American Ephebiphobia


Picture: Anthony22 (CC)

Thomas J. Leeper writes at Psychology Today (last year):

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.

Read more here.

15 Comments on "American Ephebiphobia"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Sep 16, 2013 at 1:33 pm |

    if you’re too young
    wait a few years and you’ll be too old
    if you’re too old
    wait a few years and you’ll be dead

  2. swabby429 | Sep 16, 2013 at 1:54 pm |

    How ironic that this seems to be the case in a culture that idolizes youth. If the kids don’t like it now, wait until they age past 60. The world is the youths’ oyster now or very soon will be.

  3. Like water in the ocean, the old wave is comfortable resting in the sand, but off in the distance they see the young wave rushing forth coming to destroy all that they know. In time though, this young wave will be old as as well, the previous forgotten, and the terror of the new reborn.

  4. did a teenager write this? cause I thought most of them were busy on Instagram sharing twerking pics.

  5. bsackamano | Sep 16, 2013 at 3:45 pm |

    Whenever an article contains the words “Harvard Professor” I tune out. That place is simply a part of HYPE, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, (can’t remember the last one) or the CFR/Establishment Dupes and Puppets finishing school. The major evil people in the last 100 years are from those schools add Cambridge, Rhodes Scholars, etc

  6. InfvoCuernos | Sep 16, 2013 at 4:56 pm |

    Its that youthful exuberance, coupled with ignorance, that makes me tread lightly around the youth. We should put them all to work stacking rocks into pyramids or something before they channel all that energy into killing all the “grumps”.

  7. atlanticus | Sep 16, 2013 at 7:52 pm |

    I am starting to worry about 15 year olds…they just don’t seem cool. And why do they still like Katy Perry so much? Isn’t she like, ancient to them? Furthermore, why is Skrillex still a thing?

    They seem really lame and they should stop twerking. Not because it’s too grown-up for them, but because it only ever looked good on big-bootied black women and it just looks completely retarded on flat-assed, white, teenage girls.

    Oh…am I old now?

  8. Let’s not forget that historically people in their early teens were considered adults; they married, ruled kingdoms, were famous artists and scholars, etc. We know that 15 year-olds are capable of a lot.

    We criticize teenagers for being vacuous, on one hand, but we also impose upon them a wildly extended period of adolescence, during which they’re obliged to remain at home, dependent on their parents while the school system spends four years teaching them what could have learned in one. We complain that they don’t act like adults, but we treat them like children.

  9. thisbliss | Sep 17, 2013 at 11:58 am |

    I think our establishments of governance should reflect all ages/gender/races with equal veto. A council of people called up like jury duty. Would at least be an interesting experiment, to try and get away from the old man idea saturation of policy

Comments are closed.