Adults have power. A left over vestige of some time gone by marked by limited mortality, adults are rewarded this power simply because we reach adulthood. In this post, I explore what that power is, how it happens and what it means. Special thanks to Lisa Cooley who has been pushing my brain on this lately.
There are distinct differences in the treatment of young people and adults. That treatment is handed out by every adult, all of the time, and is often re-affirmed by young people as part of their social conditioning. That treatment is meant to ensure the power of adults. The differences in how young people are treated are made worse if you, in addition to not being seen as adults, youth are not identified by adults as white, hetrosexual and middle class.
Getting On Adults’ Good Side
One of the distinct ways that young people manage to secure preferential treatment by adults is by acting LIKE adults; that is, by assuming gestures, vocabulary, clothes, attitudes, and postures seen by adults as being adult-like. In many circumstances, this is actually labelled “acceptable behavior.”
Acting too much like an adult is frowned upon though. Among some people who advocate for youth rights, there is a belief that any age-determined boundary is arbitrary and should not exist, including drinking, driving and voting rights.
When I was doing research on the etymology of the word “adultism” back in 2007, the oldest usage I discovered was related to the behavior of young people. Adultism was explained as as, “A boy of 12 and a girl of 13 who had the spirit and personality of adults… They were placed in institutions because of stealing and prostitution. These forms of precocity lead the individual into difficulties and should be recognized early in the development of the individual.”
Young people lose favor with adults when they stop acting like adults or in ways that adults approve of.
Legal Boundaries & Social Consequences
Courts have determined that there is a boundary to cross for youth when they go from acting as adolescents to acting as adults; however, that line, also, is blurry, since courts across the country try young offenders as adults starting at the age of 10 and going up from there. In the US, the military will accept 16 year old recruits in some circumstances. Driving, voting and drinking are among other shifting age boundaries to adulthood when adults have determined it is not okay for someone younger to “act like an adult”.
Since adults determine how adults are expected to behave, they also enforce those expectations. Some enforcement is social; other punishment is economic; some is cultural; and other enforcement and punishment is legal. Anything that deviates from the acceptable behavior is in err, or malicious, or unacceptable, and there is always a punishment is doled out duly, legally or illegally, obvious or subtle.
The social consequences of deviating from adult expectations range from subtle discrimination to distinct alienation to overt ostracization. Youth can be shunned in a variety of ways, and excluded in a number of others. This includes taxation without representation, scientific stigmatization, and compulsory schooling that relies on age segregated environments. The over ostracization of youth leads to youth homelessness and overall street dependency.
Force & Coercion
How do adults ensure their power? There are no ends to the force we use, which is true for parenting and teaching and neighboring and governing and policing and counseling and selling and buying and any other activity adults do with young people. Force is another word for coercion, and to some extent every adult is coercive over young people, not matter how well-intended they are.
As parents, we dole out and withhold love, affection and attention according to how well our child adheres to our desires and expectations. This is forcefulness, under the guise of loving care. Even enlightened parents do this habitually, as if its hardwired into our intuition. We live in a society reliant on very subtle and very overt gestures of coercion. Schools are masters of this to some degree, as they use both mechanisms of subtle and overt control to force students into compliance.
The question isn’t whether or not we force anyone to learn anything, because we all do. Instead, there is a question of the degree to which we’re forcing the Other to do what we want them to. There is a question of the desired and actual outcomes of the force, or why we coerced them. All of this adds up to the rightness or wrongness of using force, rather than simply saying “You forced someone to do what you wanted them to.” We all do that; why and how is what counts.
What You Can Do
By not saying anything about this ingrained discrimination against young people, all adults actually condone the behavior of other adults. More so, we are complicit because we send unspoken messages, like that we think youth, too, should have the attitude of adults as well, and that those youth who don’t should expect to be treated accordingly.
These oppressive clarion calls are constantly given throughout our society. We make them through convenient lists of guidelines and rules posted on walls; dress codes and curfews; and many other overt exhibitions of preference. All of these tools are geared towards acceptability, conformity and the maintenance of adultocracy.
Ask yourself why we still award people for reaching age 18 by foisting tons of power on them over another segment of the population. Oh, and identifying the role of adultocracy throughout our society? I wrote a book about it called Ending Discrimination Against Young People, and you can order it here.