Generations and Adultism

“We cannot wait to engage youth any longer, because they are not waiting for us. Whether or not we give them our tacit approval, they are moving ahead with the future right now, just as they always have, only faster.”

When I launched into my keynote speech last month at a Raleigh, North Carolina, conference focused on youth engagement in rural economic development, I expected more hissing from the audience than I got. Instead, I heard a chorus of “Yes sur”s and “Teach!”s, which encouraged me to tell the truth I know.

“I want you to count five things that you’re passionate about right now, that you care deeply about, that you’re engaged in. If your work isn’t on that list then I want you to stop trying to engage young people right now. Right now, finish, get done, put down the pen and step away from the conference. Because if you aren’t engaged deeply in the work you’re doing, you cannot, absolutely can not, ask young people to become deeply engaged in it. Do not ask something of youth that you are not doing yourself.”

Over the course of my career I have learned in fits and starts, constantly absorbing information and occasionally digesting it enough to share with others. It has been marvelous to grow in my public speaking abilities, and in Raleigh I had the opportunity to share some of the recent knowings I have stumbled across lately in my brain.
I shared my Cycle of Engagement, and the Perceptions of Youth model I developed. I talked about young people taking action to make the world a better place, all around the world. I explored the possibilities and potentials of youth-led social change and how that could impact every young person in every community all around the world. I upset people, too, speaking boldly about the demands of society today in the ways that I do. I received more feedback from this statement than any other:

“Our judgments of youth reflect more on the status of society than they do any one generation.”

Viewing any generation, current or past, and making unequivocal conclusions about them is adultism. If youth state things about “their generation”, it’s internalized adultism. When adults make any unequivocal conclusion, its cultural adultism. Because somehow we’ve managed to position adults, including sociologists and teachers and parents and politicians, to make damning and bragging statements about youth, to determine value and worth and position and status according to their birth years, which, like many other social demographic factors, are largely irrelevant in determining a person’s worth. I believe that young people throughout the ages, and particularly over the last 50 years of the hyper-commercialization of Western society, have been routinely frowned upon for their inherent desire to be themselves in the face of society that would have them be nothing more than less-than-adult until they are fully adults. That’s a shame. Oh, and generations are fictions.
Oh yes. And out in the hallway after my speech I had dozens of people talking with me, sharing their approval and disapproval and questions and comments and concerns, and it was great. But my statement about generation judgments came up more than anything else I said.
“Do you really believe that?”
“You know, young people really are not as capable as they were when I was young.”
“There are some things you can say that are always true about kids today.”
The beat when on. I had folks drumming on me for opinions about “kids today”, asking for ideas and celebrating their grand conclusions. I mostly smiled and nodded, but frankly, it drove me back to my computer. I don’t think I’ve left this poor machine for more than eight hours at a time over the last two weeks since I’ve been home.
You see, I’m pounding out a manuscript for a book I’m tentatively calling The Freechild Project Complete Guide to Adultism. Just over a decade ago I learned about the systematic, cultural, and internalized oppression facing young people simply because they’re young. I soaked in material written by Jenny Sazama and Barry Checkoway, among the little amount of literature available on the topic at that point. I made the Freechild webpage on adultism, and I used language surrounding it regularly. Today I’m continuing to write, and expect to be finished with this by Christmas. Its an exciting time for me.
Somewhere in all of this I’m finding a bold strength in my words, and really relishing writing. I hope that you don’t mind the increased frequency of the blog; writing seems to be mixed in my blood.

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