An Interview on Adultism

Recently, a youth activist in the UK wrote to me with some excellent questions about adultism. I loved responding to him, and I think we have some excellent conversations ahead of us. I want to give you a peek into what was exchanged. Let me know what you think?

Question 1: Why does youth-based ageism matter to you, both personally and from a broader societal perspective? 

Growing up, I experienced homelessness, generational PTSD, generational alcoholism, and situational poverty. After beginning youth work as a teenager, I discovered a realm of youth advocacy focused on youth rights. Beginning with the analysis that youth aren’t granted rights and freedoms enjoyed by adults simply because of their age, in my early 20s I examined my own professional practice and discovered that I’d perpetuated this discrimination against youth in my youth work. My own professional journey took a critical turn at that point, and I’ve never looked back.

Since then, I’ve studied the phenomenon of adultism in-depth, writing dozens of articles and a book about it called Facing Adultism. I’ve also led workshops with hundreds of youth and adults across North America and in Brazil over the last 15 years. Among my findings, I’ve discovered some radical trends that are disturbing. Rather consistently and regardless of setting, adults appear to be consistently predisposed to the actions, ideas, words and opinions of other adults. I call this bias towards adults adultism. Adultism seemingly happens everywhere, including many places that exist simply to serve children and youth, including schools, after school programs, youth centers, summer camps, and in childcare facilities, as well as businesses that serve young populations, including stores, healthcare, and restaurants. On a very basic level, the problem of adultism in democratic societies is that it inherently undermines and ultimately dismantles democracy. We basically spend 18 to 25 years of a person’s life telling them to be passive recipients of hierarchical, authoritarian decision-making, and then one arbitrary day we bestow them with the mantle of Voter and pray they have faith in democracy. That disjunction doesn’t sit well with most people, and easily explains why so many people are disaffected by voting today.

In a more complex way, I believe adultism is the conditioning that permits all other discriminations to co-exist throughout our societies. From infancy we’re taught in subtle and overt ways that adults are dominate in our worlds. At the same time we appropriately rely on them for food, clothing, shelter and security, we’re conditioned to accept their control over our appearance, attitudes, education and behaviors. Through this control, adultism opens the doorways for oppression through sexism, racism, hetrosexism, classism, and many other biases and discriminations, allowing each of us to both become oppressors and the oppressed. This has massive effects throughout our societies that are grossly underexamined.

Question 2: Is youth-based ageism entrenched in politics/culture/society? What are the consequences of it?

Bias towards adults is thoroughly entrenched throughout the entirety of society, including politics and culture, and education, healthcare, law enforcement, familial relations, community structures, government, economics, religion and spirituality, the arts, and even crime. This bias towards adults, and the discrimination against youth which is consequential, disallows all young people of every age from fully realizing their own capacities, personalities, abilities and interconnectedness. This continues until the time when society stops disallowing them to do so. This means that any contributions that children and youth could make to a better world for all people; any economic contributions they could make; any education they could become truly passionate about; any subject which they could master; all of this and so much more is thwarted because of adultism. The youngest people in our society could make the greatest contributions, if only they weren’t continually denigrated by adults simply because of their age. Mozart was five when he composed his first minuet – not bad for a kid. Imagine what any of us could do without the shackles of adultism.

Question 3: What would you argue is the main factor that prevents pro-youth organisations, such as the UK Youth Parliament and perhaps US equivalents, from being more effective than they are?

I would suggest that adultism is the main factor that prevents youth-serving orgs from being more effective, and that adultism uses money as a lever to control the structures, attitudes and cultures of those organizations. There are strong financial incentives that exist in order to enforce adultism. These fiscal constraints are the most powerful force that ensures the sustained habituation and enculturation of adultism in all of its forms throughout our society, especially within youth-serving organizations. Whether these organizations are working in hyper-local settings on the familial, neighborhood and community levels, or in national or international forums, all of them are generally constrained by the authority and ability granted to them by money. The simple fact is that there are absolutely no funds anywhere that actively support the elimination of adultism, or any steps preceding that. Because of that, each of these organizations choose the routes they need to follow in order to most effectively meet their funders’ expectations.

For instance, the UK Youth Parliament chooses politics as its avenue to serve youth. In these politics they follow the pathways which grant them the most ability to affect change on behalf of their constituents. That means that if a bill is going to be fought effectively, it might require a little adultism here and a little adultism there, which is acceptable in order to fight that bill. Similarly, a well-meaning teacher in a public school might know in her heart that student voice should be infused throughout her classroom, with students making and enforcing rules, cowriting and critiquing curriculum, administering and evaluating assessments, and so-forth. However, she also knows her headmaster placed a book in her hands, gave her a URL for student testing, and she must do what she’s told to keep her job. A little adultism here and a little adultism there, and she has a job again next year.

Question 4 and 5: What’s the solution for schools? And what are solutions beyond the school remit?

Schools must stop existing simply to promote academic achievement, and instead adopt the understanding that their singular purpose is to engage students in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities. Academics is one avenue to student engagement, but only one. There are dozens of ways to engage learners, and schools should be held to the highest account for engagement, simply because that does not happen anywhere else in society. That’s because student engagement is the sustained connection a student feels towards something, and schools should be responsible solely for fostering that feeling. Who is in charge of whether or not a student becomes engaged in something? The student, and the student alone. Who can help facilitate whether a student becomes engaged in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities? Educators. Student engagement would be the ultimate goal for schools because nowhere else could do it quite the ways they do.

Beyond schools, there are countless avenues towards a more successful society for all people, regardless or because of age. Starting with full suffrage for all people regardless of their age, I believe it extends towards complete citizenship for all people with equitable roles, responsibilities and rights accorded to people because of their ages. Teaching, reinforcing and uplifting the notion of interdependence is vital, too, as it can help both young people and adults understand complex social understandings in a concrete, tangible way. In his last book published, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “When we get up in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap created by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.” I believe that same sentiment must be translated on the age issue. I don’t think we have a case of youth versus adults here, Tom. Instead, this is an issue that’s endemic in Western culture and its tearing us apart. We can work past this, given the right mindsets and resources.


Again, this was just the start of a long conversation. Let me know what you think and whether you’d like to read more!


Student Voice in Europe, Pt 1

In the late 1990s the Swedish education agency invited all new high school students across the country to be part of a process that identified new educational priorities and develop new school policies for their nation. More than 200 students said they wanted to do it.

Students were asked to send letters that explained what they thought the priorities of schools should be. Researchers and education officials read the letters and analyzed them for the main themes that arose. Each year for the next three years students were asked to write a letter that focused on those issues. At the end of the the four-year cycle in 2000, the responses were compiled into a report which is has been continuously used to inform school policy.

It continuously blows me away how far removed European practices are from those here in the States. And this is not to put anyone on a mantle: YoMo, DK, and the ESSA would probably all admit the UK is just coming along now. But in the long run the practices that have been instituted in policy and practice there are by and far a long run ahead of where we are.

I want to keep this short and recommend three publications for anyone who wants to learn more about student voice in Europe:

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

Worth Repeating: Warning: your children are not in danger

This article from London’s The Independent is worth repeating. Joan Bakewell, a respected television personality who was born in 1933, wrote the piece and it was published yesterday. We need to grab a hold of the support of anyone who stands alongside young people as an ally and advocate, and I think Bakewell is a perfect example. Here is her editorial. Thanks to Mike Males for forwarding this on.

Warning: your children are not in danger

Published: 07 September 2007

Back to school and the worries start. In fact they start before that first day of term. Apparently young children confronting their first day at school are subject to stress. Well, you would be. We all were. But is that any bad thing?

The response to this news implies that it is a matter of deep concern and that we should all be anxious about children being stressed. The daisy chain of worrying about worrying now infects our entire life cycle. Of course the media need stories and sociologists need subjects to research, otherwise no grants and no career. But might the whole thing be getting out of control? Is life seriously more risky now than it once was?

Anecdotal evidence is heard on every hand. My generation are particularly nostalgic for the days when we played in bombed-out buildings, walked to school alone and played away from home the live-long day without supervision or fear. The truth is you only get bombed-out buildings where bombs have been falling – very high risk – and it wasn’t unknown, those live-long days, to meet men in macintoshes who would give us a quick flash and a sheepish smile. We never told anyone because we didn’t know quite how to describe what we had seen.

There’s a certain elderly bravado, also, about declaring how in our day we all had measles, mumps and chicken pox, along with the rest of the class. We don’t mention that some of us had polio, too, and were crippled for life. Nostalgia is selective. The health and welfare of young people has never been better than it is today.

But many things have changed and one of them is the way we regard risk in our lives. We want to eliminate it entirely, living lives so safe and secure that you could die of boredom. We certainly want to protect our own families, especially the young, from the multitude of menaces that surround us, menaces that once just seemed part of being alive.

Now we are better informed than we ever were about the nature of disease, infection, the efficacy of drugs, the prospect of further scientific advances. Nonetheless we are fearful and suspicious about the MMR vaccine, alarmed by scientific tests that throw up horrific results such as those at Northwick Park Hospital where six healthy men suffered multiple organ failure after volunteering for clinical tests. We are and suspicious, too, of a pharmacology industry that lost our trust after the thalidomide catastrophe. That was the moment when the apparent blessings of science turned into a nightmare. We have never felt safe about new medical and pharmacological procedures since that time.

That’s why there is such suspicion of the MMR vaccine today. A warning went out this week that things could be getting serious. So many parents are now failing to give their children the two-dose treatment that there have been 480 cases of measles this year, 120cases in Hackney alone in the last three months. Children are being put at risk of a potentially fatal disease for fear of a risk – that of autism – that remains unproven.

The MMR vaccine was first introduced in 1988, and by 1992 more than 90 per cent of children were being given the jabs. The numbers went on rising until 10 years later when Dr Andrew Wakefield published an article in The Lancet, setting out the possibility that some children who had autism may have developed it as a consequence of the vaccine.

Dr Wakefield’s research is currently under exacting scrutiny by the medical regulators of the General Medical Council. But the public didn’t wait. Some 2,000 families in the UK began taking legal action, claiming that their children had been damaged. Plenty more agonise over what to do. Many of them opt for the process of having each of the vaccines separately. They are caught in the dilemma of balancing risk against risk.

The medical authorities deplore what is happening. Dr Liam Donaldson, England’s chief medical officer, says people are playing Russian roulette with the health of the country’s children. Could he be exaggerating the risk?

Since the flight from the vaccine in 1998, there has been only one death from measles. Other children have borne what is an uncomfortable and distressing illness and recovered. There is, yes, a mild epidemic of measles in certain areas. How are we to gauge whether it will become the killer disease the phrase Russian roulette would suggest? Is it legitimate to be alarmist to drive your message home? Won’t it simply increase a sense of bewilderment and panic?

The way we perceive children at risk is often through the prism of our own personalities and how we respond to the alarmist nature of news coverage. In fact, the incidence of accidents of all kinds, including traffic accidents, drownings, suicides, and murders, have shown a decline in Britain in recent years. Statistics suggest that rates of child abuse have decreased too, though prosecutions for cruelty have risen.

Newspapers are rightly fulfilling their obligation to inform us where neglect, culpability and just plain cruelty are evident. But that has to be balanced in our own minds against the millions of lives that make no headlines because they are so normal and so safe. Other headlines, of course, rightly report straightforward stupidity. The casual exposing of small children to vicious dogs is beyond any kind of risk assessment.

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