Juvenescence is the state of growing young. It’s a term that Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison uses as the title of his newest book and to describe the current cultural landscape of Western civilization. With modern society emphasizing “genius” and “innovation,” Harrison thinks we assign less value to the lessons of antiquity and to our elders. Harrison joins us to discuss how the older generation aspires to be young, and the young live as if born into a vacuum of history.

Professor Robert Pogue Harrison on ‘Juvenescence’ 17 February,2015forum

Robert Pogue Harrison, Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and chair of the department of French and Italian at Stanford University; author of "Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age"

  • Bogo Mips

    Perhaps it may come off as arrogant and petulant for me to say this but age is no guarantee of wisdom. Elders certainly have the former, but when the later is perceived without scrutiny, the consequences of ensuing actions are always visited upon the young disproportionately. Look at global warming, for instance. As a Chinese, I am all too familiar with what can happen when elders steer the ship. The fact that the western world has dominated modern civilization and the east has only recently begun to catch up speaks volumes about the importance of “innovation”.

  • Robert Thomas

    Why will professor Harrison and the host insist on judging or considering or in any way regarding the technology industry of Santa Clara Valley, about which neither knows anything at all?

    • 1PeterDuMont2STARALLIANCE8

      Oh come on. “…Or in ANY way regarding?” “…neither knows ANYthing at all?” [emphases added.] Hyperbole in criticism simply undermines it.

      • Lance

        The hosts and guests asked to be on the shows have had shallow knowledge when it comes to tech related subjects.

      • Robert Thomas

        I’ve been a KQED listener and member for about thirty-five years. I’ve been a Forum listener since Kevin Pursglove’s tenure. I’ve been a working electrical engineer in Santa Clara Valley computing and communications machinery industry since the late 1970s.

        In that time, I have NEVER heard any substantive understanding or comprehension of our industry betrayed by any on-air talent employed at KQED-FM.

        Why should I have done? I don’t require a KQED host to have an understanding of shipbuilding or abdominal surgery or chemical engineering, either. But even with the host having knowledge about none of these, a guest with special knowledge of a subject may anyway be enticed by the lay host to speak about their special knowledge in a way that informs a lay audience.

        In this case, an English professor in conversation with an Italian literature professor spent several minutes on a critique of a subject about which neither knows anything. That can offer nothing of value to any audience.

        • disqus_RN9E7unSZx

          The show was only marginally about the tech revolution and its impact on the younger generation. That said, it would have been a welcome addition to hear from either host, guest or listeners about the impact of helicopter parenting on young people in connection with the faux impressions of actual human connection imparted to them by constant contact with digital devices.

    • Frank

      But do you really understand the Valley?

      What you really have in the Valley is a kind of resource grab— the resource being the realm of patents that will decide who owns the future. Many of the patents being awarded are not going to the actual inventors, but to the fiends who filed the patents.

      Tech firms will market, foist upon us and otherwise promote any technology so long as it patented or patent-pending regardless of whether it is useful or wanted….

      And if you think the NSA wasn’t behind Facebook’s and Google’s “real names policy” you’re kidding yourself. The American police state is behind a lot of what’s going on in Silly Con Valley.

      These facts do not require a BS in electrical engineering to figure out.

  • Ben Rawner

    Does your guest think that the current consumption culture plays into keeping people young. Young people are known to spend more on clothes to food. It makes sense for marketers of goods and services to play up youth culture because they can then sell more.

  • Selostaja

    I am over 60 and in my late 40s returned to school when I was laid off. I was older than most, and when asked, others thought I was in my mid-30s. That’s when I decided to stop dyeing my hair. I earned my grey hair and did not relate to the youth culture that others thought I was a part of. My body is not fooled, I have aches and pains of a 60+ year old and I want others to respect my aging.

  • ES Trader

    The young are less wise; knowing tech and facts do not complete the picture of Wisdom

    • Guest

      I asked a management guru how often young adults are successful in management roles. His reply: Almost never. They lack the wisdom and experience. And yet Silly Con valley is crammed with 20-something managers.

      • hhemken

        I have never seen any kind of correlation between age and management success over the last thirty-some years in US and Mexican corporate and academic environments. Wisdom is only a part of it, and not necessarily a dominant one. The diversity of people, approaches, and outcomes is huge. I assume you are, ahem, mature? Feeling threatened?

  • lalameda

    I think Juvenescence is most effectively achieved through nurturing our youth rather than competing with them.

  • geraldfnord

    Echoing an earlier comment, I am certain that much of the juvenilisation of our culture and people in it is a simple product of consumerism, marketing and advertising being dedicated to making people as inept at making rational choices and reasonable assessments as possible. Could an adult believe that a car or a beer could make one an adult, or that a ball-game were worth a moment once out of knee-pants?

    I read (in translation) the Talmud and the Confucian classics, and am impressed by how much there were recognisable in their depiction of the human natures and how much seems utterly alien…so I can both think that we’re in danger of losing something precious and may hope to lose a lot of utter kruft that’s useless or worse (see: self-worth from necessary work once most work were unnecessary, acceptance of senescence and death when these can be cured).

    My late father, who for some reason thought me intelligent, asked me what intelligence were; I immediately answered ‘It’s the extent to which you don’t have to learn from experience.’—perhaps we (and our robot friends) will be smart enough to substitute for now-untrustworthy experience.

  • John

    We learned a great deal from Lear, just too late for him to be spared his tragedy.

  • marte48

    I have to disagree that the present rate of change is unique. My Dad was born in 1921 – about the time that Thomas Edison, Nikolas Tesla, and George Westinghouse were “inventing” electricity. He worked for Westinghouse before and after WWII, and worked in electronics through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s in Silicon Valley. From the light bulb to the microprocessor – that was a tremendous amount of technological change to keep up with.

  • This week’s Time magazine features “Living Longer” One paragraph about its impact on us, country, etc. opened my eyes to what you’re talking about: the abandonment of age and wisdom in our society.

    “Indeed, the very conception of work as a full-time endeavor ending in the early 60s is ill suited to long lives,. Arguably most troubling is that we fret about ways that older people lack the qualities of younger people rather than exploit a growing new resource right before our eyes: citizens who have deep expertise, emotional balance and the motivation to make a difference>”

    Your thoughts on this?

    • Lance

      That expertise has been, and is continually replaced via efficiency methods, rendering much of that knowledge obsolete. Along with cultural expectations of long term employment when efficiency makes more people productive, yet renders older generations obsolete. Farming being a base example of over 50% labor force around the 1860s, to less than 3% in 1990s.
      We get to also kiss old myths of what the American dream used to be as well due to efficiency economics. Optional yet cheap higher education, marriage, home ownership, kids all before age 30.
      American culture holds less regard for wisdom from older generations because of obsolescence and the younger generation continually dealing with less than culturally beneficial policies set by and still ruled by the older generation because of longer life expectancies.

  • Lucas

    Recently, I was in Silicon Valley shooting a project near the Google campus. I noticed how nearly every worker dressed like a college kid despite the noticeable age gaps of the employees. I don’t think everyone needs to dress in a suit and tie everyday, I certainly don’t. But if anyone could use some encouragement to act and look their age, it would be the tech worker.

    • Robert Thomas

      As I wrote here elsewhere, I’m a gray-haired guy who’s been working in our region a good long time.

      In fact, I spent nine years working on Stierlin Court and eating at the Googleplex Cafeteria, when it was the Silicon Graphics Inc. cafeteria.

      One of the reasons you’ll see what you report here is that our industry has never adopted a cult of management. My long experience shows me that while some management positions are highly compensated, the individual contributor can do very well for himself or herself. In general, organizations with top-heavy management structure and too few workers are frowned upon. I, along with many others I have worked with over the years, believe that my management works for me – not the other way around.

      Management is more likely to dress spiffily when it spends little time in the laboratory, where cumbersome clothing isn’t just annoying but dangerous.

      Unlike our counterparts in the East at places like Poughkeepsie and Murray Hill, the sartorial ethos of the technology industry in the Santa Clara Valley has always stressed practicality and comfort, rather than impracticality and needless, worthless formality. The rapid expansion of our industry here in the late 1960s and early 1970s insured that many locally educated workers, imbued with California culture of the era, quickly filled the ranks with those equally disinterested in formal dress.

      Neighbor kids with whom I grew up had fathers who always wore a white shirt and tie to their technical jobs at IBM in San Jose. They were reflecting an Endicott tradition of professionalism employed at another place and in an earlier era. I don’t know whether there are so many cuff-linked white shirts at the Almaden Research Center, though, as there once were.

  • L A

    “If there were a little more substance to that remark we could take it under consideration.” HAHA Brilliant! I look forward to using that next time the occasion arises. Thank you Dr. Harrison. Great retort and really interesting program.

  • disqus_RN9E7unSZx

    To the young caller who was defending the breadth of knowledge achieved by members of the digital youth culture: the click of a mouse, as Professor Harrison says, leads to nuggets of information, not to the kind of in-depth knowledge which enables the individual to actually “own” a subject, to ponder it, perhaps to expand it not only for his/her own benefit, but for the larger society. As Pope said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring

    • Lance

      Lets be fair about this. If there is a lack of respect for the wisdom of the older generation, that is both something earned, and requires many years of less than culturally beneficial behavior.

      A polished turd is a still a turd. The younger generation is wise enough to see that, and want to both avoid past errors and do something about legacy problems.

      • disqus_RN9E7unSZx

        The logical incoherence of your first paragraph tempts me to say “I rest my case” But I see you intended it only as a platform for the juvenile “a polished turd is still a turd” comment, which I suspect you have used before.

        Main point is that you missed my point — a knowledge of software and other technology a deep thinker does not make. I love my WAZE app, for example — it helps me get from one place to another in my world-destroying fossil-fuel powered vehicle. It does not, however, help me to navigate this thing called Life.

        • Lance

          You missed the point where by someone in a privileged position isn’t critically thinking about why people hold less regard for the legacy wisdom of an older generation.
          You and the good Dr. have both omitted the point the older generation has been setting the capitalist pressure of efficiency economics, questionable policies, and is benefiting from extended life to continue that dysfunctional political rulership.
          It’s not a surprise the younger generations behave accordingly within such a system.
          To your example, it’s a complete contradiction. Time is the current commodity, any tool that makes you more efficient does help you navigate your life and increases the value of your time. To stay ahead continual adaption and change is needed, with knowledge and wisdom also continually in need of update to remain relevant. Considering much legacy wisdom is contextual, holds subjective value, and its relevance arguable.

  • Frank

    The idea that wisdom “is handed down in legacies from the past” is false. That sounds suspiciously like an allusion to religion, which is not a fount of wisdom. Socrates was wise. The Buddha was wise. Established religions not so much.

    True wisdom comes from experience, reflection, and scientific thinking. The young lack the first, resist the second, and most Americans refuse the third.

  • Roy-in-Boise

    On a global scale, we are wholly adolescent in our collective consciousness. As a species we are not long from the trees.

  • geralldus

    You cannot reasonably compare the perception of the world that the young hold with that of ‘old’ people, it is simply different. Older people have often suffered more and had greater experience of mourning and loss, this is very important factor in maturation. You are born as part of somebody else, your mother, but you die alone and the acceptance of solitude seems to me to be very significant as it promoted a stronger and more clearly defined internal world which when young you simply do not have, or need. Having the security, both economically and spiritually, to play and explore keeps you young!

  • Julian Wyler

    Present English speech pronunciation has become so annoying
    that any word that begins with “Inter” omits the “t”. Consequently, the pronunciation of such words as “internet” or “introduction”
    or “interception” or “interest” become “innernet”
    “innerduction” “innerception” and “innerest” in
    everyday speech, even in the media.
    Moreover, English speakers too often choose the word “less” (proportional
    amount) when it should employ “fewer” (number). Does this bother anyone other than

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