I was raised with as great an emphasis upon respecting my elders as you can have. This is another way of saying I was raised in the south and in the southern way. Though I am 43 years old, I am constitutionally unable to refer to older men in authority by their first names. The scholar Ralph Wood recently invited me to call him by his first name, I had to beg off so as not to destroy my digestion.
Nevertheless, as a teenager my pride rose up within me and my respect for older persons plummeted. I still remember with embarrassment the time when I told my sister that we had “surpassed” mom and dad. Happily, it was a temporary effect, but I observe it today among other young people and have wondered what is the cause of it.
After thinking about it for some time, I think I have the answer. When young people look at adults, they see them as fixed in their positions. You are a secretary. You are a teacher. You are a vice-principal who wears out of date French cuffs to the prom. You are managing a restaurant. It doesn’t matter what or who you are. Your cake is baked. At least that’s the way the young person tends to see it. They, on the other hand, live in a world of possibility. In your case, we have solved for x, but in their case x remains an open question. The young still hold out billionaire, celebrity, American Idol, and Tony Stark as possible outcomes in their own lives.
As a result, when many young people measure themselves against adults, they compare their x versus the adult’s x and find that unknown x largely trumps defined x. In other words, if I may be greater than you, then I’ll assume I probably am greater than you. And if that is so, why should I respect you, listen to you, accept your authority over me, etc.?
Respect is a matter of algebra.