The Crisis of Disengagement

In places throughout our society, people are wrestling with a challenge that feels insurmountable: People just don’t care, they aren’t showing up, or they’re not doing what we need them to, what they’re supposed to do, or even what they want to do.

 


Causes of Disengagement

First obvious in schools, in the 1970s this was originally identified as a dropout problem. After struggling through early community action agencies, Rock the Vote type projects, and national service programs, in 1999 a sociologist named Robert Putnam put a face to the problem when he published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Putnam successfully diagnosed the problem with society’s social capital, which is a metaphor for the interactive networks people keep with other people who live and work around each other. Since we’re constantly exchanging these visible and invisible gestures in conscious and unconscious ways, social capital is what allows our society to actually work.

 


What Disengagement Causes

Wonder why it feels like our society doesn’t actually work? According to Putnam, its because social capital isn’t being circulated like it used to be. Given the emergence of anarchistic capitalism and hyper-libertarianism, I believe we’re reaching a fever pitch and revealing the real problem, which I am calling the Crisis of Disengagement.

Psychologists talk about this as a phenomenon that needs addressed through intrinsic-extrinsic motivation theory and goal theory, and the need to investigate the gaps between people, as well as what possible ways to maintain or stimulate peoples’ motivations to exchange social capital. They believe environments can be intentionally maintained to enhances the self-concept, social efficacy, and a sense of volition as well as self-determination to circumvent the demise of social capital. And all that’s fascinating to me, and I’m going to continue studying it to learn more.

 


Essential Learning

However, I think we need an accessible approach to the Crisis of Disengagement for everyone, not just academics. So let me name and define what I think we’re talking about here:

  • Engagement is any sustained connection anyone has to anything in the world around them and within themselves.
  • Disengagement is the absence of sustainability in our connections.

That said, the Crisis of Engagement is a solvable problem, much like poverty and war. As Nelson Mandela said,

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Disengagement is a solvable problem.

My work is about helping YOU solve the Crisis of Engagement. Check out the rest of the Personal Engagement Tip Sheets to learn more!

 


Related Articles


Adam Fletcher is available to train, coach, speak, and write about Personal Engagement across the US and Canada. Contact him to learn about the possibilities!

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!

 

Stop Excluding People

When programs are developed, many people can be excluded. Among youth programs, community nonprofits and government agencies frequently cater only to particular children and youth. Same with activist organizations helping particular adult populations, and businesses doing outreach in their demographics. Our society is built on this type of exclusion.

In the name of social justice, many advocates frequently position their constituency above all others. In cities that are predominately white, people of color may be targeted for programs civic engagement, cultural enhancement and community-building activities. Women-focused nonprofits are offering more STEM programs for girls. Low-income and poor children are being provided free sports programs they couldn’t otherwise afford.

These programs are generally based on inclusionary assumptions: Where there’s a gap between haves and have-nots, they are bridged specifically for the communities where they’re happening. Programmers are literally trying to expand the in-crowd so there’s more room for more people to become active in things they want to, they could, or they should be involved in.

If we don’t remain vigilant, acute assumptions and prejudices can lurk in at about this point.

Exclusionary action of ANY kind is never the solution. These are not black OR white problems, rich OR poor, homeless OR homed, youth OR adult. We have to reach EVERYONE inclusively, everywhere, all the time. I’m NOT okay with segregation of any kind.

Our biases are ugly little hungry ghosts that come in from our pasts and invade our present. They have nasty names and do gross things, like excluding others and fostering dislike, in spite of our best intentions. Suddenly, we’re judging people by their skin color, socio-economic levels, cultural norms, gender identity and sexual orientations, and much more. In our attempts to make a better world, we actually serve to cheapen, lessen and otherwise tear apart the good things that exist right now. One of the good things about our world today is diversity.

Despite what some people would have us think, North America is not heading towards a giant pool of light-brown skin people who all earn middle class incomes, sharing loving families and equal lifestyles. That’s simply not ahead of us.

Instead, we’re going to continue being a pluralistic, spastic, dynamic and diverse society for a long time yet to come. Instead of forcing conformity, uniformity and singularity of any kind, we need to create new opportunities that foster dialogue, encourage interaction and give people chances to experience people from different backgrounds, different beliefs and different realities from our own.

From that place, we can build democracy. We got get behind positive, powerful social change. We can make a change. But not before then. Not before we stop segregating people for who they are, how they are, no matter what they are.

Don’t make new programs just for homeless people. Don’t facilitate new programs just for youth. Don’t target only rich kids. Instead, weave it all together and create new realities, new communities, new opportunities and new possibilities, everywhere, all the time.

That’s what I’m trying to do.

Selling Ourselves

Tonight on Facebook, my friend Lilian Kelian shared her sadness about people who relate to each other through interpersonal hegemony. I thought about it a while… Is the growing phenomenon of interpersonal hegemony the deep impact of neoliberalism on our personal and collective psyche?

The word hegemony means dominance; interpersonal hegemony is when we try to dominate others with our selves, our sense of what makes us us. 

The word hegemony is mostly used to talk about cultures, economics, educational practices, and social relationships. But the idea of interpersonal hegemony sticks in my craw, mostly because I see it and practice it myself!

 

It’s as if we are all trying to sell ourselves to each other, including our ways of being, feeling and experiencing the world. We do this inadvertently, pitching our ideas and sharing our problems and rallying our celebrations all through social media and in person and with family, friends, colleagues, and sometimes anyone who will listen. This heightened egotism reflects our own insecurities, showing others how, in order to feel better about ourselves, we have to make others see our superiority and power.

I think we do this as a mere echo of the dominate cultural hegemony all around us, all the time. There’s a reason why companies use logos, why restaurants use the same designs in their construction, and why all magazines are laid out the same. They do it because we crave familiarity and likeness. We do the same thing by surrounding ourselves with people who are like us and do the same activities, listen to the same music, and follow the same trends we’ve always followed.

Our practices of interpersonal hegemony make others look at our ways of being and doing and feeling and thinking, and want to do the same. It is like we’re selling ourselves to each other, instead of having genuine human interactions.

Adults do this all the time with youth – and I say that from experience! Giving a youth I worked with a CD of my music was pure interpersonal hegemony, as I tried to get them to like the things I liked. When young people start showing up wearing the style of clothes we wear; when they use the phrases we use; and when they talk the ways we talk its not just flattery. Its interpersonal hegemony and the worse kind of dominance, intentionally or otherwise.

Hegemony does not have to be explicitly forceful, either. The most well-meaning, kind and intentional people can be accidentally hegemonical. The question rises of how to defeat it, and that I cannot answer well right now. The answer surely lies in a pedagogy of freedom, and the need to learn, teach and lead in freedom.

Thanks again, Lilian.

 

My Questions

  • Where does suggestion become dominance?
  • How can we promote personal freedom in our relationships with others?
  • With the dominance of hegemony throughout our lives, is there anyway to escape perpetuating it?