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Understanding an unseen bias in the society



In our society, there is a form of bias that often goes unnoticed but has far-reaching effects – adultism. While we are familiar with terms like racism and sexism, adultism is less talked about. It is the unfair treatment of young people simply because of their age.

So, why does it matter and how does it affect us all? Keep on reading to find out more.

What is adultism?

What is adultism?

Adultism can be defined as the systemic oppression of young people by adults. It is a set of beliefs, attitudes and practices that prioritise adults and their interests over those of young people. This discrimination manifests itself in various ways, such as the denial of young people’s rights, exclusion from decision-making processes and the condescending attitude many adults adopt toward young individuals.

In 1995, John Bell defined adultism as “behaviours and attitudes rooted in the assumption that adults are superior to young people and have the right to exert control over them without their consent”. Adam Fletcher, in 2016, called it “an excessive reliance on the viewpoints, ideas, beliefs, and actions of adults”.

Adultism is commonly used to describe any form of discrimination against young individuals and is occasionally distinguished from ageism which is a prejudice based solely on age, although it more commonly pertains to bias against older individuals rather than youth. Some argue that adultism, characterised by a rejection of child-subjectivity, has been ingrained in Western culture for some time.

Fletcher identifies three primary manifestations of this phenomenon in society:

  • Attitudinal adultism: This refers to personal emotions, assumptions and convictions that shape an individual’s perspectives on young people. It is also known as internalised adultism.
  • Cultural adultism: This encompasses shared attitudes, including beliefs and customs, that reinforce the notion that adults are superior to individuals who are not classified as adults solely because of their age. It is also referred to as social adultism.
  • Structural adultism: This denotes the normalisation and endorsement of historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal dynamics that consistently benefit adults while resulting in cumulative and persistent negative consequences for young people. It is also termed institutional adultism.

A study conducted by the Crisis Prevention Institute regarding the prevalence of adultism has revealed an increasing number of local organisations that serve youth addressing this issue. For example, a local programme called “Youth Together” in Oakland, situated in the U.S. state of California, highlights the impact of adultism on its website. It emphasises that it obstructs the development of youth, particularly their self-esteem, ability to form positive relationships with caring adults and their perception of adults as allies.

It has been employed to describe the oppression of children and young people by adults, viewing it as having a similar power dynamic in the lives of young individuals as racism and sexism. When used in this context, it is a broader concept than paternalism, encompassing the influence of all adults rather than just male adults and can be observed in the tendency to treat children and youth as if they were younger than they are. Additionally, terms like pedophobia (the fear of children) and ephebiphobia (the fear of youth) have been suggested as precursors to adultism.

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Origin of adultism

Origin of adultism

This term was first introduced by Patterson Du Bois, who used it to describe a phenomenon similar to its modern understanding. Du Bois recognised that adults often held power and authority over young people and could misuse this power, leading to the mistreatment of children.

Variations in meaning

  • 1930s France: Interestingly, in the 1930s, France saw a different usage of the term. It was employed to describe a condition wherein children displayed adult-like physical and psychological traits. This context focused on the early development of certain characteristics in children, rather than the power dynamics between adults and young people.
  • Late 1970s America: The modern understanding of adultism as the abuse of power by adults over children emerged in an American journal article in the late 1970s. This redefinition of the term broadened its scope to encompass various contexts where adults exercised authority over young individuals. These contexts included not only parents but also teachers, psychotherapists, the clergy, police, judges, and juries.

Causes of adultism

Causes of adultism

Adultism, as described in Jack Flasher’s seminal 1978 article, arises from the belief that children are inherently inferior to adults. This belief forms the foundation of adultism and leads to various manifestations of control and discrimination against young people.

One key aspect highlighted by Flasher is that adultism can take on multiple forms, including excessive nurturing, possessiveness, and over-restrictiveness. These behaviours, whether conscious or unconscious, are all geared toward exerting excessive control over a child’s life and decision-making processes. This control is often rooted in the underlying belief that adults know what is best for children and that their opinions and desires should take precedence.

One fundamental cause of adultism is the establishment of social hierarchies based on age. Societies often assign more power and authority to adults, implicitly endorsing the idea that adults’ perspectives and interests should take precedence over those of young people. This hierarchical structure can become deeply ingrained in social norms and attitudes, leading to the normalization of adultism.

Cultural norms and traditions can further perpetuate adultism. In some cultures, respect for elders and unquestioning obedience to authority figures are highly valued. While these values can be important in certain contexts, they can also contribute to the marginalisation of young people’s voices and opinions.

The inherent power imbalance between adults and young people is another critical factor in adultism. Adults typically possess more resources, knowledge and decision-making authority. This power discrepancy can be wielded to suppress the agency of young individuals and limit their participation in important decisions that affect their lives.

A lack of empathy towards young people’s experiences and challenges is a prevalent issue. Adults may struggle to empathise fully with the situations faced by young individuals, leading to dismissive attitudes and a failure to consider their unique needs and perspectives.

Fear and stereotypes about youth can also contribute to adultism. Stereotypes depicting young people as irresponsible, rebellious or troublesome can lead to unfair treatment and discrimination. These biases create a negative perception of youth and influence how adults interact with them.

Institutional practices can reinforce adultism, particularly within schools, legal systems and workplaces. Many institutions have policies and practices that favour adults and limit the participation of young individuals in decision-making processes. These institutional barriers perpetuate adultism by excluding young people from crucial discussions and decisions that affect their lives.

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Handling adultism

Handling adultism

Adultism is a deeply ingrained societal issue that requires concerted efforts to combat it. To create a more equitable and just society for individuals of all ages, it is crucial to implement strategies that challenge and address adultism effectively.

Here are some key approaches:

  • Education and awareness: Implement educational programs that raise awareness about adultism, its impact and its root causes. These programmes can target schools, community organisations and workplaces. Encourage critical thinking and self-reflection, particularly among adults, to recognise and challenge their own biases and behaviours rooted in adultism.
  • Active listening and empathy: Actively listen to the perspectives and experiences of young people. Create safe spaces where they can express their thoughts, concerns and ideas without fear of judgment. Offer empathy training for adults to help them better understand and empathise with the experiences and challenges faced by young individuals.
  • Youth empowerment: Establish youth leadership programmes that encourage young individuals to take on leadership roles and participate in decision-making processes, both in their communities and in institutions. Also, mentorship opportunities where young people can learn from experienced adults and gain valuable skills and insights can be facilitated.
  • Challenge stereotypes and biases: Encourage open and honest dialogue about stereotypes and biases related to young people. Challenge assumptions and promote a more nuanced understanding of youth. Promote media literacy programmes that help individuals critically evaluate media portrayals of young people and counteract negative stereotypes. In addition, establish support services and counselling for young people who may have experienced discrimination or abuse due to adultism.
  • Policy changes: Advocate for institutional reforms that promote the rights and inclusion of young individuals. This may include changes in school policies, legal procedures, politics and workplace practices. Ensure representation of young people in decision-making bodies, boards and councils that affect their lives and communities, and facilitate the enactment of anti-discrimination laws and policies.

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