Now I'm t-t-talkin' 'bout their g-g-generation

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WHEN I was young there were many things I swore I would never do when I became middle-aged, and now that I am middle-aged, I find myself doing them. Chief among these was becoming intolerant of the young. When I was under 20 I classified everyone over 30 as old. They all seemed to me then to be gloomy, frowning, bossy and irritable; loud-voiced, hectoring, organised, inflexible and dreary. We, the gloriously young, were fresh, taut, spontaneous, enterprising, energetic, pleasure-loving and funny.

Now that I am middle-aged, I find I display most of the above symptoms and, above all, intolerance of the young. I regret this and make conscious efforts to curb it. I have several friends 20 or more years younger than I am - real friends, not people I patronise, in either sense of the word - and I truly love them and their company. But the rest of the young?

Let me give you an example. As I travelled to work by tube earlier this week, there was a rowdy group of young Dutch people in the carriage. At Piccadilly Circus all but one got off. The boy who remained was about 19; white, clean, apparently well fed and healthy. As the doors slid shut leaving him behind (perhaps by mistake or bravado) he kicked hard and yelled after them words which needed no translation. He then stood glowering at the rest of us in what looked like hard hostility but might just have been embarrassment.

He wore a blue denim jacket on the back of which were

the words BAD RELIGION SLIME around a Christian cross. On the front of his grey T-shirt was the word NAZIS and a sort of jagged, lightning- flash logo. He had torn jeans and big boots. His blond hair was cut jaggedly and over it he wore a striped ethnic cap. Round his neck were several metal chains and a Palestinian checkered scarf. The other passengers, being British, never looked at him directly but we were all uneasily aware of him and even a bit afraid. He got off at the next station, whereupon the atmosphere in the carriage lightened perceptibly.

The first thing to say about him is that being white, young, European, male, adequately dressed and fed, he ranks among the top 4 or 5 per cent of privileged human beings in today's world; yet, despite this, he radiated barely controlled violence.

Let me now take him as an abstract European youth rather than this one specific lad whose girlfriend might have gone off with the team leader, or whose parents just divorced, or whose exams just been failed: who might have had 101 good reasons for that apparent rage. Europe is full of young people like him, of both sexes, and they upset and appal middle-aged people like me. Not simply because we would never have dreamt of behaving like that in public and, had we done so, would have been soundly ticked-off by the nearest adult. We are upset because we can't fully comprehend what they are angry about. This lad merely glowered, perhaps because he was on his own. Others, especially of his political bent (if that Nazi insignia was more than decoration), inflict physical injury and even death.

Don't tell me it's because they are politically disillusioned. I'm politically disillusioned. Hardly any of the young bother to care about politics, regarding the whole pantomime as pointless, corrupt and absurd. That isn't what makes them angry.

It is true that many young people are homeless and unemployed, rejected by their families (or vice versa), mooching apathetically through tedious days without the satisfaction of work or wage. What about the others in school or university, in football or cinema crowds, pubs or cafes, on motorbikes or - yes - tube trains? They behave with this loud, unfocused, arrogant aggression, seeming to revel in the unease it creates.

Is it just the fashion, like the middle classes kissing each other on both cheeks and giving competitive dinner parties - something else that hardly ever went on 20 or 30 years ago? Will it pass, and the young revert to being carefree and absorbed with themselves and the search for love, heedless of the pompous preoccupations of the unimaginable middle-aged?

Or - and now I'm getting to the hub of the matter - does it signify that we, their generational predecessors, have forgotten that what turns children into mature adults is not having things easy but having them hard? Conscience-stricken by the precepts of the good doctors Freud and Spock, we overlooked the crucial role of discipline, laid down by others until one can impose it on oneself in the form of self-control: the only reliable tool with which to prise open and take possession of the adult world. Oh God, how middle-aged I sound]