How my 84-year-old dad helped me see the folly of Gen Z
Several times throughout my childhood, I’d be out running errands with my father when a store clerk would innocently ask, “Are you having a nice day with grandpa?”
My dad and I would exchange a smile, and I’d cheerfully reply, “Yes, I am,” never bothering to correct the record.
My father is 84, and I am 21. He is exactly four times my age. Though that might not be a unique statistic at age 9, it sure is when you’re a young adult. My father is even three years older than my maternal grandfather.
My dad, Dick Schlott, is a member of an extremely small subset of men who welcomed a new baby in their 60s, joining the ranks of Clint Eastwood, Billy Joel and Pablo Picasso.
Because of the 63 years between us, our worlds could not be more different. I’m a college student, a city dweller, a member of Gen Z and a digital native. I’m too young to recall September 11 or a time before the Internet. Meanwhile, my father was born in 1937 and grew up on a farm in Waldwick, NJ, tending to geese and asparagus patches, and his earliest memories are of World War II. He is a high school graduate and a retired self-made businessman who made his money in real estate. And yet, despite our many dissimilarities, we have always been the best of friends.
Though I’ve always been aware our age gap is unusual, it never really affected me growing up. My childhood was filled with typical memories of my dad, who would tuck me in at night and tell me bedtime stories. And, despite his age, we would often head out to the backyard to practice basketball, lacrosse or whatever sport I was clumsily trying my hand at the time.
But his age also brought a decidedly unique flavor to my childhood. When he drove me to elementary school, we would blast Elvis and Frank Sinatra, singing along at the top of our lungs at 7:30 in the morning. While most of my peers listened to Ke$ha or Miley Cyrus, my favorite song growing up was “Hound Dog.” From time to time, I’d draw weird looks from teachers when I’d toss around phrases like “phooey” or “son of a gun,” sounding more like a bopper at a sock hop than a second grader in 2007.
As a child, I was entranced by stories from my father’s youth. He saw Nazi soldiers with his own eyes in 1943 when his father took him to the train station to watch them pass by on their way to a POW camp in western New York. He told tales of school dances and poodle skirts. And, as a kid who got an iPod Touch at age 8, I could hardly get my head around the fact his family didn’t even have a television until he was 11-years-old.
But it wasn’t until adolescence that I fully appreciated the age difference between my dad and I. When I moved to Princeton, NJ, for high school, new friends and acquaintances — some of whom had fathers in their late 30s — were often floored to learn my dad was approaching 80. “That’s older than my grandfather,” they’d say, eyebrows raised. I quickly began to realize just how bizarre our situation was.
Then, not long into my high school years, my father went through radiation therapy for prostate cancer. Though he thankfully caught it early and the prognosis was extremely good, it was a wake up call for me. For the first time, I came face to face with just how fleeting our time together would be. I resolved to make the most of it and never take a moment for granted.
The realization sparked meaningful conversations between us, where I began to tap into my father’s wealth of knowledge and wisdom. What was it like living through a world war? The assassination of JFK? The social strife of the ’60s? The Reagan revolution? The technology boom? These daily chats — in the car, at the dinner table, on the phone — inspired my love of history and instilled in me a need to know why things are the way they are now.
They also turned me into an independent thinker.
My dad’s breadth of life experience and wisdom woke me to the transience of today’s fads and fallacies. It’s hard to humor my peers who demand safe spaces and trigger warnings when my best friend remembers the plights of World War II. It’s impossible to flirt with socialist politics when my father recalls the rise and fall of the USSR. It’s hard to spend my days scrolling through TikTok when my dad is a living testament to the wisdom a lifetime of reading can foster.
Having an older father also means it’s difficult to swallow the victim mentality of many of my contemporaries. While Generation Z indulges in identity politics and intersectionality, it’s an attitude my father would never accept from me. He’s a self-made man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Now that he’s provided me with an education and life beyond what he could imagine growing up on a goose farm, I won’t rest until I make the most of all the opportunities I’ve been given and do him proud.
It’s also impossible for me to dismiss the wisdom of older generations, as many of my peers so often do. Though I’ve witnessed an enormous amount of history being made in my short lifetime, I’ve had my father’s insight and measuredness to keep me anchored.
It’s also why, in the past year, I’ve become an advocate for free speech alongside my studies at NYU. While this has led to a fellowship at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), television appearances, and speaking engagements around the country, it has also cost me friendships and landed me on the “canceled” list because I refuse to conform ideologically and welcome all ideas. Still, I feel safe swimming against the generational tide and fighting against illiberalism thanks to my dad who endowed me with a firm grasp on the past.
Having an elderly dad has its drawbacks, too. I’ve had to confront my father’s old age far earlier than most. And I’ve had to accept that I’ll need to take responsibility for an aging parent before most of my peers, but it’s a challenge I’ll gladly take on.
For the moment, though, my father plays 18 holes of golf regularly and is, for lack of a better word, a freak of nature, blessed with exceptional health for his age. I hope he’ll be able to see me get married and meet his grandchildren one day. But, no matter what the years bring, having an older dad has steered me towards a totally independent path in life — one I could never have imagined if it weren’t for him.