Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Youth Rights 101: What Is Ageism?

   Youth rights supporters talk a lot about ageism as it pertains to young people. Ageism affects the elderly as well (sometimes in similar ways, sometimes in different ways). Ageism, like all other prejudices, doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is gendered, it is sexed, it is raced, it is classed, and it is experienced differently by people according to body size, disability, and physical appearance. It manifests in different ways depending on the cultural context of an individual's community (i.e. ageism looks different in India than in the United States; it looks different for a rural Southern youth than it does for one in New York City). However, ageism is a universal feature in the lives of young people because it is systemic and institutional. It is also a nearly universal feature of most individuals' conception of the world in most societies. But what is ageism? How do we know it when we see it? How do we name it when we experience it? How can we identify ageism so that we can take steps to purge ourselves of its influence on our words and actions?

   Ageism, like almost all other prejudices, manifests itself in different ways. Much as there are different ways to be sexist, racist, ableist, classist, sizeist, and heterosexist, so there are various ways to be ageist. Much as racism or sexism, to take the most familiar examples, are not just one thing but many things and may manifest in different ways in different contexts, so ageism has many dimensions. These types of ageism may overlap with one another in places but they are all distinct enough phenomena to deserve mention. For the purposes of this post I will only focus on the ways in which these types of ageism affect young people but many and possibly all of them could be applied to senior citizens as well. 

·         Normative ageism – Normative ageism is perhaps the simplest kind of ageism to understand. It is much like garden variety sexism and racism in its manifestations. It is simply the assertion that individual capabilities, interests, strengths, weaknesses, and the ability to exercise rights is tied in an uncomplicated way to age. Generalizations about “all teenagers” or “typical children” as well as statements prescribing normative behavior solely on the basis of age (i.e. “preventing teen pregnancy,” “stopping underage drinking,” etc.) fall into this category.

·         Cultural ageism – Cultural ageism involves the attitudes taken by members of one generation towards another generation which devalue their mores, technology, pastimes, entertainment, etc. only because it is different than that which the previous generation is used to. Instead of judging generational differences based upon universalizable values and/or standards of quality (which can be a healthy hedge against relativism) cultural ageism judges one generation by the standards of another in such a way that the one being judged always comes up wanting. Examples of cultural ageism include complaints by older people about the popularity of video games or the common trope that young people today are too sexually promiscuous. Another side of cultural ageism can involve valuing the pastimes typically associated with younger people less than those typically associated with older people simply because the pastimes of older people are deemed more respectable and mature. For instance, taking a middle-aged man’s collection of stamps more seriously than a child’s collection of toy cars could be a form of cultural ageism.
·         Paternalistic ageism – Paternalistic ageism is the idea that minors (and sometimes even young adults who have outlived minority status) require older adults to make choices for them and to dictate their actions because, the thinking goes, they are too immature to exercise their own judgment and their autonomy is not worth respecting. Laws and practices forbidding people under a certain age from choosing their own home environment, watching “too much” television, fraternizing with the individuals of their choice, and choosing what academic subjects to pursue are examples of paternalistic ageism.

·         Pedophobic/ephebophobic ageism – Pedophobic ageism denotes a fear and hatred of children while ephebophobic ageism denotes a fear and hatred of adolescents. These types of ageism encompass the ideas that young people are perpetual troublemakers, dangers to their communities, always up to no good, and a burden on their teachers, parents, law enforcement officials, and the rest of their communities. The ideas that teenage hormones are out of control, that gang violence perpetuated by youth is a constant menace to all communities, that young people dress too provocatively, that small children are unruly and in need of constant supervision no matter what their behavior suggests, and that utilizing any means necessary to control and instill obedience in youth is a worthy goal are common manifestations of pedophobic and/or ephebophobic ageism. Perhaps the most pointed and notorious example of ephebophobic ageism is the existence of “troubled teen” residential facilities (also known as gulag schools, torture schools, behavior modification facilities, and youth residential programs). Young people sent to these facilities are generally subject to extreme psychological and physical abuse directed towards them with the intention of making them more obedient and amenable to adult authority. The ideology driving these programs is that of youth as dangerous miscreants who must be turned around and made to respect adult authority by any means necessary.

·         Economic ageism – Economic ageism refers to the myriad ways in which young people are discriminated against in the labor market and in terms of government assistance. Economic ageism affects minors but also those in their twenties and sometimes even those in their thirties. Economic ageism is a complex phenomenon which is worth discussing in far more detail than I can cover in a post of this nature. However, it is worth pointing out some key examples here. The prevalence of unpaid internships for young people as a substitute for meaningful employment, the skyrocketing costs of college tuition, laws forbidding individuals under a certain age from working, laws keeping young people from controlling the money they earn, and the push for more and more formal education in order to break into the middle class are all examples of economic ageism.

·         Scientific ageism – Scientific ageism denotes the ways that biology, psychology, and psychiatry are used to perpetuate ageism. For example, studies on the “adolescent brain” which perpetuate stereotypes about teenagers as being impulsive, foolish, and immature are a form of scientific ageism. Research on the “developmental stages of children” also often fall into this category, as does much of the social panic surrounding the contested idea that young people are reaching puberty earlier than before and that this is necessarily harmful as it supposedly causes them to mature beyond what is “appropriate” for their years. Psychiatric diagnoses which seek to pathologize the behavior of young people (i.e. attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, etc.) are examples of scientific ageism as is the currently faddish obsession with childhood obesity. Scientific ageism uses the discourses of science to legitimate a political project aimed at denying young people their civil and human rights. This has precedent in the ways in which scientific discourses have been used to provide justification for sexism, racism, heterosexism, sizeism, classism, and ableism (issues discussed in more detail in this post).

·         Puritanical ageism – Puritanical ageism is often (although not exclusively) religious in nature and its chief aim is preventing young people from engaging in the use of intoxicating substances, having consensual sexual experiences, or consuming media with violent, sexual, or other controversial themes. Recently, with the new obsession with childhood obesity, puritanical ageism has expanded to encompass a concern with what foods young people choose to eat. Puritanical ageism is a phenomenon of both the left and the right.

·         Sentimental ageism – Sentimental ageism is sometimes marked by the overly romantic ways in which many adults view youth. Children are seen as innocent, sensitive, closer to God and nature than adults, pure, asexual, and cute. Sentimental ageists often tend to view children as less complex than other people and to see them as fundamentally “other.” Sentimental ageism is harmful in large part because it involves discounting the actual thoughts and feelings of actual children in favor of an idealized version of children and childhood. Sentimental ageism of this variety is not as commonly directed at adolescents. However, it sometimes manifests in the sentiments of adults who find teenagers to be necessarily more creative, playful, and able to learn than older people. Sentimental ageism is also operating any time someone refers to childhood as “a golden age” or “a carefree time” or to adolescence as “the best years of one’s life.” In addition to the utter falsity of these statements – as evidenced by the fact that many individuals are quick to acknowledge that their youth was not among the best years of their lives – such statements serve the purpose of delegitimizing youth oppression and trivializing the concerns of young people. Sentimental ageism of this sort is perhaps the most pernicious variety of ageism because it generally serves as an excuse for not acknowledging young people as an oppressed class due to the logic that children and teenagers are on the whole content with their lot and that the double standard actually serves their happiness.

·         Personal ageism – Personal ageism denotes an attitude held at the individual level which places more value on relationships with and opinions held by older people than those held by younger people. It can manifest outside of the family by ignoring or negating the contributions of younger people in a variety of business, educational, and volunteer settings. It can also involve a refusal to form friendships based on equality and mutual respect with younger people. It can manifest within the family when family members take the preferences of older family members more seriously than they do the preferences of younger family members. Personal ageism involves the attitude that the only proper relationship between a minor and an older person is that between an authority figure and a subordinate or between a mentor and a mentee. It precludes the possibility of genuine respect and reciprocity across generational lines.

·         Institutional ageism – Institutional ageism refers to the ways in which educational, legal, familial, religious, political, social, cultural, medical, economic, and other entities discriminate against young people on the institutional level. The status of minority, guardianship, compulsory schooling, the juvenile justice system, status offenses, legal age restrictions, and behavior modification facilities are all manifestations of institutional ageism.

   Ageism is a complicated phenomenon and these are just a few of the most common ways in which it manifests. However, when you see these types of ageism in action you can rest assured that ageism is indeed the phenomenon that you are observing.

   What do you think? Are there other examples of ageism you can think of? How do various forms of ageism work to legitimate the oppression of youth? I can't wait to hear your observations in the comment section!


  1. I'd like to see a more rigorous definition of scientific ageism. My concern is that there's a fine line between denying illegitimate science that supports one's opponents' political ideas and denying legitimate science that contradicts one's own political ideas. We can't assume that a study is ageist just because it says something about age.

  2. The idea behind scientific ageism is not that all science done on age-related issues is poor (although much of it is poor and all of it is done against the backdrop of a society where it is taken for granted that young people are inferior). Scientific ageism simply refers to the way in which various scientific discourses are used as a pretense for pathologizing young peoples' minds and bodies and denying them rights. Even good science can therefore become oppressive because of the social meanings attached to it. A seven-year-old may reach puberty unusually early but only in the context of ageism is this in and of itself pathologized. There may be certain cognitive differences between the average nine-year-old and the average twenty-five-year old but only in the context of ageism is this seen as an acceptable pretense for denying the nine-year-old the right to self-determination. It has been documented that many elderly Americans lose cognitive functioning with age but this is not generally used to argue that the elderly should not be voting. (Of course, sometimes real and perceived differences between the elderly and others do lead to a loss of rights for seniors and youth rights supporters should unequivocally oppose this on the same grounds that we oppose it for youth.) So, to wrap up, scientific ageism isn't about how "good" or "bad" the science around age-related issues is. It is about how scientific discourses are used as a weapon against youth and the elderly in order to deny them rights and dignity.

  3. On Scientific Ageism, Thought; What if the science of scientfic ageism isn't actually caused by age, but the findings are caused by ageism?
    Think of it this way; If you are constantly told you are fat, you will eventually think you are fat, correct? So wouldn't the same thing work with ageism?

    1. I think I might be understanding what you're getting at, Amy, but could you elaborate a little more so I can make sure I'm understanding? I don't want to put words in your mouth!

  4. You forgot Authoritarian Ageism - the attitude that children should be seen and not heard, that adults can demand children obey them even if their request is unreasonable, that you should "respect your elders" and "not talk back", etc.