I’m confident that at least 14 sociologists has studied this, many times over, and come to different conclusions from their colleagues, but when did the American obsession with youth actually begin? Was it something that’s been there all along? Or is it of more recent vintage?
I don’t think it’s my imagination. Putting off the advance of age is a multi-billion dollar industry. Popular culture is aimed squarely at youth. Advertising focuses on and celebrates youth.
I don’t know when it started, but I suspect elements of our obsession with youth have always been embedded with the culture, relatively hidden or of minor note, until two things happened, both in the 20th century: mass media, beginning with radio but changed forever with television, and then the Baby Boom.
I’m a Boomer myself, one of 86 million strong born between 1946 and 1964 (I’m not exactly sure why 1964 is the cut-off date, but it usually is). The Baby Boom came into this world like a human tsunami and changed everything about America: schools, culture, the workplace, social and moral values, entertainment, attitudes about trust and authority – there wasn’t much left untouched. And now we’re beginning to enter retirement, and we’re going to remake nursing homes, geriatric medicine and health, and the cemetery business.
An interesting observation: it was only with the Baby Boom that generations of Americans came to have names. In a sense, we even required that our parents’ generation be named (thank you, Tom Brokaw). And after us is Gen X, Gen Y, Millenials. Even our children were referred to as the Baby Boomlet.
Mass media, demographic changes, fear of aging and death – all of these have contributed with our obsession with youth. And then there’s also the reality that young people simply look more attractive than old people.
We associate youth with change, ideas, the willingness to try to new things, the refusal to accept the status quo, and even physical strength. We associate old people with gray hair, failing eyesight, and wheelchairs. We don’t associate older people with wisdom, unless they happen to be the guru of the month.
The Bible would say we have it backwards.
In The Fire of Delayed Answers, Bob Sorge cites Proverbs 20:29: “The glory of young men is their strength, and the splendor of old men is their gray head.” From an American cultural perspective, we get the part about youth and strength, but no one associates gray hair with splendor.
But the question is, where does the gray hair come from?
“Gray hair,” Sorge says, “represents experience, pain, one who has lived though life’s difficulties.” And gray hair sits atop those who were once young and strong.
He describes it as a life process – something that must happen if one is to attain wisdom. Over time, he says, God uses the experiences of life to help us understand that it’s not about us, it’s not about youth and beauty and strength. It’s about something else entirely.
Someone who has been through the experiences of life “has seen the faithfulness of God through great pressures, and he now has a testimony. It is not the strong but the gray who are fruitful” (emphasis added).
Our culture has it exactly backwards.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Fire of Delayed Answers. To see more posts on this chapter, “Brokenness,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.