Past                                                                                                                                                                              Posted 16th November 2013

SCHOOL'S out. I see the scene from maybe 100 yards away. A group of teenagers, males and females — I would say 15 or 16-year-olds — are walking down a long, almost empty street. They are walking eight abreast, so that they take up all of the narrow pavement and spill out for several yards into the road. Coming towards them is a very old and frail woman with a walking stick. We are talking serious fragility here. It looks as if you could breathe on her too heavily and she might fall over.

Before the old woman gets too close to the teenagers, she steps tentatively out into the roadway to begin to negotiate a way round them. She just manages it. By the time she is beyond them, the nearest teenager is already passing her. The young people haven't broken stride. The old woman sets out on safari back to the pavement.

No violins, please. The old woman obviously wasn't hearing any. She was simply doing a practical thing. She didn't assume a space would be made for her. With considerable effort she got herself out of the teenagers' way. The teenagers seemed to agree with her way of thinking. Of the eight in that group, not one broke ranks. Nobody gestured, nobody made as if to move aside, nobody gave any sign of noticing she was there. The absence of a reaction looked uniform.

It was a casual moment but then it's often in casual moments that we reveal our essential attitudes, sense the social make-up's off and we're not speaking lines we've rehearsed. The least you could deduce about those teenagers was that they were, in the words of one of their own from an earlier generation, "sensitive as a goddam toilet seat". Part of me wanted to tell them that but by the time I was likely to catch up with them these days, they might have had children of their own.

I thought it was a small but indicative event. What it was indicating could be regarded as a not unfamiliar expression of social stereotypes, established at least since the 1950s, when rock and roll arrived like a handbook of youthful rebellion set to music. Strange noises started to come over the airwaves, the sound of traditional assumptions breaking up. People like Elvis and Bill Haley and Buddy Holly were effectively an expression of what was to be called pirate radio before it became the fact. The songs came across with the urgency of gospel music, only the gospel was a secular one and its message was the difference of the young. The teenage years began to take on a self-defining identity like a breakaway state within society, a colony declaring its independence from the past, a banana republic that would work out its own constitution. Almost overnight, it seemed, parental authority was becoming an undesirable alien.

That sense of confused rebelliousness hasn't diminished over the intervening years. In fact, in contemporary society the transition from pleasant child to dramatically truculent teenager, with an ego like a hedgehog that raises its spikes at the slightest touch, tends to happen earlier and earlier. Thirteen often seems old enough to start issuing bulletins declaring war on the family and telling them how out of touch they are with the real world.

An obvious corollary of the empowerment of youth has been the disempowerment of age, in particular the very old. If youth is the only relevance, it follows that the further away from it you are the more irrelevant you become. The legendary sensitivity of adolescence is a kind of self-absorption. It uses so much energy in monitoring its own feelings, it often hasn't any left over to register effectively the feelings of others. It becomes a kind of paradox — aggressive sensitivity.

But the very familiarity of this Darien Gap between the generations, making mutual understanding more difficult, may be obscuring from us an awareness that it has widened. I think it has. I think the significance of the old, and the validity of their experience to us, has been becoming ever more marginalised in our society. I think they are less integral to our sense of ourselves than they were a couple of generations ago and certainly less integral than they ought to be. Their lives happen more offstage now. The respect once given to a patriarch or a matriarch no longer holds, and perhaps it shouldn't. But the voice of the past in dialogue with the present is essential in negotiating a habitable future rather than just letting one happen to us, like a road accident. Instead, the depth of past experience tends to be ignored. Today King Lear would be talking to himself in sheltered housing.

This doesn't mean that many individual families don't still accord an elderly parent or grandparent a just amount of respect. It doesn't mean that the elderly are not more efficiently cared for than they formerly were. An organisation like Age Concern contributes hugely to that increased efficiency. It does mean that the improved care itself can allow those who are driving the forward movement of our society to discount any further contribution the old might make. They have their lay-by. It does mean that the perceived relevance of such people to the overall nature of society has declined drastically.

This comparative irrelevance of older people looks on the surface strange. Due to increased longevity, they constitute a larger percentage of the population than they ever have before. Those over 60 make up a quarter of the nation in Scotland. They are among the voters who represent the highest turnout of any group in any election. Their latent power is considerable. Yet the direct expression of that power has been progressively baffled by the speed of change in our society.

This change has many obvious surface manifestations. One of them is work, the nature of which seems to have altered over a short period of time from being a learned craft to being an acquired skill, less frequently a matter of being able to immerse yourself comprehensively in one job for a lifetime than of being able to adapt quickly to an endless succession of jobs. Older generations can find that the very quality which made them viable in the society they grew up in has become a liability in the new society. Their commitment to stability has left them stranded in the past when what employment now demands is mobility. We have the experience, familiar in our time, of people expert in highly complicated work, which no one wants any more, painstakingly retraining for more trivial tasks.

Another change is in education, especially in secondary schools, where the emphasis seems to be shifting - against the will of many teachers - away from being a preparation for life and towards being a preparation for work. The exaggerated importance of paper qualifications would appear to testify to that. The significance of the humanities recedes. The urgency of the present seems to distort our perspective on previous generations.

Such changes are helping to create a society so aware of its difference even from the fairly immediate past that it accepts virtually no significant reference points beyond itself. Contemporaneity becomes its sole identity. Traditional values are melted down to serve as current coinage, often in a debased form. Substantial fame becomes not an accolade conceded with the passage of time but bestowed wilfully by the present. Many of the greatest people in our history, apparently, are to be found still living among us.

Even something as seemingly entrenched in the nature of society as the authority of parenthood finds its sense of itself progressively losing faith in its rights. The rebelliousness of teenagers in the 1950s and 60s happened against a formidable structure of convinced, if largely unexamined, certainties. It had to develop serious self-belief to sustain itself. The hippy movement may have been a short-lived attempt to drop out into a kind of total absence from traditional responsibilities. But at least it tried to offer what it thought was a coherent alternative to the society it was reacting against.

Contemporary rebellion need feel no such compulsion. It can survive on whims. Many parents of teenagers have become so uncertain of the terms of their own parenthood, so mystified by the changes around them, that they feel less in tune with their society than their children do. Never having experienced anything but the immediate time in which it is living, youth is going to be expert in adapting to it. The extent to which young people can exploit this situation has meant that their most casual impulses carry more weight than they ever have before this time. What is happening in their peer group is usually the definitive source of their behaviour. Their lives become largely the expression of a teenocracy.

The alienation of the old is one unfortunate result of a society like this. If the experience of parents is regarded as less than authoritative by the young, that of grandparents is likely to seem more or less meaningless - just a quaint historical footnote, like the penny-farthing. What makes this alienation more dramatic is what I believe is one of the most revolutionary social changes in our history, and it is one of the implications of which we haven't begun to come to terms with seriously - the transition from book culture to electronic culture.

It isn't just that the newness of the technology excludes most old people from its use (only 2 per cent of all users of the internet are over 65). Much more importantly it is the great change in the way we perceive ourselves and our society which electronic technology implies. In The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts writes: "In my lifetime I have witnessed and participated in a massive shift, a wholesale transformation of what I think of as the age-old ways of being. The primary human relations — to space, time, nature, and to other people — have been subjected to a warping pressure that is something new under the sun... The way that people experience the world has altered more in the last 50 years than in the many centuries preceding ours."

Birkerts is a life-long lover of the printed word, as the title of his book implies, and he isn't liable to underestimate the effects of the displacement of the book's dominance in our culture by the electronic media. But I don't find his reaction an exaggeration. In such a time of irreversible transition, I don't think the experience of the old should be discarded as irrelevant to where we're going. I don't think we should, like those teenagers, barely notice their presence. They are among the last of the generations who were taught as a whole to value knowledge over information, substance over immediacy. A just understanding of their experience might help us to mediate intelligently the inevitable changes that are bearing us forward, to carry what was best from our past along with us, instead of simply surfing the times into a future where we may find we have left the best of ourselves behind.

"The more complicated and sophisticated our systems of lateral access," Birkerts writes, "the more we sacrifice in the way of depth." He sees our present as a significant moment in our social evolution, Gutenberg Man mutating into Cyberspace Man, and he seems to dread a loss of individual substance in the process.

Change is inevitable, of course, but the manner in which we approach it is not. We have choices. While we are trying to decide whether the loss with which a Gutenberg man like Birkerts feels threatened is really a genuine human loss or simply a personal one, no more than the result of his own conditioning, we should keep those choices open. We shouldn't dismiss the past too glibly.

Let the old woman through.

(First printed SoS - 9th March 2003)