Adultism is the name for prejudice and discrimination against individuals as a result of their youth (Bell, 1995; Fletcher, 2015). Children need age-appropriate guidance from adults, but this form of prejudice is easy to ignore or write off. To be clear, all parenting, indeed most parenting, is not inherently adultist. Adultism occurs when we systematically oppress younger people simply because of their relatively younger age. Adultism can include the belief that adults are inherently superior to youth or that adults’ rights should always take precedent over the rights of children. Some also believe that young people must yield to the power of adults even when such power is misused in ways that are harmful or even abusive.
Though the literature on adultism focuses on children, almost anyone can experience it if they are being discriminated against simply because of their relative youth. This may happen in a family where adult siblings continue to mistreat the youngest sibling. It could also happen in a workplace where older workers mistreat their junior colleagues because they are younger.
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People learn adultism at a young age, and few people exit childhood without experiencing it to some extent. If your needs and wants were ignored or disrespected just because you were a child, you likely experienced adultism. Common expressions that likely reveal adultist views are: “Children should be seen and not heard.” “You are too young to understand.” “Grow up, already.” Here are a few ways to rethink such statements and consider non-adultist alternatives:
- Instead of saying “children should be seen and not heard,” you might say, “I am focused on something else and can’t listen right now.” Create a time and place where the child can express themselves.
- Instead of saying “you are too young to understand,” you might explain what is happening in an age-appropriate manner. Otherwise, state that you don’t have time to explain at the moment.
- Instead of saying “grow up, already,” you might say “please stop doing that.”
Being consistently treated in this manner teaches us that our opinions, preferences, needs, or even our basic safety, do not matter to the adults around us. We learn that “the grown-ups” are superior and we must be deferential to them. We learn that we are at the bottom of a power hierarchy and that we don’t matter. If these messages are too consistent and damaging, if they are not appropriately mitigated by other experiences of agency and empowerment, then we are at risk of entering young adulthood feeling that we do not matter and not knowing how to figure out what we need or want out of life.
Through adultism, people learn to accept their oppression. As a result, it paves the way for allowing other forms of mistreatment to occur (Fletcher, 2015). For instance, if we learned that we belong at the bottom of a power hierarchy in our childhood, we might show up at work and think nothing of being mistreated by our supervisors. When someone treats us in a sexist or racist manner, we may not speak up because we’ve already learned that our voices do not matter. We might also internalize adultist beliefs and then abuse the power we are given once we do enter adulthood, thus becoming perpetrators of adultism and continuing the cycle of mistreatment.
Sometimes people use the word ageism to describe prejudice against young people. While technically not inaccurate, it may be more useful to choose separate language to describe prejudice against older people (ageism) versus younger people (adultism). By having separate words, we can explore each phenomenon as the distinct experience it is. Parsing out the language also reduces the likelihood that we will contribute to cross-generational conflict by making young adults and older adults battle over who experiences more, or worse, forms of ageism.
Both young people and older adults can be idealized and overvalued as well. For instance, people may idealize childhood innocence or not set appropriate limits out of a misguided wish to “let kids be kids.” Young adults are often viewed as more motivated or innovative, and in some fields are recruited out of the false belief that only young people possess desired qualities.
With regard to older adults, people may idealize the wisdom that is supposed to come with age. Older individuals may insist on being treated deferentially regardless of whether they are behaving in ways that harm others. Older adults may be more likely to access leadership and higher levels of power out of the assumption that having “experience” means they will be more skillful.
It is important to consider all kinds of age-related prejudice and discrimination. Thus far, too little attention has been paid to the very real ways in which youth are systematically oppressed and discriminated against by those who are older. If we want to create a society where citizens are appropriately empowered, can exercise their autonomy and freedom, can be caring towards people of all ages, and also stand up to injustice, we must better understand adultism and its potential long-lasting impact.