In Europe recently I was in the company of several young professional men and women.

From their youthful looks and the things they talked about — restaurants, clubs, movies, beaches, parties and bed partners du jour — I thought they were in their 20s.

I was shocked to learn that several were almost 40. Some still lived at home with their parents.

None was married, nor planned to be. They seemed like overage teenagers.

The word “teenager” appeared in American English in the 1940s to describe people who were no longer children but not yet adults.

For decades, it described a passing phase before people made commitments to marriage and career.

Today in Western countries, people still grow old, but many refuse to grow up. Others have noticed the phenomenon — for example, Diana West in her book “The Death of the Grown-up.”

People of earlier times saw life differently. Concepts like “senate (Latin senex “old) “aldermen” (“elder” men), and “mayors” (“oldest”) remind us that in other eras maturity and old age were regarded as the pinnacle of power and respect.

An invisible pendulum seems to swing between periods of youthful and elderly predominance. In earlier ages, if there was any happiness to be found in this world, it was in the wise counsel of the elderly; today the ideal seems to be the foolishness of youth.

What happens when the pendulum swings to youth? Consider these — physical exuberance expressed in sports, speed, bodily gratification and the youthful forms of intelligence defined by indifference to history, science and tradition, a scorn of sentimental subtleties, coarseness of language, a hearty dislike of discipline and vast creative energy.

On the other hand, when the mature mindset predominates, tradition tends to smother creativity. These are the ages of power and protocol, religion and philosophy, order and empire, and, on the downside, institutionalized class inequalities.

We are not talking primarily of chronological age. In nearly all eras, leadership and power gravitate to individuals between the ages of 45 and 65. The question is whether their leadership has a youthful or mature cast.

The great majority of the warriors and knights of the medieval chronicles and Crusades were impulsive youths. Romeo and Juliet were teenagers. The Romantics were young in age but mature and melancholy in thought. Thomas Jefferson was a mature 32 or so when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Youth should be youthful and the old, elderly without apology. After all, there is no alternative to being who we are at every stage of life. The falsification begins when the young try to be mature before their time and the elderly, young after that phase of their life has passed.

The elderly do fewer things than youth, but the compensation is that they understand better the significance of what they do.

Harold Raley is professor, linguist, writer and philosopher. Contact him at

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