I’d make fun of young people, if only I could

Gina Barreca is a Hartford Courant columnist, author and English professor.
Gina Barreca is a Hartford Courant columnist, author and English professor.

One of the real pleasures of getting old is the joy of making fun of the young. It’s easy and few people get their feelings hurt because the young don’t listen to the old on anything that might be called a regular basis.

Maybe we should show the young a little more respect. We should admit that we do, occasionally, learn from them.

We make fun of their styles, then adopt them.

(“Why do they dye their hair those unearthly colors?” asked women of 55 who, now at 60, are delightedly sporting waves of violet and magenta in their own).

We ridicule their dependence on technology, then beg for their help when we decide to rely on the same technology ourselves.

(“Those kids and their phones!” sneer grandparents who then must request emergency assistance when we can’t figure out how to update our iTunes.)

We guffaw at their gross misuse of language and then integrate their hipster terms into our vocabularies.

(“My aunt thought ‘LOL' meant ‘lots of love' and kept using it everywhere,” explained one of my students, with pity in her voice. “But then one of her friends put up a heartbroken Facebook message about her dog’s death, and my aunt learned the hard way about the correct use of acronyms.”)

Do you remember the stunning scene from “Mad Men” when, after a charming picnic in a park, the Draper family lifted up their gingham blanket, shook off the paper napkins, potato chip bags and aluminum cans, and left their garbage on the ground?

The concept of littering was not part of their civic or moral framework. The Draper kids were not singing “Don’t be a litterbug because every litter bit hurts.”

Like other families of the early 1960s, the Drapers weren’t being deliberate slobs – both parents made sure the kids’ hands were clean enough to get into the car – but just didn’t think about keeping public spaces free from trash.

The viewers of “Mad Men” were outraged by the littering scene because, although the show’s big sins like adultery and misogyny cut across generations and cultures, smaller transgressions are signs of class and markers of a certain moment in time.

Not all change is good, but much of it is. Consider sneezing into our elbows instead of into our hands. Consider designated drivers. Consider cleaning up after walking the dog. Consider sunblock.

We need to remind ourselves of these improvements when we’re tempted into wholesale celebrations of the so-called good old days.

Sure, there was the lovely smell that sheets had when they’d been hung on the line outside in the sun, as recalled in a recent group email sent around by a friend who felt a need to inspire one big sigh of nostalgia.

But it started me thinking: The women who’d spent their days pinning up heavy laundry had sore shoulders and weary backs since they’d also been scrubbing the floors on their knees and washing the dishes by hand.

They weren’t permitted to complain because that was women’s work. What else could they expect? They had to shut up and get the food on the table.

If they got a black eye for not doing it to their husband’s liking, there was nobody they could turn to for help, because in the good old days, there wasn’t a term for domestic violence any more than there was one for littering.

Sometimes things get better.

The young people I am privileged to know don’t make fun of their peers with learning disabilities but figure out ways to accommodate them, whereas we, embarrassingly, made fun of kids who lisped or who were slow readers.

They’re better at making boundaries and speaking up for themselves. They came up with #MeToo and #NeverAgain whereas we, dismally, thought we brought terrible things on ourselves because that was just the way of the world.

They’ve learned to examine how they categorize people, and they often call each other out on racism, homophobia and bullying whereas we, disastrously, have put racist, homophobic and bullying creeps into leadership positions and into public office.

Perhaps the real pleasure of getting old is realizing that somebody did a pretty good job of raising the young.

Gina Barreca is a University of Connecticut professor of English and author of nine books. She wrote this for the Hartford Courant. She can be reached by email at www.ginabarreca.com.