Young and Old

Nobody is interested in the fact that, because of my date of birth, I have to be counted among the elderly, perhaps even the old people – certainly the fact is of no interest to myself. But a malicious being of microscopic size takes very much interest in the matter, as it likes to choose its victims mainly within my group of age. And the stakes are equally high for the modern welfare state; for the latter the virus came at just the right time – at least that’s what nasty rumors claim. Haven’t the apocalyptics been whining for years that it would not be long until the collapse of our pension system because fewer and fewer young people carry more and more old people on their shoulders? Now the cute little thing is doing the state a favor by resolutely thinning ranks within the old generation. Even such a simple action as the virus’ targeted rage against old people does however show that the devil always has the last say. True, the current pandemic kills very few young people, but these are nonetheless much more affected in terms of future prospects. The worldwide slump in economic activity will give them a very hard time.

As I said, no one cares,

that anyone among us crosses this or that age threshold. But to reflect on the difference between old and young is perhaps not without interest. Old people sit back and ask themselves, what is left of a life that is, after all, by no means short? The young person takes no interest in the question. He lives on hopes for the future. He imagines everything that can still come out of him – for him the future is a pledge and a promise. Old men, on the other hand, look back at all the twists and turns that lie behind them, and in retrospect try to fill them with meaning. They wonder whether the pledges were kept and the promises fulfilled. How different it is for the young! Life being an open horizon, they want to intervene in what is happening by means of action, so as to change it. Young people are out for the new, they tend to radicalism, as to them it seems to be a lack of imagination, initiative and vitality to simply ride on the tracks of the old generation..

Elderly persons rarely sympathize with radicalism. At best, they have realized many initiatives that arose from their own vitality and imagination; they are more concerned with preserving for the future what they see as their achievements. Folk wisdom has long ago summarized the contrast between old and young: Even people who had been radicals in early youth usually become conservatives in old age (but some even conserve their radicalism).

But I think that this rule

is no longer valid for our time – or more correctly, that it should no longer be valid. For conservative today are those people – and unfortunately they are still an overwhelming majority – who want to continue life after Corona exactly as it was before. They would like to have as many planes, cars and cruise ships and produce as much CO2 as before, may be even more, because eternal growth will hardly be possible without it. This means that even more goods must be produced, even more waste be disposed of, even more landscape be sealed with motorways, even more arable land be covered with monocultures and treated with pesticides, artificial fertilizers and genetically modified plants. This is what the 21. century looks like for those for whom the past provides the only yardstick against which to measure the future. But humanity can no longer afford this kind of conservatism because then it will squander what remains of resources, exterminate the last species of wildlife and change the climate to such an extent that it destroys its own livelihood.

Certainly, old age tends to be pessimistic

The complaint that everything is getting worse seems as old as mankind itself. But it is based on an optical illusion. The young generation is changing the world, giving it a new face; the old generation is acquainted with reality as it used to be. That is the world old people had learned to love, or at least have become accustomed to, so they fear the new as something that threatens to destroy what has become dear to them. In this respect, the pessimism of old age is simply based on its inability to get used to things new and to recognize their intrinsic value.

And yet in our time there seems to be some objective reasons for justified pessimism. After all, the global poisoning of air with CO2, of water with plastic and of the earth with artificial fertilizers and pesticides is an undeniable fact. Some also complain that industrialization is making the world increasingly ugly. Take a look at Germany in Goethe’s time: everything was still miraculously small and manageable. In 1786, a city like Weimar had just 6,200 inhabitants, and from today’s point of view, there were many romantic corners and retreats, which either no longer exist or are artificially kept alive in a couple of museum towns like Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Even though life was much harder and more arduous for many people at that time, nature was much better preserved two centuries ago. But the past century has produced cities all over the world that rather resemble concrete deserts. Around them landscapes have become bleak and often repulsive as they have been largely transformed into monocultures buried under a blanket of pesticide fumes. Never before have there been so many no-go areas, before which we prefer to close our eyes and block our nose. It should, however, be added that it is the typical manner of old people to raise such complaints. They remember how things used to be in the past. Young people have no such comparison. They grow up in the new world and possess the wonderful and vital ability to appreciate it for what it is.

A comparison may illustrate what I mean

I couldn’t imagine a worse prospect than spending the rest of my life somewhere in Greenland amidst those barren white deserts, but the Inuit, who were born and grew up in these landscapes, have discovered the magic of the infinite transformations of ice and snow, and have given the barrenness a wealth of feelings and names, as only people can do who are immersed in their surroundings as if these were a part of themselves. It is the prerogative of each new generation to give a new and unique life to the world when they experience it with alert senses, transforming even the most barren environment into a voluptuous abundance. What the elderly experience only as a loss becomes a voyage of discovery for the young. Even if an objective study could prove that the world has become uglier – some would say much uglier and uniform – over the past two hundred years, the subjective view, which discovers new beauties everywhere, weighs just as heavily. That is why it mocks the pessimism of the old.

Germany’s former chancellor Helmut Schmidt

once pronounced the notorious sentence: “If you have visions, you should see a doctor.” At that time, he was already about fifty years of age, and like most elder people had no sympathies for visionaries. We know that the latter together with all kinds of radicals are rather found among young people. But realism seems to be less tied to age, I mean realism as the ability to see reality as what it is, namely contradictory, multifaceted and complex – not confounding it with what one would like it to be. It is precisely the great agents of change – just think of historical actors such as Julius Caesar, Napoleon or Winston Churchill – who, for all their goal-directed persistence, are characterized by a remarkably sober view of reality. The actor who confuses reality with wishful thinking is incapable of overcoming resistance because he does not even recognize it as such. Only visionaries suffering from a lack of realism are well advised to see a doctor.

Old age is withdrawing from active action,

instead it turns to thinking. From the perspective of youth, this may be seen as a loss. But the transition is redolent with a tremendous opportunity as well. Goethe once said: “The doer is always unscrupulous, no one has a conscience but the beholder. Indeed, that’s the way it is. He who acts has to assert his will – often against the resistance of his fellow men. The beholder takes a distance from things. Such distancing has a marked effect on the assessment of human action. Great injustice always existed – we need not look into history in order to find it, the present time offers enough examples. Fighting against it the actor may have a very good conscience. But old age has another insight that youth mostly lacks. We are aware of a thousand and more things that are definitely bad, but there is no recipe for a perfect world. Assuming we had found such a recipe and perhaps even realized it, we would soon become so deadly bored with perfection that we would commit any crime just to escape from paradise. It is no coincidence that Dante knew so much about hell and, like all poets and thinkers, including Karl Marx, so few ideas come to his mind when he describes the perfections of paradise.

Age cannot and will not forget

because life turns more and more into memory, as its active transformation has passed to younger hands. This has undeniable advantages – it is an act of liberation and even happiness. In contrast to the doer, the beholder does not want anything from the outside, and the latter does not make any demands on him. He lets things live and speak, and leaves himself entirely to the impressions received by them. Schopenhauer has expressed the state of happiness of such a contemplation in an incomparable passage. “If one… forgets one’s individual, one’s will, and remains only as a pure subject, as a clear mirror of the object; …then… the person conceiving this view is no longer an individual …but he is the pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge.”

It is the prerogative of age, that it experiences at least some of those happy moments when it becomes the pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge.