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“For the first time, we are living in a culture in which young people educate their grandparents in many aspects”

Robert Pogue Harrison (Smyrna, 1954) is Professor of Cultural Studies at Stanford University and Head of the Department of French and Italian. He has in-depth knowledge of Dante’s work, to which he dedicated his PhD at Cornell University. The idea of youth is one of his intellectual obsessions and permeates all of his work. He has compiled these reflections in a book, Juvenescence (2014), in which he takes a philosophical journey through the entire Western tradition in search of perennity. His Entitled Opinions programme is a classic of the humanities in the United States, and authors such as Richard Rorty, René Girard, Michel Serres, Orhan Pamuk, and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht have been his guests.

For years now you have been studying the concept of youth from the perspective of philosophy and cultural studies. How would you define it?

You could say that there are two types of youth: biological and cultural. All animals go through a period of bio- logical development but, in the case of humans, an extremely important role is played by social, cultural, and economic factors. What we call youth in the twen- ty-first century has very little to do with what youth was in the Middle Ages or in Antiquity, even though our biology is virtually unchanged.

The thesis of my book Juvenescence is that cultural evolution has made us an increasingly youthful species, so that a person aged 30 today, for example, does not look much like a person aged 30
in the nineteenth century. In 1842, the great Realist writer Honoré de Balzac published La femme de trente ans, in which he argued (against the prevailing idea at that time) that a woman of that age could still feel young. Since then, things have changed a great deal and, today, the period of cultural formation has been extended to the point that the concept of youth is increasingly fluid.

As with so many other categories, youth has become fluid... Zygmunt Bauman proposed the term liquid modernity to explain how many aspects of contemporary life are undergoing constant change, and how this fact means that flexibility and adaptation are required. Uncertainty and malleability fit in well with the idea of prolonging youth, which could technically be considered an evolutionary mechanism called neoteny, right?

Indeed, neoteny is a mechanism by virtue of which the human species manages to retain (teny) some characteristics of childhood (neo) as it grows. In other words, in some way maturity is deferred, and this allows one to develop better and learn more. This fact also means that
we maintain, until adult stages of devel- opment, youthful characteristics such as curiosity, playfulness, plasticity, or, ultimately, an adventurous spirit. A cer- tain naivety, too. As adults, we resemble young apes more than old apes.

Could it be said, then, that neoteny is one of the main explanations for the development of human intelligence?

Exactly. We are born as unfinished beings, and we have to finish “cooking” outside of the mother’s womb. That is why human children are completely dependent for years. Compared to other animals, we are born prematurely. This fact, this childhood dependence on adults, permeates our psychology so deeply that, even when we are adults, the child inside us in some way continues to directly or indirectly seek our parents as a reference.

Do you think this infantilism is more pronounced today among young adults? When could this neotenic extension of youth be said to begin?

It forms an intrinsic part of the develop- ment of the human species, but over the last 150 years there has been a revolu- tion in this sense. In 1904, a book was published under the title Adolescence, by Granville Stanley Hall, which talked about a period of conflict and existential crisis during youth, that had emerged due to two fundamental changes: the abolition of child labour and the emer- gence of universal education. With the social progress brought about by the Industrial Revolution, this stage suddenly appeared between childhood and matu- rity that has been expanding ever since, until it formed an emerging adulthood, between the ages of 20 and 30, during which it is assumed that each person can try life out and experiment with it, before stabilizing and making more serious decisions.

In today’s world there is not a great deal of pressure to be “fully” adult at 30, and this seems to be spreading further and further: at 35, at 40, etc. The same thing happens with university: people study until very late in life.

This is by no means a problem. Studying, learning, in itself is a good thing. Italo Calvino explains that Socrates, before his death, was learning to play a song on the flute. When asked why he was learning to play a song if he had only a few hours left to live before drinking the poison hemlock, Socrates replied that knowledge is an end in itself, and that knowing is like breathing. Education aims to make students hundreds, even thousands, of years older, by expanding the capabilities of their minds and giving depth to their culture. This is the neotenic paradox of education: it makes us younger by making us older. Often, this learning is acquired through conversing with the dead, reading the books of authors who have preceded us, thus incorporating us into the infinite tableau of human experience.

You live in Silicon Valley, one of the world’s most technologically advanced areas, but a place where the problems of isolation and loneliness among young people are quite serious. What lies behind this situation?

Here, again, the ambiguity of the concept of youth appears. There is a reality of “being young”, and a myth. This myth, especially in Silicon Valley, has led many millionaires to undertake an absurd search for the fountain of youth, as if there were a magic potion for staying young. Youth is seen as
the best time of life, the happiest and most dynamic, energetic, vital time... a kind of promised land, or paradise lost. It is believed that if youth can be maintained, happiness will remain.
But even though we live in a society obsessed with youth, many social factors play against young people, creating a depressing atmosphere among teenagers.

But what is the origin of their mental health problems? There are studies that point to an inappropriate use of new technologies, especially applications such as Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, etc.

The irony of connections through social media is that they often lead to isolation, and worse still, to separation from nature, which had always been a part of the youthful experience. The disconnection from the physical world caused by screens creates intoxication and makes impossible the ecstasy generated by contact with nature and the animal kingdom. The virtualisation of the real causes a certain alienation since, unfortunately, capitalism has an enormous capacity to underuse citizens by turning them into mere consumers. The same capitalism that promotes social media leads to a growing atomisation that destroys the spirit of young people. There is nothing more corrosive to the human experience than living glued to a mobile phone. It’s like removing a dimension of existence: from 3D in reality to 2D on the screen. The same thing goes for narrative capacity: since everything has to be instantaneous and short-lived, the capacity to connect through elaborate and substantial stories is being lost, narratives that require patience and prolonged attention. Critics of technology and capitalism such as Douglas Rushkoff, Jaron Lanier, and Byung-Chul Han have highlighted this narrative collapse, pointing to it as one of the great social problems of our time.

Education aims to make students hundreds, even thousands, of years older, by expanding the capabilities of their minds and giving depth to their culture

Everything seems to conspire against the constant discovery of the world that should define being young. There is a certain disenchantment, in the sense that Western society is more secularised, technified, and bureaucratised than ever. The world can no longer be the “great enchanted garden” of which Max Weber spoke, due to the preponderance of science and reason, to the obtuse and growing tendency towards quantifying everything. Do you think this disenchantment also affects the new generations when it comes to love? Do you think, like Bauman, that love has also become liquid?

Well, in general I notice that there is a generational chasm between how people of my age perceive love, and how my students perceive it, for example. Currently, dating apps have a great influence when it comes to forming loving relationships, but these apps have a very dark dimension. The idea that there is a system in which you have access to the entire market of potential romantic and sexual partners at once, with just a simple swipe of your finger, strikes me as brutal, in the sense that this basically favours the most attractive women and men. It is like a regression to an ape state
of natural selection in which many people will never get to know each other, nor will they realise that they are on the same intellectual or emotional wavelength as the people with whom they interact in their community. Selecting someone through a photo on an app seems to me a very primary way to find the person you want to spend your life with, and a degradation of the love experience.

The irony of connections through social media is that they often lead to isolation, and to separation from nature, which had always been a part of the youthful experience

But it is also important to note that this is how most couples are being formed these days, at least in some countries, and that dating apps also allow you to live a unique and stimulating type of experience. Perhaps what we currently have is a certain incongruity between what is expected of young people, and what they can or want to do?

It is impossible to be young in these times and not feel inadequate. I’ve been teaching for 40 years, and I’ve never seen such a depressed youth. In the last class I gave on nihilism I had to limit the number of students because there were too many of us... Years ago I taught the same class, and we weren’t even 10. This great interest in nihilism seems to me to be very symptomatic of the lethargy in which many students live, and how this has been normalised. For many, such a lethargic state is a generational thing, and I would even say that this kind of apathy serves to connect them with each other. This may also be why there is renewed interest in Nietzsche and his exaltation of the will to power and individualism as a remedy for nihilism, but care must be taken about how reading him may affect young people with more conservative, narcissistic, or hedonistic tendencies – which is no small thing.

I suppose there are always reasons for pessimism, but the possibility that many young people have had to extend their education through scholarships, travel, or studies, is wonderful. The risk lies in not finding the moment to stop, and ending up like Cortázar’s axolotl, an animal that decides to never mature and remains in a semi-larval, non-reproductive stage all its life. Is the world increasingly full of Peter Pans?

It’s possible. All frogs begin life as tadpoles, but not all tadpoles become frogs. Right now, we are kind of the tadpoles of a new form of humanity. I think that despite the nihilism and lethargy, being young during Generation Y (millennials) or Z is a blessing, in the sense that nobody never enjoyed so much privilege and freedom. But popular wisdom says that with freedom (and power) comes responsibility too. Those of you who have been able to extend your youth, and who have somehow stretched the neoteny we were talking about, also have a responsibility to maintain and propitiate these same conditions for future generations, and contribute towards creating a better world, with less loss and emptiness. For this reason, of course, it is essential to commit oneself to society and to one’s neighbours – to generate a sense of sharing with the community around us. As Kierkegaard would say, it is necessary to move from the aesthetic stage (pleasure) to the ethical stage (commitment) of life, and for this, at some point or another, one has to mature.

Those of you who have been able to extend your youth also have a responsibility to maintain and propitiate these same conditions for future generations

All this has a lot to do with reproduction, with the act of retransmitting what has been received and transferring a culture, values, and, ultimately, a way of life, to those who follow us. How do you view the relationship between mothers and daughters, between fathers and sons today? From a sociological perspective, in what ways has it changed?

One of the sociological theses of my book Juvenescence is that, after the Second World War, the baby boomer generation brought about a great explosion of youth, a neotenic moment. This postwar boomer shockwave has spread to subsequent generations, but in some ways, boomers have retained some youthful characteristics, such as revolutionary impulses or a distrust of authority. That, in turn, has led to them having less authority over their descendants, and even trying to be their friends, which is not what they experienced.

Hence, perhaps, the expression OK Boomer, which became so fashionable in 2019, and which represents an important lack of communication over issues such as climate change, technology use, or life ideals. Generations Y and Z may sometimes feel lucid in a crazy world, because the boomer generation often detracts from their new ideas from its positions of power. The case of Greta Thunberg is paradigmatic, but there are many others. Furthermore, it can be demotivating to see how the lack of trust placed in young people is usually accompanied by excessive scrutiny and suspicion. I guess that the mistrust is mutual... and that to a certain extent it is natural. So, to finish, what are the causes of this lack of communication, and what consequences may be derived from it?

In their 2005 article “The social separation of old and young: a root of ageism,” sociologists Gunhild O. Hagestad and Peter Uhlenberg discuss how segregation due to age has been institutionalised (ageism), and this has meant that older people have lost their role as mentors, leaving families without social integration or the transmission of knowledge and values from one generation to the next. For the first time, we are living in a mostly prefigurative culture, as Margaret Mead would say, in which young people not only learn little from older people, but the opposite, it is the young who educate their grandparents in many aspects. These generational chasms not only cause social segregation between generations, but also within the most recent generations, which makes it difficult for a mood to arise so that groups of young people can tune into the same frequency, or the same Stimmung, in Georg Simmel’s terms. This causes a sensation of permanent change, and the faster the world changes, the less at home those who inhabit it feel. Together, we must create an environment where we all feel comfortable, and the spirit of our time demands a long-term vision. It is time for young people, who still have a long way to go ahead of them, to act.

Pau Guinart

Writer and teacher (ESADE / UOC) Member of the ”la Caixa” fellowship community



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