Adultism Causes Youth Disengagement

THIS is adultism.

Adultism is the primary motivating force in our society that causes the incidence of disengagement among young people. As an inherently curious and constructive species, humans are innately engaged. Through the deliberate and inadvertent transmission of social mores and values in Western society, adults enculturate adultism throughout institutional and cultural means. Adultism leads to the phenomenon of disengagement, particularly among minority youth of all factors, including race, gender, socio-economic status, academic performance, legal experience, and home circumstances.

Causes of Adultism

Adultism is bias towards adults, and the consequential discrimination against youth. Adultism is also the name of the addiction to adults. Young people learn to be dependent on adults from their youngest years. They behave dependently, and when there are adults around they defer to adults and assume a dependent role. The skills of independence they learn become increasingly weak, as does their self-confidence. Society pushes images of young people seeing adults as non-valuable to them. Youth learn to dismiss the opinions of adults through popular media and see seniors as feeble and non-productive. As young people gain independence, they seek the types of power and influence they saw adults having through popular media. This focuses on economic consumption and power over young people. As they become adults they induce young people to become vulnerable and incapable. This reinforces succeeding generations of young people to become dependent on adults from their youngest years, and reinforces learned helplessness among children and youth towards adults.

When young people don’t learn this dependence and/or don’t perpetuate adultism in this way, they are held suspect by our hostile society that frowns upon youth self-empowerment at the expense of adultcentrism. Western societies such as the U.S. have developed a middle class conception of the roles of young people throughout society, and all young people are expected to adhere to it. Nations established as democracies and operating technocratic economies rely on children and youth to serve roles as the children of parents, students of schools, and consumers of culture. Largely negating young peoples’ birthright as citizens, children and youth are routinely treated as the passive recipients of adult-driven society.

Connecting Adultism and Disengagement

When something goes wrong in their Westernized upbringing or education, young people routinely become disengaged. “Wrong” is a subjective term delineating anything that is not adherent to the popular middle class conception. This ranges from childhood illness or disease to family poverty to academic failure as determined by schools. As young people become identified as “disengaged”, society reinforces this labeling by imposing rigid social standards on them. If a child does not have room to develop in their home, they becoming “developmentally disabled” or “differently abled”. If a parent or guardian fails to provide a safe and supportive home according to government standards, young people become “foster children” or “foster youth”. If a neighborhood has a high incidence of crime, children and youth are said to be “at-risk”.

These terms serve as pejoratives to distinguish young people who do not live in mainstream expectations. They consciously clash with images of innocent, docile, uncomplicated, and sweet children playfully frolicking in grassy suburban yards with toys and friends surrounding them. Instead, we are faced with pictures of poorly fed, ill, apathetic, or violent young people who are on the verge of snapping under the weight of Western society’s irresponsibility to them.

Inadvertently to the point of naive innocence, many parents, psychiatrists, teachers, politicians, journalists, and many others add to this negativity as they bring up children who, in one way or another, are portrayed as inherently constituting a danger to themselves and others. This adultism is masked inside well-meaning and media hype, and is largely indistinguishable from the routine labeling most of these children and youth face within the society that serves them. Suddenly, seeing children and youth as victim, antagonist, casualty, perpetrator, pawn, selfish brat, nuisance, danger, threat, monster, and other diminutives is okay.

When this happens a gap is formed between the engaged and the disengaged. Young people become convenient and inconvenient to adults, and they’re labeled accordingly. While disengaged young people earn the negative labels above, engaged children and youth become seen as democratic citizen, symbol, agent of inquiry, protagonist, audience, sacrifice, apprentice, object, learner, inventor, saver, exceptional, or even as proficient. They are the symbolic markers who are dependent on adults to provide a better America, and who energetically receive whatever is given to them by preceding generations. Used as partisan political props, these young people are identified as social learners and catalysts, well-behaving organisms who readily provide a moral compass for a society freed of the boundaries of history. Their investigation limited to popular media, these children and youth do not have the complications of trauma or needing love; rather, they’re portrayed as little adults who are a microcosm of what is great about America and the West.

Engaging the Disengaged

In reality, our world must hear from the voices of the disengaged. Those young people who are not easily attended to or placated must be enacted upon as the primary targets of our social outreach programs, as their current complications mirror where our society is headed, and their possible futures represent the radical departure from the present that can serve as a powerful roadmap to our collective future. The traditional Western conception of children and youth as passive recipients must be renegotiated throughout society. We need to encourage schools, government agencies, nonprofits, politicians, funders and donors, police and the judiciary to see young people as the positive, powerful actors they are right now.

Adults throughout all of Western society can do this by actively challenging their adultism right now. They can work to actively re-imagine the roles of young people throughout their lives, starting at home, moving into schools, extending into workplaces and commerce, and finally by activating youth as citizens throughout government. These steps will begin to diminish the inequity between traditionally engaged and disengaged youth, which will ultimately lead to the re-envisioning of our society towards its full potential as a democracy.

These are the essential first steps for global transformation and a new world to be possible. Inadvertently reinforcing all social discriminations, adultism happens everywhere for all people all the time. Once we recognize that and work towards change the sky is the limit. So let’s get to work, NOW!

CommonAction staff are available to train on adultism and much more. To talk about the possibilities call Adam at (360) 489-9680 or email

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

One thought on “Adultism Causes Youth Disengagement

  1. Excellent article, and well-made points! FYI, found a typo in the fourth sentence of the second paragraph: “They behave dependently, and when there are adults around they differ to adults and assume a dependent role” The word “differ” should be changed to “defer”.


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