The youth of today and the youth of yesterday

Posted on 02-04-2012

A colleague at school recently asked me if I knew of any examples of people from hundreds of years ago complaining about ‘the kids of today’.  I said I had a couple of ideas and that I would get them to him. After a bit of work on Google (see those 21st century skills in action!) I tracked down the quotation I had in mind. It was attributed to Socrates.

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

Except I hadn’t. Although this quotation was all over the internet, none of the sites I clicked on could provide an accurate citation. I found another quotation I dimly remembered.

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?

This one was meant to be by Plato. Except, again, it wasn’t. I couldn’t find any reliable attribution. I found yet another one, this time apparently by Hesiod.

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint.

Then I found a slightly similar pattern of words attributed to Peter the Hermit.

The world is passing through troublous times. 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 knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.

Again, there was no reliable citation. Finally, I found this.

When I look at the younger generation, I despair of the future of civilisation.

Again, it’s attributed to Aristotle but there is no reliable reference.

I found a few rather wonderful webpages (here, here and here) citing several of these quotations as proof that anyone who complains about the behaviour of the youth of today is a misguided whinger. Of course, despite constructing an entire thesis around these quotations, they too were unable to reference them correctly.

I also spoke to another colleague, who is a classicist, and we both embarked on a trawl of the internet and the very good perseus.tufts site to try and find these citations.  We had no luck. There were a few sites suggesting that some of the quotations were a misquotation or a slightly different translation of a speech in one of Aristophanes’s plays spoofing Socrates. Maybe. I had a look at some of the speeches, and this didn’t seem very plausible. We also had no luck in finding anything with a similar flavour – which is a bit odd when you think about it. None of the Greek philosophers were particularly shy about making authoritative assertions. If you wanted to find genuine examples of Plato or Socrates asserting that women are hugely inferior to men, for example, you would not have to look very far. So this silence on the subject of youths is odd. Of course, my colleague and I didn’t conduct an exhaustive search – we are teachers, we had marking to do – so it’s entirely possible some of these quotations are correct. If anyone does find a proper citation or anything else that is relevant, please link to it in the comments. The first colleague who asked the question still hasn’t had a proper answer.

I did manage to unearth the truth about one of the quotations, however. The first one I mentioned, attributed to Socrates, is definitely spurious. It seems to be that the Mayor of Amsterdam made it up in the 1960s. It was mentioned in an article in the New York Times in the same decade. And from then on it took on a life of its own, aided of course by the invention of the internet. When some researchers rang up the Mayor of Amsterdam and asked for the citation, he said he couldn’t remember the book he’d found it in.

The 1960s, of course, were famous for lots of protests by young people and the end of a culture of deference towards the old. It seems to me particularly significant that it was in that decade that a politician should feel the need to invent a quotation showing that kids have always been disrespectful. The subsequent afterlife of this quotation shows that it wasn’t just this politician who was in need of reassurance about the perennial misbehaviour of the young.

So, a quotation which is meant to show that kids have always been badly behaved instead seems to prove something quite different: that in the 1960s, people were so desperate to convince themselves that kids had always been badly behaved that they started making things up to prove it.