American mass culture is obsessed with youth: abundant beauty treatments aim to curb the signs of aging, literature frequently emphasizes the innocence of youth, and young love is glorified for its naiveté and lack of complication. But, Americans rarely take a positive view of youths themselves. Many of us are ephebiphobes – fearful and loathing of young people. While we love the condition of being young, we see young people as threatening, ignorant, lazy, and disengaged. What’s the deal with that?

Harvard professor and acclaimed scholar of intergroup relations Jim Sidanius has written about how human societies tend to have three hierarchical systems: (1) gender-based system, where men have disproportionate power and influence, (2) “arbitrary-set” system, where groups arbitrarily defined (e.g., around race, religion, creed, etc.) are given disproportionate power and influence, and (3) an age system, where adults have disproportionate influence over children. While Sidanius’s research focuses primarily on the second of these categories of social hierarchy, the tripartite distinction is useful for thinking about society’s views of youths.

Many people express concern about gender inequities and social phenomena produced by arbitrary set distinctions (like racism, segregation, oppression of religious minorities, etc.), but the age system is almost universally accepted as a given. Young people are not full citizens and all adults are. Intriguingly, the primary argument for an age discriminatory social system involves a circular argument whereby youths are seen incapable and disinterested in political, economic, and social participation so there is little reason to offer them opportunities or motivate them to take responsibility in these domains, participation in which would demonstrate their interest and capabilities.

Certainly, there is some threshold before which youths simply lack sufficient education or experience to meaningfully contribute to society, but what should that threshold be? Is it the age of 18? We should be skeptical that we can establish a single, universal threshold to arbitrarily distinguish those who are fully capable adults from fully incapable children. A look to Wikipedia’s list of child prodigies should be all it takes to realize that there is considerable variation in when young people can make meaningful contributions. Mozart made a professional debut at age 6; Yo-Yo Ma accomplished that at 5. Anna Paquin won her first Oscar at 11, the youngest winner ever. An 11-year old, Kendall Ciesemier, started the much publicized charity, Kids Caring 4 Kids, after watching an episode of Oprah. Jeremy Bentham, a brilliant 19th century political thinker, entered university at 12. Bobby Fischer became a chess Grandmaster at 15. There are plenty of other examples.

And these anecdotes are extreme cases of what is simply a day-to-day reality: youths are people, too and contribute in positive ways. Their capacity for social contribution is only limited by the extent to which our political, economic, and social institutions constrain them. Organizations like Youth Service America, Common Cents, PeaceJam, and many others suggest that young people can not only contribute meaningfully through volunteer work, but also find social problems and independently develop and implement solutions to solve them through processes like service-learning and community problem solving.

Data seem to suggest that there are lots of problems with young people; indeed, it is the dominant narrative of major research efforts to document the status of young people. But it should be no surprise that we have negative views of young people when we stop to realize that the data we collect about young people is framed in the negative. Rates of sexual activity, drug use, and high school dropout emphasize the prevalence of undesirable behaviors, but few if any of the social indicators we collect about youths offer the possibility of finding positive answers. Researchers at the Search Institute and CIRCLE have tried to shift this focus by increasing research attention on positive contributions. The data suggest that young people do contribute, if we actually look for indications of those contributions. While they may vote at different rates than older Americans, and the form of their political, religious, economic, and familial participation may differ from of previous generations, youths are still active participants in our society.

Certainly, there are challenges to shifting the role of young people in society. Not all young people are the same: some will not want to take an active role in civic life, some will be ill-prepared for the task. Others, however, might benefit from a shift in mindset away from thinking of young people in terms of their age and toward thinking about them as fellow citizens. But we also need to be cautious of defining young peoples’ roles: simply encouraging traditional volunteerism constrains young peoples’ roles to fulfilling social objectives outlined by adults, it does not actually acknowledge and value youths’ potential for original contribution.

Society has a rosy picture of youth – everyone seems to want to be, look, and feel young. But we rarely hold positive views of young people. Reframing how we think about young peoples’ roles (and potential roles) in society might change the way we measure their contributions, involve them in social, political, and economic institutions, and ultimately the way we think about them in general.

About the Author

Thomas J. Leeper

Thomas J. Leeper is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and a graduate fellow of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

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