Exploring Adultism

Early in November I spent some quality time with Jenny Sazama and Karen Young of Youth On Board back in Boston. While we were discussing our projects, Jenny happened to explain how she, working with a group of folks involved with Co-Counseling, had choose to address discrimination against youth. She said something to the effect of the term adultism “just sticking,” and she commited to exploring its meaning from there.

Explore she did. Over the next few years Jenny wrote several booklets that helped adults understand what adultism is, how it looks, and what the outcomes are. One of those early booklets proposed that adultism takes three major avenues:

  • Internalized adultism, which is the way we are all affected by adultism;
  • Institutionalized adultism, which is the way we use laws, rules, and policies to inflict and sustain adultism, and;
  • Cultural adultism, which is the way all adults affect adultism, either consciously or otherwise.

I just spent the last week fixing up the Wikipedia article on adultism. It has recieved a lot of flak for being poorly concieved, poorly supported by citations, and poorly written, so I gave a swing at cleaning up the mess. Following is the way I’ve expanded on Jenny’s initial exploration. I am trying to align my conception of adultism with Wikipedia’s pre-existing acknowledgment of many forms of oppression, especially with articles that already acknowledge discrimination against youth.

What is Internalized Adultism?
In his booklet called, “Adults as Allies,” [PDF] Barry Checkoway of the University of Michigan School of Social Work writes that internalized adultism causes youth to “question their own legitimacy, doubt their ability to make a difference…” and perpetuate a “culture of silence” among young people. In a widely-cited article from the Freechild website, John Bell expands on that assessment, with a series of examples of what internalized adultism looks like. I summarize and expand on them as:

  • Adults enying the “personhood” of young people
  • Adults discounting or underestimating the ability of young people
  • Young people seeking constant approval from adults
  • Young people denying solidarity with their age-similar peers
  • Peer-to-peer violence
  • Corporal punishment
  • Sexual abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Forced religious attendance
  • Home curfew rules

What is Institutional Adultism?
Institutional adultism may be apparent in any instance of systemic bias where formalized limitations or demands are placed on people simply because of their young age. These limitations are often reinforced through physical force or police actions. This is increasingly seen as a form of gerontocracy, explained by James Carville when he wrote, “This is not class warfare, this is generational warfare. This administration and old wealthy people have declared war on young people. That is the real war that is going on here. And that is the war we’ve got to talk about.”

From every report I have read, institutional adultism rages across our communities, and includes banks, courts, police, schools, nonprofits, churches, mosques, synagogues, and all levels of governments. I would summarize the effects of institutional adultism as:

  • Compulsory education
  • Access to contraceptives
  • Legalized corporal punishment
  • Curfew laws
  • Anti-youth loitering policies
  • Criminalization and demonization of youth via media
  • Voting age
  • Age of candidacy
  • Access to healthcare
  • Typecasting of youth by police
  • The Draft

David Marr, a faculty at The Evergreen State College, taught me about “total institutions,” which are the organizations in our society which dominate the entire being of a person. These include the military, prisons, schools, and to some extent, hospitals. Marr insinutated that young people are affected by the effects of total institutions more than any other social group. I think that comes through in the above analysis.

What is Cultural Adultism?
”’Cultural adultism”’ is a much more ambiguous, yet much more prevalent, form of discrimination and intolerance towards youth. Any restriction or explotation of people because of their young age, as opposed to their ability, comprehension, or capacity, may be said to be adultist. These restrictions are often attributed to “better judgment”, the “wisdom of age”, or other popular age-related euphemism that is afforded to adults simply because of their age. Examples of where this plays out include:

  • Portrayal of youth as apathetic by media
  • Anti-youth store rules
  • Child abuse
  • Academic misconceptions of youth, supported by bad research
  • Ongoing commericalization of the culture young people partake in
  • Online filters
  • Corporal punishment
  • Literature
  • Child labor
  • Mass marketing of pre-packaged youth culture to youth and adults
  • Peer pressure
  • Child prostitution
  • Fashion controversies
  • Political and sociological scapegoating of youth
  • Stereotypes about youth subcultures
  • Teen sex

Undoing Adultism
While all of this is interesting, the question I constantly get is, “Now what?” I facilitated a class at the Olympia Freeschool a few years ago called, “Addressing Discrimination Against Youth,” and the question at the end, after 6 weeks of analysis, was “That’s great – but now what?” So herein lies the great non-mystery: These so-calles problems present their own answers.

  • Internalized adultism requires self-exploration and expression to people other than ourselves. It may require finding someone to work through things with, and identifying youth to learn from.
  • Cultural adultism requires exposing society to alternative visions of young people. This can happen through popular exposure via media or mass training events. It requires that individuals have an opportunity to relate to other individuals who have a grander vision for young people than themselves.
  • Institutionalized adultism requires adults and youth working together to transform the individuals within and the policies they enforce throughout the society we all co-occupy. That is where the wonderful power of democracy becomes so vital and vibrant: we can simaltaneously use the “levers of democracy” to reach others while ensuring a deeper, more substantive role for young people. This in turn disuades the perpetuation of adultism.

Not to sound flipant or hopelessly optimistic, but this is where I find the greatest possibility for this struggle: Society, despite itself, has changed before. Whether through force or manipulation, people have come to see the world differently and the world has become a better place for it.

That is all for this blog – sorry its so long. You can read the Wikipedia article here; make sure you contribute if you want to. Also let me know what you think by leaving a comment here. Thanks.

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