and think to myself, “Well, what makes them so danged smart?”

A lifetime of experience, that’s what - but I was too full of myself to understand that at the time. I thought I knew it all, but I knew nothing. Truth be told, at that age I was as dumb as a box of rocks - and while they had the grace and patience to not say so, I have little doubt that my parents thought so, too. (There are some who will no doubt argue that I’m still as dumb as a box of rocks, but that’s a discussion best left to another time…)

It was not until I was the adult and trying my best to raise a couple of sons of my own that I came to fully appreciate so much of what my parents had tried to impart - about raising those sons, about making ends meet, about good and evil and the world in general.

But by the time I fully appreciated just how smart my parents really were, I was now myself on the receiving end of that same disdain and disrespect from the next generation that my generation had heaped upon our elders. Thereby proving my mother right yet again; “What goes around, comes around,” she used to say.

Sometimes I wonder if this blatant disrespect for our elders might somehow be uniquely tied to the American identity. Other cultures have traditionally held a certain reverence for their elders - if not specifically for their wisdom or intelligence, then certainly for the experiences from which such wisdom was born - but in our culture elders tend to be looked down upon as being too old to matter anymore.

Unlike some of those previous generations, however, there has in recent years been some degree of blowback on the part of aging Baby Boomers who don’t much like being cast aside in such a manner. They take great exception to the sneers and snide comments they feel like they’ve been subjected to, and take a certain delight in pointing out generational traits they believe to be evidence that culture may be de-evolving. 

I’ll admit to having taken a few half-hearted (and mostly tongue-in-cheek) swipes at the Millennials from time to time - although, in my defense, both of my sons are Millennials who more than once have questioned some of their own age group’s values and beliefs. Still, it’s hard not to feel a little sympathetic towards a generation that suddenly finds itself getting attacked from both sides.

This realization was recently brought home to me by a friend and writing colleague who is of a younger generation and feels put upon by those who are both older and younger than themselves.

“Dear Millennials,” my friend posted on Facebook one day last week, “if you hate on Gen Z you're just perpetuating the same abusive stereotyping that Boomers and Gen X put on us. You are also very gullible when it comes to being manipulated by corporations and the mass media. If you are an adult who is threatened by a teenager you need to think about and fix your own inadequacies. 

“Age does not equal wisdom or intelligence. Those attributes are defined by compassion and experience. No one is immune to the trap of slipping into conservative values. Protect yourselves. And Boomers? Gen X? Either stop calling young people stupid or accept the label of stupid yourselves. You, too, have been pawns of the regressive forces of this world.”

While I might have worded them a bit differently had it been me, I thought my friend made some valid points - and I said so in response.

BUT (and this was a very important "But," one put forth with all due respect and love) I felt obliged to point out that the argument goes both ways.

“Speaking as a rapidly aging dinosaur born at the tail end of the Baby Boom,” I responded, “it gets a little wearisome and aggravating to be on the receiving end of eyerolls, snarky comments and ‘Okay, Boomer’ by younger folk who tend to dismiss us because we are older… 

“I’m not saying that I or others of my generation have all the answers; heck, as old as I am I haven't figured out what some of the questions are yet. And I'll be the first to stand up and say yeah, in some respects my generation has indeed screwed things up for those who are coming after us.

“But as my father taught me back when I was the young whippersnapper who thought I knew it all, respect goes both ways; so do abusive stereotypes. I'm perfectly happy to give the younger generation the respect; is it really so much to ask for the same courtesy in return? Every now and then we might actually know what we're talking about.”

Thankfully, my friend not only accepted my response but seemed to acknowledge that I, too, may have made a valid point: “If people don't understand something then it's the better path to help them. I think that's changing but there's also been a lot of damage done as far as communication goes. I won't deny my fellow millennials their frustration, but I also hope that my generation is always open to change.”

For what it’s worth, I hope so too - not just for my friend’s generation, but for my own as well. The younger generation can learn a thing or two from us old fogies, but we can learn a thing or two from them, as well. 

There’s been a great deal said over the past few years about racial equality and gender equality. I can’t help but wonder: when are we going to start talking about generational equaity? Surely there is a way for youthful enthusiasm and the lessons of experience to go hand-in-hand.

(Copyright © 2021 by John A. Small)