Younger Folks: How Some of Us See You

This is truly intended to be avuncular, as well as instructive – a learning experience for young and old alike. Yes, I recognize each of us has had a somewhat out-of-touch Uncle Ned. You know, the relative who makes you roll your eyes.  But the goal here is to encourage introspection and dialogue among members of different age groups. Maybe there’s actually something to what I’ve been thinking, and worth considering. And maybe “Uncle Ned” (me, for these purposes) is absolutely wrong, and he needs to rethink his views. So I begin with that reality.

And make no mistake, we understand that those younger than us believe, often correctly, that many of us are past our prime, maybe even over the hill. Many believe we have not accepted the realities of the 21st Century. We know you think that – don’t forget, we’ve already experienced life from your vantage point, i.e., the young challenging the old.  Still, you haven’t yet experienced it from ours. You haven’t yet looked at society through the rearview mirror and recognized that some behind you on the highway can be better drivers. So think of it like this – even though your driving reflexes are certainly better than your driving teacher’s, he has seen it before, and may have an experiential handle on what’s around the corner.

All of this said, I, as Uncle Ned, recognize, too, that every generation thinks the younger generation is different, even un-understandable.  And certainly, the younger thinks the same of the older. I feel like I have become my father, muttering under my breath as I walk to synagogue and encounter some youngblood who almost walks into me as he or she texts while crossing the street.  But youth today actually are different – some have literally never lived without a hand held, touch screen, talk-to-it device that answers any question.  On any subject.  And while I acknowledge that you, youth, may think we need to adjust to your societal mores, many of my generation believe it is you who needs to adjust.  But let’s call it what it is – we need to meet somewhere close to the middle.  With that in mind, I offer this:

Today’s youth have in their WiFi-connected hand all the knowledge of mankind – hardly the fault of young people. They don’t have to really learn, and they don’t have to study (other than for that upcoming presentation of some sort to which they bring their calculators).  They sit at Starbucks and find an answer (not always “the right” one) before they move on to the next thing that interests them moment-to-moment – on as varied topics as exist in the world. Was Lyndon Johnson for or against the Vietnam War? Search. What is the Third Commandment (or, for that matter, Amendment)?  Search.  Was Deep Throat right to do what he did?  Huh?  Deep Throat – search.

And this is where things worsen.  Many (certainly not all, I know) offer an opinion without really studying or knowing what happened.  An opinion, whether anyone really wants to hear it, available to the entire world with the press of “share” or “post” from the “printing press” sitting on their laps, without serious thought or benefit of time. Thoughts come into their heads and are shared – the latest spot for late night sushi; whether the Bible showed any interest in ecology; whether ARod and JLo should marry; or, more troublingly, whether FDR’s New Deal, was a racist policy (as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has proposed).

As Bennett Gershman, a long-tenured law professor, among the criminal lawyers that I polled (my crowd) puts it, “We need to analyze how technology makes people dumb. We used to think back then more deliberately, methodically, carefully. We’d investigate, analyze, read, write, think. We had to. Now things are too speeded up – maybe skipping intellectual steps, cutting corners, making a lot of factual mistakes and errors in judgment.”

Ocasio-Cortez, the nascent role model for the under-30 crowd, is a poster-child for the next generation. She is obviously a gifted politician. Smart. Articulate. Attractive personality.  She has rapidly become the go-to person for the sound bite du jour. But she appears to be willing to take a position on everything – quickly and immediately. She’s been in public office for two months. Yet she never sits one out, particularly when critiquing others, including lawmakers senior to her. Didn’t newly elected congresspeople and senators of old (rightly) sit quietly and listen to those senior to them before speaking publicly, particularly in condemnatory tones? Older people are troubled by the naiveté or is it arrogance she might be exhibiting. Isn’t that reaction to her something that should be considered by her contemporaries?

Youth today is smart, indeed, smarter than we were at their age — don’t misunderstand me.  But just how do they formulate their immediate opinions on monumental issues – border walls, BDS on campus, Medicare for all. Research and deliberation?  Or do they just press “search?”  Youth is arrogant; always was. But, it seems, even more so now, and on a flimsier basis. Perhaps that is why one leader of the criminal bar, Ben Brafman, responded: “I see charming, aggressive and attractive lawyers but I don’t see any real substantive superstars on the horizon.” Don’t younger people have to consider what he’s saying too, even if he may be off base ?

The biggest gripe my contemporaries have as we look through the prism of our years is this: there appears, somewhat sadly, to be a lack of introspection and consideration before reaching a supposedly “educated” conclusion which, once “shared” becomes ingrained so that dissent is met with intolerance rather than discussion. As the legendary Alan Dershowitz says it: “Many (not all) young people think they know The Truth, so they don’t need to tolerate dissenting views . . .”  Now, Dershowitz has come under attack for his stance that seems pro-Trump (and at times pro-other incorrigibles); but he has made extraordinary contributions to civil liberties as a lawyer and professor at Harvard Law School for five decades.  He has amassed the perspective of someone who’s seen the key changes to the canvas over that span.  Younger people, it seems to me, ultimately must consider and “deal with” the Dershowitz (and those-who think-like-him) critique, whether he’s right or wrong. Don’t they?

This is not to say that all or even most of us older people are necessarily better. It’s hard to talk about Ocasio-Cortez without recognizing our septuagenarian president who opines on anything and everything in tweets which also may announce U.S. policy to the world.  But with us older folk, it doesn’t seem ingrained generationally, but rather idiosyncratic to individuals.

The foregoing grumbles notwithstanding, a New York (transplant from Houston) lawyer, David Berg, reminded me of a positive, and sadly necessary, act by youth – the mass rally organized by the Parkland survivors.  Could we have done that at age 17?  I’m not so sure. Perhaps it is the best example of social media used in a positive way.

Another friend, a graybeard, brahmin of the New York bar, Elkan Abramowitz, says this: “I hang around young people a lot, so nothing bothers me about them.  Wish I could be more irascible.”  You gotta love him. So, maybe, the old can teach the old as well.

And if this all sounds far too curmudgeonly, let me call to mind the words of Adam Braun, the more than half-our-age COO of WeGrow, WeWork’s education initiative:  “The single most powerful element of youth is our inability to know what’s impossible.”  Stops you in your tracks, doesn’t it?

To conclude with a driving instructor more than halfway to the finish line, I’ve asked David Sable, Chairman of VMLY&R (the largest advertising company in the world), who does and must necessarily “think young” to capture the world’s most important market. As for his view of all this, he says: “Uncle Ned, there’s nothing more important than self-awareness. Be aware, you are no more or less ridiculous than your parents or their parents were. Once you recognize that, the whole world focuses into perspective.”

All said, Yiyeh Tov!

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.