Youth, Inc.

Classism relies on people believing that who they are is what they buy and what they own. Youth, Inc. teaches young people classism. It started when youth were identified as a demographic for mass consumerism starting en masse in the 1950s. Utilizing the powerful mainstream media of the day young people between the ages of 12 and 20 were taught they were different, with needs and wants exclusive to their age bracket. They were labeled Teens and Teenagers and Youth and Young Adults, and since then “Youth, Inc.”, the corporate structure supporting popular youth culture, has not backed down. They have actually taken the whole approach a step further by making adults crave to be young, making youth crave to be older, and encouraging parents, employers, teachers and others to infantalize young people to ensure their “youthiness.”

This “teaching” is destructive, anti-democratic bile, and it is the type of popular pedagogy I challenge. It is why I call youth marketers to the mat whenever I get the opportunity: Using the guise of “youth empowerment” (or “activating youth power“) makes their public pedagogy manipulative. Their cynical ploys reinforce and perpetuate the roles of young people as mere consumers throughout their lives. Classes in school and youth programs in their communities are treated the same as toothpaste and fast food: 
nothing more than products for consumption. Want more effective products? Get a focus group for your chosen demographic. What more loyal clientele? Start a youth loyalty program. Need to attach to the new generation? Try an Obama-like campaign. There are so many companies that focus on changing the “consumer socialization” of youth that I can’t pick just one to start with; and yes, there are also several conferences.

These attitudes dull the sense of urgency and importance so often associated with youth. They are encouraged to see “youth rebellion” as a popularity contest, and taught that vain glory is better than no glory at all. Youth marketers minimalize young people as the images used in the marketing targeted at them: caricatures of real people with their features blown way out of proportion. If something is not as attractive, funny, or smart as young people then consumers are taught to turn it off quickly and walk away.
This leaves the people who work with young people with constant dilemmas: 
  • Do you appeal to the lowest common denominator and use the tactics of youth marketers to appeal to young people, or do you appeal to a “higher” space in order to bring youth on board with your program or class? 
  • Do you create activities that transform with the shifting social and cultural norms among youth or that are grounded in tradition?
  • Are these authentic dichotomies, or is there a more simplistic middle-ground that I’m missing?
I would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on whether we perpetuate Youth, Inc., or challenge it to the core. I am beginning to understand these corporate forces as one of the most diabolic forces against Youth Voice in our society today, if not the most insidious force. Let me know what you think.

One comment

  1. Having been formerly a part of DECA, and how my ultimate experience went with the experience. I have come to more or less agree with you.

    It disappointments me to admit it, however. Programs and classes meant to instill skills and knowledge, and usually a floor of ‘power’ seem to re-inforce a false institutionalized view of reality.

    One I don’t want to promote. There are exceptions, and some do sometimes compliment some level of ‘good’ but usually not without the expense or accomplishing something negative in the process. I typically find them to be more divisive groups than anything.

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