In today’s conversation, the younger generation often faces the criticism of being labelled as “wild, rude, and irresponsible,” as indicated by a 2004 research in the United States. However, it’s important to recognise that this perception is not unique to our era; it is a recurring theme that encompasses time, culture, and geography. Throughout history, each new generation has encountered similar scepticism from its predecessors.
For a start, let us look back to the iconic Woodstock music festival held in a farm in the outskirts of New York in 1969. By many accounts, it was an extraordinary manifestation of the spirit of youthful exuberance, embracing ideals of free love, communal harmony, and self-expression. The image of a flower-adorned attendee encapsulates the essence of that era, a symbol that still resonates in modern music festivals like Coachella. And yet you cannot get away from the negativity of Woodstock, especially its hedonistic effects on the youth of the time, whenever its discussion arises.
In addition, the conversation around generations goes beyond cultural events. The very labels that typically used to distinguish generations—Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z—were now thought to be arbitrarily assigned and imprecise. Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland argued that these labels (with the exception of Baby Boomers, which defined an actual demographic event, i.e., the post-WWII baby boom) ‘flatten out the experiences of tens of millions of very different people, remove nuance from conversations, and imply commonality where there may be none’. Some sociologists even went further and said these labels often served the agendas of marketers and advertisers aiming to pinpoint their target audiences.
Either way, the way I see it, beneath these labels, lies a fundamental truth: young people are inherently young. Their energy, creativity, and desire for meaningful impact are universal qualities that transcend generational (implied or defined) boundaries.
Instead of simply submitting to this age-old cycle of scepticism on our youths, let us provide the younger generation with the opportunities they deserve. By giving them the chance to prove themselves, we not only break the cycle of baseless critique but also nurture an environment where generations collaborate, learn from one another, and collectively thrive.
Recent social media videos have sparked discussions about the younger generation’s general knowledge and priorities. Some argue that teenagers can instantly recognise pop culture icons like Jisoo from Blackpink but struggle with identifying historical figures like Tun Abdul Razak. This has led to concerns about the perceived decline in intelligence and patriotism among the youth.
But I am pretty sure if the same so-called ‘social experiment’ were to be conducted among the youths in the 1960s, they were more likely to recognise John, Paul, Ringo and George of the Beatles, as opposed to, say Burhanuddin al-Helmi, a leading political figure of the time.
It is crucial therefore to approach such conclusions about our youths with a broader perspective. Remember that today’s teenagers were born and subsequently grew up in a digital age where information is at their fingertips. From you they have been adept at navigating the digital landscape, conducting Google searches, and utilising online resources. A quick Google search could easily provide them with insights about Tun Abdul Razak’s role in our history.
Let’s face it: the landscape of learning has evolved. Rote memorisation and regurgitation of facts are no longer the sole markers of intelligence. Instead, today’s education encourages critical thinking, problem-solving, and the ability to connect seemingly unrelated dots. The younger generation’s familiarity with technology allows them to access information quickly and the focus should thus be on synthesising new ideas and collaborating with others.
In conjunction with Hari Kebangsaan and Hari Malaysia, I believe it is a timely moment to reconsider our typical stance on our ‘unruly’ youths. Instead of measuring intelligence and patriotism through stereotypical eyes, let us acknowledge the evolving nature of knowledge and generational differences. Let us recognise that the youth’s ways of expressing their love for their country might be different from ours, but that does not diminish their significance.
By embracing their potential and giving them the chance to contribute to the nation, we should be able to bridge the gap between generations, and pave the way for a more harmonious and collaborative future, as per the visions set out in Malaysia MADANI.
We were once young too, weren’t we?