Consider the following statements:
“The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they know everything.”
“They have grown slothful. Without strength, without energy, they add nothing during life to the gifts with which they were born — then they complain of their lot.”
“They have unexceptionally high hopes for jobs, while they are unwilling to commit themselves to the job. Most young people only want to live a stable life, with no ambition to be highly successful or to make a better living. They seem to be satisfied with a little happiness.”
“They are passive about social issues. They might know a bit about public issues and make simple comments, but are not capable of expressing detailed points of view.”
These criticisms of the younger generation might all sound like contemporary complaints against “millennials” and “strawberries,” but in fact the first two were opined by Peter the Hermit in 1274 and Seneca in the first century.
Although strikingly similar in content, the latter two are comments made by National University of Singapore professor Duan Jin-chuan (段錦泉) in 2014 and Child Welfare League Foundation executive secretary Huang Yun-hsuan (黃韻璇) last week (“Survey finds 42% of teens passive in social issues,” Nov. 13, page 3).
In her defense, Huang’s comments were not entirely shaped by the seemingly genetically encoded human predisposition for intragenerational scorn. Instead, she was urging parents, teachers, the government and society to provide teenagers with more information, supposedly to help them develop critical thinking and self-expression.
She did this in response to the foundation’s findings that 40.9 percent of parents were unsupportive — even censorious — of their child’s interest in social issues.
Unfortunately, the road to bad policy proposals is often paved with small-data-set polling and hasty conclusions of well-meaning non-governmental organizations.
In this case, the foundation did not compare its results with data on the same questions gathered from adult respondents, university students and the newly graduated.
If it had, it might have found that a poor grasp of — and low interest in — social, political and economic issues is not a problem that affects teenagers alone, and that quantity of information might be secondary in its effect on quality.
They might have also found, with a larger and longitudinal data set, that awareness and understanding of social and other issues might have actually grown in the years since Taiwan’s democratic transition began.
Whether intentionally or not, the foundation’s research and report ends up less about the welfare of children and more about trolling them, supposedly in the name of their rights. It forms part of an enduring and harmful narrative about “the youth today” as illustrated more literally by Duan’s lament.
In Taiwan, this narrative is symbolized by the word “strawberry” to describe a generation that is easily bruised. Defined more explicitly, it castigates those born in the 1980s and after as soft, work-shy, spoiled and demanding.
A good example is Pxmart president Hsu Chung-jen (徐重仁), who criticized young people for complaining about low wages while spending beyond their means.
Lee Min-yung (李敏勇) neatly deconstructed this myth by saying it is not young people who are protecting their pension perks at the expense of the nation’s fiscal sustainability, nor is it young people who have handed down an “abnormal nation” caught in a “one China,” “awaiting unification” birdcage birthed of hasty concessions made by today’s grandparents during the constitutional reforms of the 1990s (“Youth must rebuild an unfinished nation,” April 23, page 6).
Myopic, intragenerational sneering is not solely a Taiwanese phenomenon, either. Western media have been awash with articles about “millennials ruining everything.”
Aside from not producing enough babies to pay taxes to care for an expanding and increasingly senile older cohort, through their poor and selfish choices, millennials have allegedly “broken” the standard workweek, dinner dates, golf, sex and relationships, cruises, the housing market, face-to-face interactions, vacations, diamonds and department stores, all because they apparently indulge themselves with luxuries such as avocado toast at the cost of investing in their future.
It is as absurd as it is insulting.
Take just one example: The declining birth rate in Taiwan.
Humans, like other animals, adapt and evolve to their environment. Goldfish unattended in a pond will only grow as large as food sources that can sustain them.
When wages are stagnant for 20 years, even while the economy posts positive net growth per annum, there is effectively a private tax on national demand-led growth.
Productivity rises, but a majority of the derived profit does not return to the economy. Instead, it is often frozen in land investments and offshore tax havens, and in the process severely undermines the nation’s ability to pay for the public services and goods that everyone demands as a basic right, but no one wants to pay for. Everyone is “patriotic” until it comes to saving money by avoiding taxes.
We want the young to have more children, but we do not want to pay them more or provide sufficient and affordable childcare so they can return to work and ensure that their children are looked after.
It would be irrational in this economy for a young couple on an average salary to conclude that they can afford to have two or more children before 30, let alone buy a home in a large city.
If the younger generations are smeared as “strawberries” for being sensible and refusing to be politically and economically exploited, or beguiled by the manufactured desires of mass media, then it is time that the reactionary generations behind them are labeled “durians” — thorn-covered, embittered, selfish, timid hypocrites whose pride is a blindfold to the sight of everyone younger gasping for fresh, clean air amidst the toxic legacy handed to them.
Young people are out on the streets, campaigning in defense of the principles of democracy (the Sunflower movement), against police harassment (the Wild Strawberry Student Movement), for marriage equality, for renewable energy (Anti-4NP) and for fair working conditions and pay (China Airlines’ union strike).
Young people increasingly value a clean environment and a work-life balance that will allow them to share valuable life experiences with their children, rather than just send them to expensive and questionably effective cram schools to pass tests for increasingly devalued credentials.
Young people aspire to a different model from the passive-aggressiveness of their parents’ demands to be loved and obeyed because “they sacrificed everything for them.”
For this, they are damned when they should be praised.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident in Taiwan.
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