Ordinarily when it comes to issues of generational supremacy, I’m not particularly partisan. I’m 35, comfortably wedged between the Boomers and Millennials and thus incapable of deciding if I am actually a young or old person. On the one hand I still listen to modern music, but on the other hand I write my texts in complete sentences. I live in a trendy downtown apartment where the owners have more dogs than kids, but I also occasionally write checks because I haven’t gotten around to converting all my bills to auto-pay. So I tend to take a “both sides are right” attitude to the argument about whether young people are better than old people or the other way around.
Thanks to a recently published Wall Street Journal article called “The Slowest Generation“, however, I know now where I belong, at least with respect to distance running. The author, Mr. Helliker, considers it a disgrace that finish times for marathons and triathlons across the United States are declining overall. To quote Toni Reavis, one of his sources, “This is emblematic of the state of America’s competitiveness, and should be of concern to us all.” That young people are running slowly is yet another example of this young generation’s overall worthlessness.
I’ve read (and written) my fair share of generational pieces. I agree with a lot of the sentiments of our older set with respect to the Milliennials – kids they raised and trained, by the way, which most of them conveniently choose not to mention. This younger generation has a tendency toward laziness, toward easy solutions and away from responsibility. But Mr. Helliker’s article is such a study in myopic intolerance that I am today compelled to defend our youngest members of society against an aging population that seems more and more to be utterly incapable of being satisfied by anything their children and grandchildren do.
Mr. Helliker’s primary complaint stems from the fact that while he finished in the top 15% of his age group (50-54), he finished in the top 11% overall. In his words, “Team Geriatric outperformed the field.” This is undoubtedly true. It’s also undoubtedly irrelevant.
And here’s why. In 2010 there were approximately 10,000 competitors in the Chicago Triathlon; in 1994, however, there were only 3,900. Over the past two decades, thousands more people have decided to participate, many of whom are not and will never become competitive runners in any other sense. Some of them are running with a friend, raising money for charity, or simply entering the field of competitive running for the first time with no further goal than to complete a race that most of the world thinks is too hard to even attempt. Considering how contemptuous old people typically are of a generation that often has trouble concentrating on anything longer than a Vine video, you would think that the desire to finish a triathlon or marathon would be a point in their favor. Instead, however, the fact that more and more of them are participating every year is immediately subordinated to the greater concern that they are not finishing fast enough.
Which leads to Mr. Helliker’s second major complaint: the rise of Color Runs, Tough Mudders, and other races that – horror of horrors – don’t keep track of finish times. This is the real crime, that some people are running races with no greater goal than to finish and maybe even enjoy themselves while doing it. This is where the younger generation gets called Communists. “How well is that everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality working in our schools?” asks Joe Desena, founder of Spartan Race and a firm believer in keeping track of finishing times.
It’s this aggressive contempt that is the reason I wrote this article. Because shocking as this may be to Mr. Helliker and his impossible-to-please cohort, it turns out that not everyone does everything for exactly the same reasons. I share the concerns that most older people have about the youngest members of our society; I used to be a high school teacher, and their disinterest in reading or turning in homework is utterly appalling. But to lambast them for having any reason for participating other than the desire to finish as quickly as possible is a crime of gross ignorance. Remember, this is a generation that is also criticized for not knowing how to form real relationships, and for being more comfortable in online chatrooms than on actual dates. Instead, thousands of them are getting together with friends – with real live people! – to participate in an athletic event that most of us have decided is too hard to attempt. Some of them are young mothers and fathers pushing strollers. What’s wrong with those idiots? Don’t they know the stroller is going to slow them down?
My father ran his first marathon three months before his 60th birthday. He did it in part as a bittersweet tribute to his own father, who died from a heart attack before reaching his 60th birthday. He ran it with my youngest brother, and they finished in just under six hours, a pace barely above a brisk walk – a pathetic time, embarrassing, the kind of time that Mr. Helliker and his friends would be ashamed of. My youngest brother ran alongside my father for 26.2 miles, sacrificing the fame and glory of finishing in the top 10% of his age bracket so that he could encourage my father when his will to finish started to fade. Two years later, that day is still among my father’s favorite memories.
This should not be a difficult concept to grasp, but since it is I’ll say it in small and simple words: people do things for dozens of different reasons, and those reasons are not always the same as your own. You do not have to like everyone else’s reasons. You can even try to encourage them to see the value of your own reasons. But the more things you find to complain about, the less interested they will become in trying to meet your impossibly high standards. When nothing you do can satisfy the person you’re trying to please, eventually you give up. And you absolutely should.
There are occasions where life really is about the journey. That’s something young people deal with regularly when they get stuck in traffic behind a squadron of old people driving 10 miles an hour below the speed limit – “Why hurry, it’s a beautiful day, and the leaves are changing.” And you know what? Sometimes they’re right, too. Sometimes it would benefit all of us to take things a little slower, to think twice before posting a wicked comment online and watching our life get ruined by the pitiless caprice of the viral Internet. That’s something young people are constantly being told they need to learn.
Apparently some older people need the same advice.