Tiffany Jenkins: Knowledge trumps fountain of youth

In a culture that is obsessed with staying young, the value of adulthood and its attendant wisdom and experience is undervalued, says Tiffany Jenkins

The Duchess of Cambridge as elegant as ever. Picture: Getty

As a student at university, on a study trip to Italy, we girls in the group were taken aback when our rather attractive lecturer went all giddy in the presence of a woman who was at least 40. We could not understand his interest in a woman who was considerably older than us. I get it now, having left that period in life when you think anyone over 25 is ancient. Only it seems that our culture is now imprisoned in a mindset that thinks like my 19-year-old self. We are obsessed with youth. Everything and everyone is tainted when it ages.

The Duchess of Cambridge is only 31, but we now know that she is past it. When certain newspapers put her on their front pages with a mocking glee last week, I didn’t know what they were getting at, what I was missing, at first. Kate Middleton is as elegant as ever, they said, but look! And there on the page was a big picture of her head with a close up of her scalp that, when examined carefully, had as many as four grey hairs on it.

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Yes, that’s four grey hairs on the top of her regal head. Like everyone else she is going a bit grey and dyes her hair (with an organic vegetable-based dye, of course). Most newspapers were happy to point out that as well as losing colour, many women find that their hair thins after having a baby and can look awfully flat and dreadfully fine.

A couple of articles included helpful commentary from hairdressers advising the afflicted to part their hair differently, where the grey does not show. The pictures were reprinted, they went viral. I expect Kate will be back in the salon super quick.

There is more to the expose of the grey hair of the Duchess of Cambridge than newspapers tearing down from the pedestal those people they also worship, although there is that.

The domination of celebrity culture means our dailies continually report the rise and fall of those that are sort of famous for something unremarkable. There is the relentless dissecting of women’s appearances, more often than men; after all, take a look at the thinning on the top of Will’s head, about which little is said. But in this instance something else is going on. The faux pas the Duchess of Cambridge committed is that she appeared, for a moment, to be getting older and that is just not done.

Modern culture is obsessed with being young and with youth culture. If you think that’s a bit sweeping, look around you. Consider how people dress and look, especially women in their late thirties. There is a desperate attempt to look younger and a refusal to age gracefully. Instead of allowing themselves to look like mature, attractive women, they try to look as if they are 20-year-old girls (Cameron Diaz, I am thinking about you). The early and frequent use of botox and cosmetic surgery now means that many women of a certain age look the same – frozen around the eyes and forehead, bloated and puffy around the mouth. No wrinkle is permitted. Nor are men completely safe. There are the Mick Jaggers of the world, the older, much older men, who ape their youth and refuse to age.

Now, it’s entirely understandable to want to look good, to look lively, fresh and not like a doddering grandparent, I get that – I do it too. I primp, preen, and dye my hair like everyone else. And I welcome the fact that it is possible to prance around on a stage when you are 60, that is no bad thing.

The trend I am describing goes much further than that. What we are witnessing is a worshipping of youth and ultimately a denigration of adulthood. It’s about what behaviour is welcome and what we value, as well as how we look.

With the reverence shown towards all that is youthful, in turn, anything that smacks of experience and expertise, of being an adult, is frowned upon.

What’s remarkable about this is that until the 1950s, youth culture barely existed and the teenager had not been invented. Now it is inescapable and they are everywhere. Institutions, and people in television, newspapers, and radio chase anything that appears young and hip, turning their backs on those that act like adults, like grown-ups.

I happen to think men of my age playing computer games is a manifestation of this. TV sitcoms feature adults that are silly and stupid, set against the cooler, young folk. Grown-ups disregard anything that makes them look like they’ve seen something of the world.

The veneration of youth negatively affects old and young. For the young, it means there is little to aspire to, that it’s difficult to grow up. Indeed, young adults seem to find it impossible to leave home until their late twenties. Poverty did not prevent earlier generations from doing so, so I don’t buy the explanation that this is done for economic reasons. They stay living at home with the “parentals” without being mortified at being mummy’s boys and girls and without desperately wanting independence, because it is okay to be immature and infantile.

Avoiding autonomy and independence is culturally sanctioned. Indeed, the age of the teenager has just been extended in some official circles. Newly issued guidelines for psychologists say that patients in their early twenties should be treated as adolescents, that ages 18 to 25 should be classed as “late adolescence”. But really, by 25, the teenage years should be long gone.

For the old – or rather the just a little bit older – it dismisses them, all they know and what they have achieved in an instant. This is a problem, not just because it’s not very nice. It’s a problem because experience, expertise, responsibility and having seen something of the world can lead to insights, knowledge and wisdom. The elders in a community were once treated with respect because of what they had seen and done. They should be treated this way again.

It is time to put away childish behaviour and value adulthood. We should champion being a grown-up. The best days of our lives are yet to come.