I overheard someone complaining about the behaviour of teens. I live in a community where almost a fifth of the population is of retirement age, so that‘s hardly news. This time, however, the complaints were coming from someone who couldn’t have been much older than twenty. Still, not that surprising. As soon as children can talk, they start differentiating themselves from those younger than themselves. “I am not a baby!” is a complaint that starts with toddlers and seems to continue far into adulthood.
This month, to broaden the World At Large’s subject matter, I thought I’d look at something other than politics and consider this perennial complaint. Are kids ruder, more out of control, than they were when “we” were kids? The answer is no, but quoting statistics and studies never seems to quiet the critics, so instead I thought I’d look at a few of the reasons why we, young and old alike, are not like the polite, well mannered people of generations past.
Two of the most important reasons are wealth and democracy. They may seem like unlikely culprits, but manners were strongly connected to class and deference. The complex ordering of table utensils is a hold over from a time when good manners were a complicated part of everyday life. Well, complicated to us. The underlying principle was quite simple. Defer to the rich and powerful. Ignore the poor and minorities. As long as everyone knew who everyone else was, it wasn’t complicated at all. Would they really give up their seats to a lady? Sure, but they didn’t confuse ‘woman’ with ‘lady.’ They are not synonyms. A lady was a woman of property. The wife or daughter of a gentleman. A gentleman would not give his seat to the cleaning woman. He wouldn’t share a table with her in the first place. At one time not showing the proper deference had real consequences. Your ‘betters’ actually controlled your jobs, owned the land you lived on, and so forth, but as democracy spread, power shifted to the middle class and, nominally, at least, to everyone else. If we are all supposed to be equal, why would one person be privileged over another? Once the costs of poor manners disappeared, we lost a major incentive to exercise good manners.
Wealth is connected to class, but its also connected to privacy and personal space. Today, ideally at least, the parents are the only members of the family who share a room. Each kid has his own. In many families there is also more than one television and computer. And this has an important impact on good manners. In 1800 the average family had seven kids. By 1900 the average had dropped to four. Today the number of children per family averages out to one. When you had nine people, seven kids and two parents, living in a small, often one or two room, home, manners provided a formalized code of conduct that created a psychological space around each member. We don’t have those spaces now. We don’t need to create a space within ourselves, because we have it outside ourselves. If you want to get away and have some privacy, go to your room and close the door. Its right there. Only a century ago, only the wealthy could do that. Now it’s the norm. A well mannered life used to be a necessary part of our external and internal conduct. We needed it to get through our day. We don’t anymore.
Of course, beyond broad socio-political matters, if people were going to learn manners, they would have to be taught To be seen role modeled in our daily lives. And who is going to do that? The old couple down the street? When today’s seniors were kids, they weren’t running home to help mom and pop bring in the crops. No, they’d watch TV and listen to rock and roll. The teen as the suburban-television-watching-rock-and-roll-listening-juvenile-delinquent is a cliché that goes back over sixty years. Back then people were making the same complaints about kids we hear today, but kids then did have one advantage: the adults in their lives were willing to grow up and be adults. The Boomer generation is unique in wanting to celebrate and cling to its youth, but if Boomers are still young and hip, where does that leave their children--and, given how old many Boomers really are, their children’s children? Why they’re just babies. And you love babies, but treat them like equals? I don’t think so. And this brings us right back to the twenty year old complaining about teens. If we infantilize everyone under forty (or fifty, or sixty), we can hardly expect them to act like adults.