Our obsession with youth

“You know the culture is broken when adults consider ‘adult’ a compliment”, writes Chris Altieri

Chris Altieri

It took work-a-day Romans a while to realise their Empire had fallen, because the barbarian invaders adopted Roman customs and could use Roman technology. They couldn’t fix it, though. I recall taking lunch once at a McDonald’s in Rome (where I live), and finding the drinks fountain out of order. Some days later, on a jaunt with my five-year-old son, I let him pick our lunch spot, and found myself in the same restaurant. The fountain was still out. The barbarians are not at the gate. We are the barbarians.

You know the culture is broken when adults consider ‘adult’ a compliment. As the American comedian, Seth Meyers, once quipped at the White House correspondents’ dinner: “Adult is only a compliment to a child: ‘I’m so proud of you, you acted like an adult tonight. I’m glad I brought you to my boss’s house for dinner. You even cut your own meat like a big boy.’” What an achievement: in our age, which worships youth, and goes to absurd lengths to perpetuate adolescence, we may finally offer the compliment sincerely.

 Why are 30 year-olds invited to World Youth Day as participants? When I was 30, I had a wife, a kid, a full-time job, and was finishing advanced post-graduate study. The point is not that I was any great shakes – I wasn’t. The point is that, if 30-year-old me were to get caught in a time warp and meet 18-year-old me, we’d simply have nothing to talk about. If anything, 30-year-old me would probably want to give 18 year-old me a swift kick in the rear (and I don’t mean on principle).

As I see it, a major problem in the Church is our embrace of the vaguely neo-Pagan cult of youth that filled the vacuum left by our wholesale dismantling of the culture that Catholics – differently in different places, and never perfectly – had built for themselves to inhabit.

Please do not think me an antediluvian, or an anti-Conciliar reactionary. I promise: nothing could be further from the truth.

My point is that, one of the principal features of the ‘new normal’ is our avid desire for prolonged, even perpetual, adolescence. So, our rebuilding project is stagnated, and this stagnation owes itself in large part to our refusal. even our inability – to tell young people to grow up.


Perpetual adolescence

At WYD 1993 in Denver, Pope St John Paul II exhorted participants with the following words: “You know how easy it is to avoid the fundamental questions. But your presence here shows that you will not hide from reality and from responsibility!” 

Whatever the intention – and I am sure it is good and laudable – the effect of extending the category of ‘youth’ to include people who, not three full generations ago, might have been well on their way to grand-parenthood, cannot but enable the present generation’s tragic obsession (again, essentially the obsession of their culture, to which we have offered no alternative) with perpetual adolescence.


We all want to help young people find their way in a broken world. We all want to empower young people to be courageous signs of contradiction and witnesses to the Gospel. So, at the end of this old curmudgeon’s rant, let me make a modest proposal.

Let us encourage young people to get married and start families. Sure, times are tough, and life is complicated, but marriage is man’s natural state, and frankly does not take too much discernment. My own American grandparents were 18 and 19 when they wed, and they’d grown up in the Depression and the War had just ended, so “times were tough” and “life was complicated” for them, too.

They had help, though: a sympathetic society and the GI Bill to pay for school – though there was no married student housing – something Catholic institutions might think about sponsoring today as a concrete way of putting our pro-life money where our pro-life mouth is. Jus’ sayin’.