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January 06, 2003

Adult Supremacism - part 3

V. Desire to be Adult
The biggest challenge for any theory of adultism is to answer this question: why do so many adults embrace supremacism -- when they themselves were oppressed as youth? Part of the answer is that adults simply imitate what was done to them, because it's what they know. Without visible alternatives, the command / obey relationship can seem natural, as if it's the only way that things *could* be. There's more to it, though. Both youth and adults actively pursue being adult.

Three meanings of the word "adult" are relevant here:

1. The biological phase that follows puberty
2. A legal status conferred by the state, typically at age 18
3. A way of behaving that is considered the highest achievement of character development

The individual can't alter biology or their legal status (except by emancipation, and then only partially) -- but how you act is under your control. At the interpersonal level, this is what really matters. Once you can walk and talk intelligently, biological age differences between people don't mean that much. Nor, most of the time, do youth and adults have to actively think about how age-based laws personally affect them. When adults and youth interact with each other, a great deal of the supposed difference has to be invented by the adult (especially dealing with a teen). The categories "infant" and "young child" refer to an obviously natural stage of life. But "adult" -- whether that means people aged 18-65, or people whose personal development qualifies them to control others -- has become an almost entirely artificial category in modern society.

No one wants to be on the receiving end of control; we want (minimally) to be free from pressure to obey, or better yet, able to make commands ourselves. Power automatically gives you status -- prestige and esteem from others. Having no *formal* decision-making power over their own lives, youth are at the bottom of the social ladder. They are adults' social inferiors, looked down upon with something like scorn. There's little that youth can do about their legal standing -- but there are other ways to win status. The struggle for status is what sets the stage for embracing adult supremacism.

(A) Escape from Childhood
From the media we hear troubling stories about the state of minors today. However, youth aren't just portrayed as a problem group for adults to deal with -- the very state of being young is seen as flawed and objectionable. This is perhaps best revealed by how we use age-based language. Consider all of the words that describe the biological state of being young: baby, infant, child, puerile, juvenile, pre-pubescent, adolescent. Each of these words is synonymous with having a bad character -- to be "childish" is to be silly / irresponsible / stupid / rude. Note that these aren't words merely associated with young people, like say "vivacious" or "playful" -- they are the words that denote physical age itself. Compare this to how it would sound to say "womanish", "black", or "gay" in a similar sense.

As soon as toddlers can understand language, they learn that being young is something that you don't want to be. If youth felt solidarity with minors as a class, then the switch to supporting adult supremacy would be a change of loyalty. Instead, from the youngest age most minors attempt to dissociate themselves from other youth. It's a form of social mobility: if they can distance themselves from younger age groups, seem adult-like by super-achieving, steal the markers of adulthood (like sex, smoking, drinking, fake I.D.'s), or look bigger by putting down the maturity of a peer -- then maybe they'll receive a little more respect and privilege.

The toddler insists "I'm not a baby, I'm a big boy!"; the 11th grade student avoids the stigma of hanging out with a 10th-grader; and after getting out of the compulsory school system, most adults never want to look back. Some even take dissociation a step farther, by putting down their former self. One portrayal of aging depicts the years before adulthood as "development", a difficult struggle upward, and adulthood as a long plateau of unchanging completeness. Another metaphor likens the adult to a butterfly, which has transformed from its ugly caterpillar stage into a new, different animal. An alternative to these views of aging sees development and change as a constant across the life span, emphasizes positive personality traits that have remained the same over time, and extends compassion to previous attempts at navigating life -- even if you would do differently now. From this perspective, it's sad to see someone prop up their current life by telling a self-deprecating story, "I was such a stupid kid!"

(B) Maturity as a Virtue
People don't pursue being adult just to avoid the stigma of childhood; maturity is seen as a virtue in itself. Again, "adult" and "mature" are words that denote both a biological state and the quality of one's character. "Adult" (as an adjective) encompasses a number of characteristics: being responsible, competent, hard-working, self-aware, even-tempered, socially adept -- all positive traits.

"Mature" and "adult" are both umbrella terms: their intended meaning can be conveyed by listing a variety of qualities that do not have to do with age. It is an anti-adultist act to stop using the words "mature" and "adult" as praise, both for minors and adults. For "mature" and "adult" to be understood as positive, "immature" and "young" must be negatives. Praising someone for being adult-like implicitly says that people who are youth-like are inferior persons. "Youth-like" must include all actual young persons -- except possibly for rare individuals who are young but don't "act their age". That is, who don't don't "act like young people". ...Praise for being "exceptional" is as much a slur against the group as slandering it outright.

By equating the word "adult" with so many positive traits, U.S. culture conveys an image of what human beings are supposed to aspire towards. However, not everyone has an equally strong desire to embody the ideal. Some are enthusiastic to be "good" people by being adult. Most, though, just want to "pass". Despite *legal* inclusion in the group "adults", they neither identify with the label, nor feel like they're actually "real" grownups yet.

Perhaps more than developing one's personality, acting "adult" is about wearing the right clothes and having the right interests. Youth culture, because it's associated with young people, is considered "low" and looked down upon. Slang, mannerisms, clothes, hairstyles, music, books, movies, games -- and whatever else gets linked to minors -- is generally thought of as inferior to the culture of adults. Much commentary is made about "youth culture" -- but adults have a culture too; and inasmuch as adults are not the only age-group within society, it is a subculture. How are we to compare the subcultures of two age groups? I think we should be critical of assigning adults' customs more value than those of young people. Would it be appropriate to say that Russian customs are superior to those of Japan? ...To say that the culture of industrial Europe is superior to that of the Australian aborigines? [If you *would* call industrial cultures superior, can you do so without also describing aboriginal peoples as *child-like*? Early anthropologists' tendency to depict tribes as "primitive" has come under much fire during the past few decades...]

If it's to be said that youth have a legitimate subculture, care must be taken to distinguish between genuine enthusiasms and inventions emerging from within youth communities, and marketing ploys that have been projected onto youth by adult business interests. This is not to say that the only legitimate "youth culture" is that which bears no hint of adults! In contemporary industrial societies, subcultural identity generally has a great deal to do with brand-name affiliation -- this is true for adults as well as youth. Try to imagine "acting adult" in terms of language, mannerisms, clothes, hairstyles, and so on. Which company manufactures those clothes? What company produces the film or TV show that popularized those mannerisms?

My purpose here is not to catalog all the ways that businesses manufacture popular culture and subcultural identities. However, looking at the interests of the business community raises an interesting question: to what extent are the qualities associated with being "mature" (responsible, hard-working, serious, etc.) really just the qualities of being a good worker? These traits describe what is valued in the business world; so maybe acting "adult" is really about embodying the subculture of "professionalism". It's more a matter of *class* norms than age. It seems inappropriate to condemn youth as a group for being "irresponsible" when there may not even be anything meaningful to be responsible for yet (like tending a store). ...Even more so if the accusation is ultimately motivated by classism.

-- to be continued --

January 6, 2003

Posted by Sven at January 6, 2003 09:34 PM