How Much Respect Is Too Much?

The culture of worshiping age as a representation of superiority is harmful to younger generations.

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Growing up in an Asian household, I was expected to be “respectful” toward the adults in my family, especially my relatives who came from Korea. I put the word respectful in quotations because in reality, it felt more like being subordinate and having to follow their requests unconditionally.

The elders of my family never intentionally disrespected or abused their power over me. However, the idea of wisdom that comes with age was rooted in our household and my voice was muffled under this justification. When there were arguments between my elders and me, I was expected to listen and was punished for speaking up. Holding older people accountable for their actions was an act of rebellion, even if I was held accountable for the same faults. I was not allowed to raise my voice or furrow my eyebrows because I was supposed to hide my discontent. The definition of respect in the phrase “respect your elders” extended beyond the baseline of how a person should treat another person and became synonymous with a power dynamic.

Young people are constantly expected to uphold this culture of submission in workplaces, meetings, and public places, and they consequently can become people pleasers. They are viewed as less capable of navigating the world, and under that assumption, they are subject to nosy comments, unnecessary advice, and even rude remarks, which, of course, they are expected to listen to with a smile. For instance, young people are commonly asked about their relationship status, and later, when they are married, about pregnancy. These sensitive topics usually cause discomfort for them, but they feel pressured to answer rather than deem the question as invasive, because they don’t want to risk being seen as disrespectful. Even as a toddler, I struggled with saying no to an elder’s physical affection, because I felt that standing up for myself in that moment would disrespect the older person.

There is a culture of assuming that age brings success and wisdom. However, not all people will be more successful than those younger than them, which can make the presence of talented younger people seem threatening and result in discrimination against young people in their workplaces. Acknowledging that age is not a determining factor for success will allow for a better working environment and a kinder attitude toward both older and younger people at varying levels of success.

“Respecting your elders” also widens a generational gap, as younger generations don’t feel welcome to express their thoughts freely, especially when they know that older generations won’t approve. To suggest that the ideas of an older generation are wrong or in some way unjust is taken as an insult, rather than a meaningful idea. This lack of communication is a result of unequal power. For a conversation to move forward, both parties need to be in an equal position where they can keep an open mind to the possibility of being wrong.

Demanding that young people be unquestionably loyal to the old only raises young people to be dependent and insecure of themselves. The vicious cycle of treating younger people as inferior by default needs to stop. Young people are equally deserving of respect.