It seems that the story of human existence is one of innovation and transformation. Through epochs everything changes, from the earliest homo erectus though to today, and onward into tomorrow. Despite concentrating on industry, art, technology, and culture as the modicum through which that change happens, society is missing the mark when it comes to identifying the major indicator of innovation and transformation: Young people.
For more than 2,000 years, children and youth have been the most obvious markers for all things transformative. Children in ancient Greece were seen as the bearers of civilization, and were prepared for their duties until they were seen as adults. In ancient China, children of many social classes were seen and treated as important for their nation’s future, as well as their own family’s future. At the time when North America was stolen from American Indian tribes, the children of Europeans here were treated harshly and largely seen as sub-human.
So the historic trends show us back-and-forth treatment. Modern times have been no different. In my Short History of Youth Voice in the United States, I suggested that this treatment is a sign of the times. Today, I’m going to build on that premise and suggest that we must consciously, positively transform the roles of young people throughout society or risk having society dictate terrible, meaningless roles for them.
For too long, young people have been seen as the passive recipients of adult-driven culture handed to them. As an inheritance, this has been a sham. Children and youth are active creators of their private worlds as well as the larger families, communities, and cultures in which they live. In the West today, young people are living in a dichotomous world, on one side alienated and isolated because they aren’t adults, and on the other fetishized and infantalized because they represent the wellspring of eternal youth which adults apparently should feign for.
In reality, young people are neither wholly infants or wholly adult, but instead should be seen specifically for what they are: Children and youth. These are their unique, important positions. They matter not because of their transitory nature, but because of the substantive and unique placements they occupy throughout society. Because of these placements, we need to re-envision the roles of young people to be seen as active partners throughout our culture.
These active partnerships extend from early childhood in the home into young adulthood living independently from families. Throughout the journey, locations for these partnerships to exist range from home to community center, school to faith community, government to playground, and everywhere in between and beyond. The roles themselves, while highly relevant, are strangely familiar: Children and youth as planners, advisors, designers, teachers, lobbyists, trainers, philanthropists, politicians, recruiters, social entrepreneurs, paid staff, mentors, decision makers, activity leaders, policy makers, and so much more.
These positions are already being occupied by young people right now. In some cases, they’re reserved for middle and upper class white kids; in some others, they’re specifically for young people of color and young people in low-income communities, or runaway and homeless youth. They’re happening right now; why should they be the exclusive purview of young people who are fortunate enough to stumble upon them? Why aren’t these changing roles for all young people everywhere all the time?
At the same time those roles seem important, upon further examination we discover they aren’t. It’s not really what young people do, it’s about how it is done. Anyone can be the happiest janitor in the world, if they know that position is important, empowered, and valued by everyone else.
We need engaging cultures where the roles of young people are seen as fluid and transitional, yet secure and relevant. Acknowledging what children and youth already know, and expanding their exposure to, knowledge of, and opportunities to generate new thinking about these roles is what is key. That is what full, active partnerships with young people look like, and that is why we need to change the roles of young people today.