Adultism: A Well-Kept Secret

Adultism is the term used to describe the oppression of young people by adults. An article by John Bell included this definition: “…adultism refers to behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon young people without their agreement. This mistreatment is reinforced by social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes.”

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

"Ageism" is not "Adultism"

I think it's really interesting that the word “ageism” is thought to mean any oppression based on age, and indeed, that may be the official definition of the term. I recently heard this perspective in a workshop I attended as we were brainstorming all the oppressions we knew. As usual, none of the adults present had ever heard the word “adultism” and thought “ageism” addressed all age-based oppressions. When I was doing research for my thesis in Family Studies in 2005, I checked through much of the “ageism” literature and found only a few cases where the word was used to include youth oppression. Doing a Google search on “ageism” also results in lots of articles about elder oppression. I’m glad we acknowledge that elders are disrespected, ignored, patronized…that is certainly true. However, we fail to acknowledge that young people are treated like this as well, and that a separate word has been coined and is being widely used to connote youth oppression.

My initial take on this is that all adults are anticipating ageism because we’re all aging and will reach a point in time where we too will be its victim. So, perhaps we are more sensitive to an oppression that we know is coming. However, our time as children and adolescents and our experience of adultism, since has not been named, may get buried as we get on with our lives.

I had a recent correspondence with a high school student who shared a personal story of adultism with me. When he asked some friends if they felt oppressed by adults, they said no. I suggested to him that talking about his recent experience and giving the oppression a name might change that. Once something is named, it is so much easier to talk about. Think about the term “sexism.” I’m quite sure I didn’t hear that word until I was well out of high school. Now, however, it is widely understood to mean the oppression of women by men. If I say, “that was a sexist remark,” most people would immediately understand what I mean. I think the word “adultism” needs to gain wide usage, so young people can use it to point out to each other and to the adults they interact with, their own experiences of oppression.

Why do you think adultism is such a well-kept secret?

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Anonymous mutant said...

I think it's widespread because there's the idea that life experience equals greater should, but in reality things are more complex than that. Some adults have learned a lot from their life experience, and are genuinely wise. Others don't learn much from theirs yet go about using their age as a trump card every time someone disagrees with them.

Both age and youth have upsides and downsides. I remember being 17 and 18 (I'm 20 now) and having older people ask me for advice and subsequently tell me I'd really helped them and they were getting on better with their lives. I don't think it was that I was exceptional for my age. I think a younger and more naive person's perspective has a lot of value too.

November 22, 2010 at 10:04 AM  
Blogger Margaret Pevec. MA said...

I totally agree that a younger and more naive person's perspective has a lot of value. Adults are often entrenched in a particular point of view, and can use the fresh input from a younger, less entrenched person. Few see it that way, however. I also happen to believe in reincarnation, and that some of us (maybe all of us) bring wisdom from other lifetimes. This is most easily seen in what we call "prodigies." I think a better explanation for a prodigy is someone who's remembering talents and skills from a previous life. But that's another topic.

November 23, 2010 at 5:16 PM  

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