“Now the boys love luxury. They have bad manners, they despise authority, they do not respect their elders and they prefer chatter to exercise.” Older people often say similar things. It is not something new: they have been said, at least, since we have written records of what our ancestors thought.
The quotation in quotation marks that opens this text is attributed to Socrates. If that were true, if young people were more and more dissolute, more disrespectful, lazier or more crazy, to name just a few of the defects that are usually attributed to them, youth – and with it the rest of humanity – would have degenerate in a way that is difficult to bear. Something is wrong with those assessments.
An investigation, whose conclusions were released in 2019, addressed this issue by inquiring about the phenomenon called “effect today” (these days effect, in English). For this, the opinion of the elderly was analyzed about how three traits have evolved from our young years to our youth today. The traits are: respect for the elderly, intelligence and a taste for reading.
The general conclusion of the study is that there is, indeed, a general tendency to speak ill of youth in relation to respect for the elderly and the taste for reading. There is also a tendency to negatively value young people in those traits in which one stands out or believes to stand out, something common to the three traits investigated.
When an adult is very respectful of authority, he tends to think that young people today respect the elderly less than the young people of their time. The same is true of intelligence and the love of reading. The effect is so specific to each trait because, for example, someone very fond of reading but who values authority little does not tend to think that today’s young people do not respect their elders as they were respected before.
In other words, this “nowadays effect” does not consist of a general undervaluation or bad opinion of youth, but is limited to relatively specific domains.
Detect faults, project qualities
The authors of the work identified two mechanisms underlying the effect. On the one hand, they observed that those who excel in some trait have a tendency to perceive failures in that same trait in others, both in young people and in adults.
On the other hand, they tend to project their current characteristics into the past, making the mistake of thinking that when they were young they had the same virtues or favorable traits as in the present. That is why they compare themselves as they see themselves today with young people, without realizing that they are not now as they were forty years ago. This same bias may have been at work for millennia, with all that this implies.
If we have been negatively evaluating young people “today” for centuries, it is highly unlikely that older people will stop doing so from now on. For that reason, when you hear your family members, colleagues, or even discover yourself saying that today’s young people are undisciplined, they don’t respect their elders, they don’t read, they came to university less prepared, or similar things, before If you agree or continue with the diatribe, think that the Greeks used to say almost twenty-five centuries ago.
Juan Ignacio Pérez Iglesias is Professor of Physiology at the University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea.