“We need young Friends like you.”
“It’s so nice to see so many young people here.”
“You’re so young and full of energy, why don’t you [move these chairs/sort out this problem/reverse climate change]?”
There are Young Friends – capital Y, capital F – and they have their own General Meeting, and I wish them all the best with it. However, I am not now or have I ever been, for various reasons of my own which I don’t think should need defending, a Young Friend. I am a Friend, a Quaker, certainly, and I am also ‘young’ in the sense that I cannot yet be described as retired or even nearing retirement. I am also, though, an adult. I live alone, I pay bills, I manage my own time, I take responsibility, etc. I can, if I choose, drink, drive, marry, and/or join the army. (As it happens I don’t at present, but I reserve the right to change my mind.)
Here are some myths about youth and age which creep into Quaker conversations sometimes. I think people don’t always notice that they’re there – or at least, that’s the most generous way to account for the fact that they continue to rely on them. I’ve tried to keep this post not too angry, although in all honesty the patronising attitudes I have met among Friends do hurt me deeply.
- Pain is related to age; young people don’t know about pain.
This is pretty obviously wrong, I hope. If you think of a horrible childhood disease – there are, alas, plenty to choose from – it’s clear that some children experience considerable amounts of pain. If you recall that a considerable number of moderate to horrible diseases are invisible, it becomes clear that a child could be in pain without this being obvious to strangers and acquaintances. Now, it’s true that the chances of experiencing severe or sustained pain probably increase with age, because you’ve had longer to injure yourself or get an illness, but that doesn’t mean that you can assume young people don’t know about pain. Also, I’m a bit worried if older people are assuming that their pain is just part of ageing; some pain, including some of mine, is hard to treat or incurable, but I hope you ask that question of a doctor (or two or three) before you decide it’s an ordinary part of life.
- Young people have more energy.
Clearly not true in all cases; stress and fatigue, like pain, can affect everyone. Some older people may have more energy than some young people, and energy expenditure can, again, be invisible. This myth often comes up when we are considering nominations, and those conversations don’t always take into account the other commitments (exams, work, hobbies, children, etc.) which ‘young’ people in our meetings are juggling. Actually, everyone is usually juggling something against the time and energy they put into serving the Meeting, and time of life is only one factor in the complex calculations here.
- Young people are the future.
At the moment, David Cameron is the future. By which I mean: the people who shape our collective future are those who have the power to shape the world we live in now. Granted, I might see a bit more of the future than someone older than me (unless the Tories wreck our economy some more and I’m unable to earn a living of any kind, at which point I might choose to jump off a bridge instead). But I shape the future of my current meeting by the things I do now – leading a study group which sets someone thinking, giving a newcomer (whatever their age!) the information they need. We are the future. ‘We’ is you, whatever age you are, and me, whatever age I am. If you want to improve that future, don’t opt out, but acknowledge the power you have now. Don’t abdicate and leave it to ‘young people’ – especially if you’re going to leave it in a mess. (Do you hear me, Dave?)
Another way to approach this topic – in contrast to the myth-busting method above – would be to talk about privilege and ageism. Discrimination based on age can cut both ways in our society: people looking down on, ignoring, or fearing the young (not listening to children, treating teenagers like another species, assuming that young adults – even at 20 or 25! – are less capable or less responsible), and people rejecting, ignoring, and thinking the worst of the elderly (not listening, treating them like another species, assuming that they’re less capable… seem familiar?). There are stereotypes for all of this: racist grandma, violent teenager, dotty old man, drunken student.
Sometimes when we talk about an axis of oppression, it seems that the power flows in one direction – within the genders spectrum, for example, usually the more masculine you are the more privilege and unearned power our society grants you. For age, though, it seems that the problem is being at one extreme or the other; your age is only unnoticed if you’re in the middle stretch, 30-50 or maybe as much as 20-60. I suspect that this correlates with when people have most power generally – most responsibility in a job or childcare, for example, and most money going through the household even if not much stays.
The problem manifests differently at each end, of course. If you’re at the young end you’re likely to get the kinds of myths I discussed last week. If you’re at the older end there’s a whole other set of nonsense. I think we, as Quakers, need to realise how much of it is nonsense, though. Of course there are people who for whatever reason can’t do a particular job, but these reasons are not automatically age-related – I can’t be an overseer because I’m terrible with people, and it’s no good asking my incredibly forgetful and disorganised friend A to convene a meeting because it would never happen – but we’re both in our mid to late twenties. Making assumptions based on age, rather than taking individuals as individuals, is going to lead you to a lot of mistaken answers.