Over the last few years I have spoke and trained extensively about adultism, which is bias towards adults, and subsequently, discrimination against young people. Here I explain the roots of adultism, and how they relate to changing the world. Note: All of this is based in broad generalizations, and those are inherently discriminatory. All models are flawed. My bad.
Adults are pretty biased. Developmentally speaking, as we get older we like an increasing amount of predictability and sameness. As we age, the human brain generally loses capacity for retention. This causes us to rely on predicable patterns of familiarity and a deepened sense of similarity. In other words, adults want things to stay the same. This happens unconsciously at first, with it becoming an emerging concern on the part of adults as we grow older.
Adults codify predictability. Our laws and rules and policies and regulations enforce commonality, consistency, and conformity. This is neither inherently good or bad; it just is what it is. For time immemorial, adults have used religions, governments, occupations, and schools to ensure that young people succeeded them accordingly. That is how societies and technologies have spread through the ages, and more than one sage has declared that the treatment of youth shows the priorities of a society, and can predict its downfall.
Predictability, sameness, familiarity, and commonality are some of the developmental reasons for adultism.
Juxtaposed against this developmentally is the experience of youth. As teenagers, young people strive to do several things in the course of growing: Youth push against the rigidity of their childhood in an effort to explore the larger world beyond their homes and neighborhoods. They react against social conformity as they test the boundaries of behavior, language, appearance, and more.
Generally, that is the developmental pattern of all youth. It is enforced through broad cultural promotion, acceptance, and retention. This means adults think that’s the way it should be, we encourage it, and we make sure it exists for succeeding generations. It is not generally codified and formalized, insomuch as unspoken cultural norms ensure that young people have the room they need to become who they are.
Couple this with the reality that young peoples’ experiences of time is elastic. Learning to appreciate both the past and the present more, the future appears limitless in its ability and potential, and with that in mind anything is possible. They do not generally see the future in the long arc of adults, and this enables them to focus directly on immediate outcomes. They also do not feel the burden of the past so heavily, either. The inheritances of the ages are generally lost on young people as they experience what simply already exists, rather than understand where it came from.
Adultism happens because adults are compelled towards familiarity. Youth are the known unknown, and adultism ensures they stay that way.
If we are to successfully challenge the prevalence of adultism throughout society, we have to become fully aware and focused on the developmental reasons behind it. That prevalence is negating the effectiveness of our family structures, youth work, education systems, social services, and more. Let’s do something about it, right now.