Roles of Youth in Society

The roles of youth in society vary according to our perceptions of young people. They aren’t consistent throughout society and there are exceptions that must be identified. However, this gives us an opportunity to generalize and learn. Here are a few different positions I have figured out.

Youth as Less-Than-Adult. In this role young people are taught to wait for parents, teachers, bells, calls, alarms, college, adulthood, something… they are always waiting for something in the future, something distant, something beyond right now. This is where the mantra, “Youth are the leaders of tomorrow,” comes from. These youth are viewed as transitional, in motion and not respected for who they are currently.

Youth as Greater-than-Youth. When thought of as this way, youth are called precocious, and seen as being out-of-step with their peers. Adults have the tendency to bring this young person “into the fold,” molding them into “Junior Adults” and foisting tons of responsibility onto their shoulders. Alternatively, these youth are viewed as overly ambitious and treated with contempt, as adults around them.

Youth as Child. This young person is infantalized, meaning they are treated like babies. They suffer the major repression of their rights either through unconscious or conscious adults. The are portrayed as insignificant, incapable and particularly inadequate. This treatment can lead to youth being treated as “trained puppies” who respond to stimulus, like Pavlov and his dog with a bell. Conversely, it can also lead youth to “act out” against their treatment and behave “childishly.”

Youth as Monster. Alternatively viewed as a predator or profit, these young people are usually and eventually the subjects of mass media articles that demonize them. In this scenario they are routinely portrayed as violent, criminal, angry and generally relentless.

Youth as the Future. As a society, we used to routinely invest in youth. They were regarded as the future, we did spend significant amounts of money on schools and community programs, and we did regard their future as ours. This “future trust” led to the strengthening of community bonds with grandmas standing on porches scolding young people, which in turn may have led to the treatment of “youth as child.”

These are typologies that are meant to illustrate differences between different treatments of young people throughout society. They are not absolutes, they aren’t set in concrete or any of that. Instead, they’re simply meant to be opportunities to examine our own treatment of young people, and to provide lenses to look at the behavior of others. 
Adam’s note: I started writing this post in March 2008, and picked it up again this morning. I think that almost a year of mulling it over has given me some clarity about what I was thinking – exciting. 

3 thoughts on “Roles of Youth in Society

  1. Adam,

    This is real helpful in understanding the various ways adults view young people. And adults might take one perspective one day, and a different one the next.

    One possible addition:

    Youth as Perfect: Often an over-reaction to the repression of young people, this is the romantic view that anything a young person does is perfect and unquestioned. This can take many forms, including the so-called “permissive” parenting approach in which adults step back and let young people do whatever they want. (This can be very tricky, though, as young people deserve voice and direction over their lives. The challenge is for adults to engage with young people in a way that respects their autonomy yet does not romanticize young people as perfect.)

    Best,
    Dana
    Democratic Education Blog

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