Experience can make you wise and usually experiences and wisdom come with age, but being young doesn’t automatically mark you as naive or unwise. Likewise, Oscar Wilde maintains, “with age comes wisdom but sometimes wisdom comes alone.” We need to unravel the narrative that older people are inherently wiser, especially as the very action of discounting a youth’s perspective/experiences illustrates a lack of wisdom. Mark Twain was quoted saying, “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would rather have talked”; and Jimi Hendrix said, “Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.” The inundation of quotes is to illustrate that much wiser (and also much older) people are iterating my point: that a truly wise person would listen to someone regardless of age and absorb their words just the same.
Young people have an added contribution to the pool of collective societal wisdom in that their imagination is yet to be hampered by the ideals and constraints of existing social structures. Aren’t we encouraged to think creatively and outside the box when trying to resolve an issue? Youth have a fresher perspective because their brains aren’t constrained to what is deemed “tried and true.” Children, above any other age group, ask the most questions. Questions lead to more questions, answers lead to finished conversations.
The notion of engaging youth is particularly relevant in terms of the state of our political system in which 32.5% of congressional members are over 65 years of age compared to just 19.75% of the general population. Maybe these representatives bring age-old insight into the policy-making arena, or maybe they bring a dated viewpoint that is not representative of the majority of Americans. During the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica trial last year when both companies were accused of illegally extracting users’ data to inform campaign strategies for President Trump, it became clear how disparate our Congress is from the populous as Senators remained confused about the general business operations of Facebook exemplified by 84-year old Senator Hatch asking how the company earned revenue. James Norton, a former deputy assistant undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security stated, “A lot of these members frankly aren’t on social media and maybe don’t have experience with social media.” You don’t need to know how to use Facebook to run the country, but maybe being knowledgeable about new issues that threaten our democracy, would be valuable as our policy-makers.
Further, sometimes youth share a more direct relationship to a political issue than older people. I am referring to the gun control crisis in America in which millions of students go to school every day fearing that they won’t come home. Why is the voting age 18 when 17-, 16-, 15-year olds and younger have a valid perspective and are being directly impacted by the policies that congress (fail to) enacts? Why aren’t we allowing these voices at least to be heard in the political arena? Youth are mobilizing themselves to provoke political action with over one million students participating in over 3,000 school walk-outs as well as the organization of 800 “March for Our Lives” rallies in the weeks following the Parkland shooting that claimed 17 innocent youth lives. Unfortunately, activism can only do so much against the domination of the NRA, and the result is too few policy changes nationally or at the state level.
Additionally, the school climate strikes illustrate how youth are using their collective power to fight for an issue in which they are directly being impacted and not being protected. Over 1.4 million young people are protesting not only climate inaction but how the fate of their future is in the hands of apathetic people who likely will not have to experience the harrowing effects of climate change, unlike their children and grandchildren. Twenty-one young people (including Indigenous youth) have also sued the U.S. Government claiming that the inaction of the government violated the youngest generations’ constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property in a lawsuit filed back in 2015. Still, have we recommitted to the internationally-accepted Paris Agreement for climate change action? Have we committed to any national mitigation or adaptation strategy? No.
More age-representative representatives and avenues for youth engagement would not only push our country forward with energized perspectives from the inevitable upcoming of future generations, but it will also allow today’s issues to be regarded in the context of who is actually affected. Wisdom might and it might not come with age, but discounting anyone’s knowledge and wisdom is unwise in itself. Open your ears, close your mouth.