How to talk to people who are 50 years younger

They're most of the people I deal with every day

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It turns out that most of the people I deal with daily – the people I talk with, meet with, collaborate with, teach, zoom with, and have lunch and coffee with – are 50 years younger than I am. They’re in their mid-20s. I’m in my mid-70s.

Most of the time I don’t think about the half-century gulf between us, but occasionally it slams me in the face. As when I catch our reflection in the window of a coffee shop and wonder, just for an instant, who that old man is hanging out with those young people.

Or when I make a casual reference to someone like Humphrey Bogart or Archibald Cox and they stare back at me blankly. Or when I refer to “the Rosemary Woods stretch,” or being “Borked” or “swift-boated,” and they don’t have the slightest idea what I’m talking about.

Recently we got into a conversation about clothing, and I mentioned that I’d stored my tony jacket in my valise above the chest of drawers in the den. I might as well have been talking ancient Greek.

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But I miss lots of what they say, too. Yesterday, one of them opined that “inflation is, high-key, skyrocketing right now." I got the skyrocketing part. But high-key? Another told me, reassuringly, that the “vibe” of something I’d written was “immaculate.” I was not reassured. When one asked another if she’d seen me “clap back at Elon Musk," I didn’t know whether to feel complimented or ashamed.

This morning one of my graduate students, referring to another who had driven a Mustang to someone’s weekend baby shower, exclaimed “What a flex!"

A “flex?” I asked.

“A flex! A flex!” she said more loudly, as if she were talking to someone hard of hearing.

I am becoming hard of hearing, damnit. But that wasn’t the problem.

Face it. A half-century is a chasm in the landscape of living memory. A person who tries to speak across it can seem to warp the time-space continuum. When I was a boy, I remember my father telling me that when he was a boy he watched veterans of the Civil War march in New York City. I was astonished. How could he be that old? How could the Civil War have occurred that recently?    

Most of my undergraduate students were born after 9/11. They don’t remember a time when the United States was united over anything. They have a hard time believing I’ve lived most of my life so far before the Internet.  

When I tell my undergraduates that I once advised Barack Obama, they’re somewhat impressed. Labor Secretary to Bill Clinton? Their eyes begin to glaze over. Worked for Jimmy Carter? Not particularly interested. Campaigned for Eugene McCarthy? They look puzzled, as if I’ve entered the misty expanses of ancient history. Sometimes I follow this by telling them I started my career as an assistant to Abraham Lincoln. This used to elicit a laugh. I’m beginning to fear it won’t much longer.

But every day I consider myself especially blessed for having the great good fortune to spend most of my time with these wonderful people. They're going to inherit the mess my generation has bequeathed them. But instead of being bitter or angry, they have all sorts of ideas for how to clean it up, fix it, make the world better. And they have the energy and determination to succeed. They keep me optimistic and sane. They keep me young.

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