I believe young people are capable of doing absolutely anything, right now.
The roles of young people are actively changing right now throughout society. Today there are young people with jobs as city planners, volunteering as nonprofit board directors, and voting as members of public commissions. Other young people are actively creating film productions, developing high-end websites, and controlling other media. There are youth starting businesses, developing civic campaigns, and creating strategies for engaging their friends and peers throughout their communities.
None of this work is actively being done to throw off the shackles of oppressive adult control, or to wrest the torch of authority from adults—or at least very, very little of it is. Instead, it’s being done because more than ever young people are facing a convergence of personal will and social aptitude: Young people are changing society at a point when society wants to be changed!
This is a wonderful reality. It really, truly signals the possibility of a grand future that I only imagined as a 17-year-old starting a youth council in my neighborhood, one that is limited only by the imaginations of young people and their adult allies, and those imaginations are limitless.
It’s because of my knowledge of these realities that I firmly believe any presuppositions about age-oriented developmental psychology theory are based on age bias and discrimination. Today, after studying developmental psychology and education as an undergraduate and spending 22 years as a professional community educator, I maintain that youth development as we know it is a psycho-philosophical mis-orientation, a malignant tumor on the heart of society today. I believe that this bias towards adults and discrimination against youth—which is called adultism—is a society-wide construct that permeates our legal, political, cultural, economic, environmental, educational, and familial institutions.
There are those who would suggest that young peoples’ motivations for engaging in social change is a psycho-chemical reaction that is responsive to their age. However, after these years of field study and practice, I have found that rather than any time-based orientation, the motivations of children and youth to change the world come from their socio-economic backgrounds, class consciousness, and political worldviews. Yes, that’s correct: young people have political worldviews. In my belief age is irrelevant; rather, it is exposure, critical engagement, and conscious reflection that drives the desires of young people to want to form, reform, challenge, critique, examine, deconstruct, and otherwise identify the imbalances of the world around them. All children and youth do not want to change the world; however, all are capable of engaging in social change, and that capability is not contingent on their age.
Social conditioning—including familial backgrounds, socio-economic grouping, and education—is the single greatest factor in determining a young person’s desire to change the world.
That is to say that I believe developmental psychology is generally bunkus when it comes to explaining social engagement. With regards to physiology, I don’t believe that chemical reactions in the brains of an average young person make them incapable of empathizing with others; they merely make teachers, parents, and mentors more responsible for doing their jobs capably.
That said, it can easy for adults to agree with all that, and still make the assumption that age is still the predominant factor for engagement in social change, if only because age is assumed to be the great accumulator of experience. The thought is that the longer a person lives, the more they’ve done, and the more a person has done, the more they’ll desire to change the world, and the more knowledge they’ll have in order to change the world. None of this is true.
Age isn’t determinant of experiential accumulation, if only because the breadth and depth of experience is due to cultural stimulation rather than age. In the same way that a lot of teens have more political education than a lot of adults, not because of age, but because of interest, it holds true that there are young children who may be more engaged than youth in work designed to change the world. However, that isn’t because of interest, alone. Rather, it’s because of their experiences, and this, in turn, reinforces my statement at the beginning of this paragraph. Children can have a great deal of experience with discrimination, oppression, disparity, and inequity, even at young ages. Whether they relate because of their race, socio-economic status, compassion for the Earth, or other factors, all young people of all ages have the ability to empathize, and that is what determines their aptitude for engaging in social change.
Again, this reinforces my belief that age isn’t generally relevant, insomuch as their empathetic background. Let me say that I do believe that young children may not have the capability to determine when to run from a burning building. However, I do not believe that every situation is analogous to a burning building. Unfortunately, many adults treat almost every situation that way because we’re conditioned to. That conditioning, which is adultism, unfortunately rears it’s ugly head in a lot of ways.
That is to say that while there is a philosophical reasoning behind re-imagining the roles of young people throughout society and there is movement towards this, we have not overcome the broad acceptance of adultism. The next steps in this effort are to address the cultural and attitudinal effects of adultism. While continued action by children and youth is essential for doing this, I believe that it’s absolutely imperative that as adults we re-examine our assumptions, beliefs, and actions throughout society towards young people. Only then will we be able to go to the next step. Only then will be have the radically effective democratic society millenia of people saw as possible. Only then will we actually become fully powerful as individuals, communities, and societies to become the world we have always dreamed of becoming.
Youth can do anything, and will continue doing as much as they can. It’s up to us to create the scaffolding, opportunities, and sustainability needed to expand and deepen what anything means, and as long as we’re not doing that, we’re part of the problem—not the solution.