In a conversation with a friend who is new to youth rights ideology, I was recently asked a question. Why, he asked me, is youth oppression considered oppression as such when everyone experiences it? As my friend understood it, the oppression of young people was a necessary fact of life that all people passed through on their way to maturity. While at first my friend’s stance seemed laughable it slowly dawned on me that he was likely voicing a view that many people shared to some degree or another. As youth rights activists, it is important we understand and be able to articulate why my friend’s viewpoint is wrong.
First of all, not all youth are equally oppressed. Some youth have abusive families; some youth are forced to attend schools or live in communities that they hate; some youth have parents that attempt to force beliefs or practices on them which they find repugnant; some youth have characteristics like a disability that impedes their freedom of movement; some youth have families which keep them from interacting in a meaningful way with the outside world. Although all youth may be born into oppression, some youth (through no fault of their own) are born into situations much more oppressive than others. While the oppression some youth face may be minimal other youth are oppressed more fully. While neither has the ability to escape her circumstances the latter has more need and desire to do so. It is a mistake for individuals to assume that because their youth was relatively oppression free that that is the case for all youth. Insofar as that may be the case for some individuals it is due to the relative benevolence of the people in their lives and does not necessarily mean that youth is not an oppressive time for others.
Secondly, even if everyone is equally oppressed by an institution, practice, or idea it does not mean that the institution, practice, or idea is not oppressive. When we speak of “equality” as a golden ideal, we usually intend to refer to the type of equality that, at least in theory, elevates everyone involved to a higher plane, not the sort of equality that drags everyone down to the same degraded level. If everyone on earth is starving, wracked with disease, and unable to access clean drinking water that does not mean that this is not an oppressive condition to be in.
All too often, we look at profoundly dysfunctional institutions, practices, and ideas and take them for granted. As they become normalized we become less critical of these entities until someone shakes us out of our complacency and we are able to view them through fresh eyes. I have written at length in a prior blog post about school as a nexus of youth oppression. So many absurd and harmful practices in schools are taken for granted when we ought to view them as outrageously inappropriate.
Another example of youth oppression that is becoming increasingly normalized is that of the unpaid or underpaid internship in which well-educated and competent young people are reduced to performing menial tasks for no or little pay. This is an outrageous violation of youth rights as well as the rights of American workers which the labor movement spent previous centuries working to ensure. This prolongs young peoples’ financial dependence on their parents and/or government or private loans. It prevents young adults from buying homes, starting families, or beginning careers at the times they would otherwise wish to do so. It is also a shameful way for companies to avoid fairly compensating youth for their labor that additionally keeps young people off of the job market so that older workers have a near monopoly on good jobs. Nonetheless this practice is not questioned as robustly it should be by almost anyone. Instead it is increasingly seen as a necessary precondition for a good job; a way of “paying one’s dues.”
If anything, the universal nature of youth oppression should be a greater cause for concern, not a reason to discount the severity of the problem. The fact that every American spends at least eighteen years of her life in a degraded state with almost no legal, social, or other rights and privileges is deeply sad. Some youth who die at young ages never even have a chance to experience the liberties afforded them at adulthood. Perhaps some individuals prefer to tell themselves that youth oppression can’t be oppression if we are all forced to endure it because the realization that we are all forced to endure such oppression is excruciatingly troubling indeed.