The Paradox of Youth

Picture of By Cindy Zheng

By Cindy Zheng

Do you ever feel like your time is running out? I’m not even sure when one is no longer considered to be young, but the number keeps rising as one grows older. When eighteen once seemed like an adult age, I now view 18-year-olds with a dismissive eye of what it was like to be young. Innocent yet reckless, uncorrupted but impressionable – there are many ways to look at them. In the media, young people are hyper-focused and simplified, almost always shown to have the upper hand against the old and evil. But in reality, young people are rather trivialized and silenced, trusted with little to no responsibility in their daily lives. 

I have often heard that I am too immature to understand this thing, too inexperienced for that job, just too young to be part of the conversation. And that I’d understand, once I’m older. Maybe there’s a sense in that. Maturity comes with age, and wisdom is rarely ascribed to youngsters.

Looking at the generation following mine that has been shaped by reality TV, beauty filters, and addictive social media á la TikTok… adding political sullenness, disinterest for anything but aesthetic materialistic desires, and being envied for their lifestyles – it’s not exactly screaming hopeful future and social change.

In keeping with traditions, I scrutinize younger people from an elevated standpoint, mocking them though my only advantage is my age. It’s funny, because even though young people are belittled, as of course we know better, the world literally yearns for youth.


The Stifling Idea of Eternal Youth

This yearning for one’s youth is a collective societal wish. It’s likely because youth is connected with innocence and naiveté, the ones that have not yet been tainted and corrupted by the world yet. This stage of life has allegedly been romanticized since the late 1700s, the era of Romanticism. Youth became the golden age, a yearned after state in life where one has potential and time, no matter if that idealization suppresses the reality of being young.

The young are beautiful, that’s a globally understood idea. The epitome of beauty is hard to define but clearly founded on a youthful face. Being more beautiful than one can bear, even wishing  to live forever. There’s a reason why Bob Dylan and so many other musicians wrote ‘Forever Young’, and not ‘Forever Middle-aged’. It’s what makes the entire vampire trope attractive and has been the unreachable aim of alchemy.

It is further clarified through the ancient Greek myth of Eos and Tithonus. The goddess of dawn, Eos, asked the god of all gods, Zeus, to grant immortality to her human lover. However, while he granted him everlasting life, he did not grant him eternal youth. When he became unbearably senile, Eos turned him into a grasshopper. The myth led to a whole trope in the media, which in essence is about how eternal life is only preferable if one never grows old in appearance.

As a society, we concluded that we should try to stay young for as long as possible, to stay desirable, and relevant. Because apparently, beauty only stems from our ability to be and look young.


Fascination or Idealization?

Youth has the allure that it’s the only age when one could be a prodigy, where one has all the possibilities. The popularity of coming-of-age novels and -films, as well as the entire young adult franchise that continues to entertain the entire world regardless of age, can be explained by that obsession. We are intrigued by young people because so little is set in stone for them.

Essentially, being young is idolized. It’s a problem because it simplifies a complex thing, in this case, a whole stage of life, into a single digestible portion. Youth is and always has been hard to decipher, becoming even more complex recently as researchers have added an additional stage of emerging adulthood.

This makes youth fascinating, as it is ever-changing. But what isn’t? Other life-stages have changed as well. One should not be too hung up on one’s own stage, or other peoples’ youth.

In Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler further emphasizes the distaste that follows those that are young, from a fictional perspective of someone in their early twenties:

“You’re all terrified of young people. […] We remind you of what it was like to have ideals, faith, freedom. We remind you of the losses you’ve taken as you’ve grown cynical, numb, disenchanted, compromising the life you’ve imagined. I don’t have to compromise yet. I don’t have to do a single thing I don’t want to. That’s why you hate me.”

It might contribute to the whole ‘looking-down-on-youngsters’ I mentioned earlier. After all, it’s proven that older generations will always look down on the ones that come after. But it doesn’t change the obsession of the media with young people, who are always emphasized and over-simplified in media and advertising, perpetuating ageism.


Age: An Advantage or Cause for Discrimination?

Another downside of hyper-focusing on youth is the failure of acknowledging the later stages in life. Everything beyond adolescence becomes obsolete, or simply unattractive. Media mainly displays people that are younger than thirty or stated to be, and industries are focused on hiring the youngest, freshest people possible.

Age can mean hierarchy, permission, an excuse, but the older you get, the more it becomes like an expiration date. It’s no wonder we feel like time is slipping through our hands if the world has been telling us that it’s not worth living once you’ve gone and become an adult. It makes us afraid of growing old or even just being a fully-grown adult. But it’s not true. Self-growth isn’t just a part of growing up, you continue to grow and discover things about yourself all through life. The young might not be fundamentally lacking, but they do have one concrete disadvantage, which is life experience.

In Toni Morrison’s commencement speech in 2004, she gave the following wisdom to the future generation:

“I’m sure you have been told that this is the best time of your life. It may be. But if it’s true that this is the best time of your life, if you have already lived or are now living at this age the best years, or if the next few turn out to be the best, then you have my condolences. Because you’ll want to remain here, stuck in these so-called best years, never maturing, wanting only to look, to feel and be the adolescent that whole industries are devoted to forcing you to remain.”


An Underrated Youth

However, that’s not an excuse to dismiss the voices of younger generations. What connects younger people is that they are continuously undermined. Their opinions, deemed as inexperienced and unreasonable, are rarely given any thought.

Naturally, frustration comes with being young, when your opinions are repeatedly invalidated or just shut down. When people tell you what you are, how you should behave, or what you will become, it not only narrows your future and what you could imagine of it, it takes away from your identity. We may have known best who we truly are when we were young.

But the youth symbolize change, and it’s no wonder it’s often stereotyped as the hope for the future, the idealists, the rebels, the game-changers, the new beginnings. From Greta Thunberg to Emma González, young people are stepping up to show that their opinions matter, that they can make a difference. Not to project their demands on an impressionable following, but to urge a generation to not follow rules and traditions solely because they’ve been set in stone by generations before.

One proclaimed ‘leader of Gen Z’, singer YUNGBLUD emphasizes that he is not a voice of the generation, but one voice speaking from his generation. Young leaders nowadays are not telling their peers what to do but telling them to think for themselves. It might be difficult, but here’s a little piece of advice from Syed Sadiq, the youngest Malaysian minister to serve in the cabinet at the age of 25: He responds to all of the prejudice and bias directed against young people with a simple reply: Show them by being successful.


The Most Uncertain Moment in Life

I’m not here to make you feel bad though. If you haven’t become a minister by 25, I know that I’m nowhere close, that’s quite fine, your voice still matters. Success can be defined in many ways, and that’s another challenge: knowing what success means for one, as it’s not clear once you step out of society’s expectations.

Although youth is idealized as the most beautiful time of your life, society barely allows the time to enjoy it to that extent. We avoid the uncertainty that might lead to failure by following expectations: The world makes us race towards one, two, or even more degrees, while young workers are facing increasing rates of burnout.

If you don’t know what to do with your life, especially during the age of uncertainty, you mostly choose the roads most traveled. Making your own way is already hard, as young people are certainly anything but unshackled; from school to family and laws, it might be the most surveillanced time of life. As much freedom there is for youths, they are just as much caged in by rules, pressure, and authority figures. Do young people even get to properly experience that stage in their life anymore?


Our Inner Child

There is much to be said and speculated about youth, but one thing that should ring true, is that your experiences as a child influences your character and inner world immensely, forming the person you become in your adult years.

In psychotherapy, the concept of the inner child that originated from Carl Jung’s child archetype further establishes that our beginning years are what fundamentally shape us. For example, German psychologist Stefanie Stahl wrote in her book The Child In You that the kind of love and care you receive from your parents determine what we understand is required to receive love, shaping our self-worth. If we feel loved as a child, we feel worthy of the love. If we receive enough freedom to be ourselves, we will be free to do so.

Should we not receive enough love or freedom, it might make us adapt our behavior, becoming dependent on others, diluting our true selves to reach the love we yearn for. Which lowers our self-worth and self-esteem. Something necessary in such a crucial phase of life, when people have dreams, ambitions, great ideas about the future and the freedom to express them, to fantasize without compromise, to fail and get up again – all things that, without self-worth, young people will be less likely to do so. And mental resilience in a changing world is likely the most important aid to build when growing up, according to historian Yuval Noah Harari.


Believing in oneself for change

When being young means both following rules and breaking free of them, it’s bound to be confusing. It’s important that young people are taught to believe in themselves and given enough trust that they can do what they sought to achieve. After all, it is the easiest time in life to accept change. We shouldn’t allow the youth to be commodified or disqualified, and we most certainly shall not think that only the young can be fallible.

In a 1980 study, Australian youths were surveyed about their outlook on life, and most of them were positive, which was a paradox for the researchers. The labor market was less promising than in the years before, and statistics showed that it was unlikely to gain full-time employment after finishing education. Why would they be so optimistic?

It turns out that they just did not put as much weight on that as previous generations did. The young respondents had multiple paths to go, and full-time work was only of them. The authors stated that it’s the ongoing challenge for the sociology of youth, and for the whole world really, “to understand how young people are responding to external conditions and changing the meaning of adulthood.”

Maybe in the past, being young meant working hard. But things change, now we believe hard work shouldn’t be done just for the sake of it, compromising everything else, but only for issues you yourself care about. In line with Toni Morrison’s commencement speech, we should mold the future into whatever we want it to be:

Nobody has the exact memory that you have. What is now known is not all what you are capable of knowing. You are your own stories. And therefore, free to imagine an experience, what it means to be […] human without domination over others. Without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you. Without rotating, rehearsing, and reinventing the hatred you learned in the sandbox.“

Youth is important and fragile in many ways. That’s why it’s worth protecting, so we can let the young be young. Beyond the paradoxes of freedom and limitation, of righteousness and ridicule, of idolization and innocence, in the end, it’s only a little part of life.



Cover by: Cindy Zheng
Edited by: Aidan O’Reilly

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