It takes a very long time to be young

This obsession for youth is old. As Pablo Picasso once said, “It takes a very long time to be young.”

We might have been obsessed with youth since the beginning of time, or at least on record since Herodotus wrote about the fountain of youth in the fifth century BC, but as a cultural phenomenon, it might have begun in earnest in 1966, when half of the American population, according to an Esquire report, was under 25, and they, these Baby Boomers, were beautiful—their teeth were nicer, whiter, smoother, more straight than those of their parents, thanks to advances in dentistry and orthodontics. They were raised on fortified milk and a menu of vitamin and mineral supplements that made them taller, their bones stronger, their hair silkier, their skin glowing in the pink of health. Plus, though the possibility of World War III hung over them like a specter, they generally grew up at peacetime, born as they were just after World War II.   

Thus, it was a good time to be young. It helped that it was also a period of economic boom that fueled the rise of counterculture, people breaking free from social constraints, which brought about radical changes in clothing, music, philosophy…it was an explosion, a “youthquake,” as then editor of the American Vogue Diana Vreeland liked to call it. And everything was about the young, even the things that catered to the older generations. For instance, as Deborah Davis wrote in her book Party of the Century, which detailed the story of Truman Capote’s famous black and white ball at the Plaza in New York in 1966, “Oldsmobiles were renamed ‘Youngmobiles,’ not so much to attract younger buyers, who accounted for a very small share of the car-buying market, but to make their older customers feel young and with it.”

Youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness. —F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s been 51 years since, dressed as a typical “youthquaker” in a clingy Jasco jersey, “more street urchin than socialite,” “more naked than dressed,” by a relatively unknown Betsey Johnson of then new NYC trendy boutique Paraphernalia, the 17-year-old Penelope Tree turned up at Capote’s ball and turned heads, including those of Vogue gatekeepers Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon, who decided right there and then that they had found in Tree a new generation of cover girls.  

It has been a lifetime, but we still can’t get enough of the youth, so now, whereas before the young tried to keep up with the old, we now keep up with the young, speaking their language, following their styles, trailing after them as they jump from one hot new social media platform to the next, from Facebook to Instagram, from Snapchat to IG Stories to Tiktok.

Nothing wrong with that, especially now. With modern medicine on our side, with fitness on our minds, with science and technology at a fast forward pace, we are in fact younger so much longer that retirement age needs to be adjusted.

It might not seem fair to be old when to be young is happening, but 17 or 71, as wide a gap as it is, what they have in common is that they both know what it’s like to be young. But the teenager has yet to find out what it’s like to be old, even as day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second, she is heading there. And that’s where the old come in, sharing the wisdom of age.