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Separating Ageism from Personal Growth

Written by Alex Koroknay-Palicz Apr 09, 2010

Katrina raised a very interesting question on the NYRA forum. One that everyone should consider and helps deepen our understanding of youth rights and the fight against ageism. Her question:

When I think back about ten years or so, I can’t help thinking that, of course, I have had more experiences, learned so much more, deal with things differently than I did back then. And back then, there were things I believed and thought that make me cringe to think that I’m that same individual! Ten years ago, I was 16 years old.

Thing is, every time I think about my changing ideas over time, even with the knowledge that a lot of it will be different ten years from now, it feels like I’m on a slippery slope into a common ageist trap. How can I reconcile admiring myself for my own personal growth without belittling my teenage self? I mean, isn’t one of the main ideas behind anti-youth sentiment that youth are like unfinished works, like rough drafts, that you’d never dream of having published before many more improvements? Of course, we youth rights supporters know fully well that no one is ever truly “complete” per se, but there’s still the persistent social belief that you come to a time in your life when you are “complete”, or grown up, at last presentable. Yet when life sure enough shows us that even well into adulthood we’re still evolving and changing, it must of course mean we aren’t grown up yet, so older and older people are still considered children. *shrug*

But I digress. I mean, it certainly makes no sense to wish the last ten years were devoid of meaningful experiences so that I’m now just as I was at 16. That’d suck. Yet I can’t help feeling that every time I say “wow, I deal with that so much better than I did back then!” there’s an air of “because young immature teenage me sucked ass!” Even if I obviously don’t really mean that, it is still generally implied. Could there just be a better way of looking back over personal growth that doesn’t carry such an implication that the “less grown” versions of me, as well as “less grown” versions of everyone, are inferior?


Julian had a very good response that you can acknowledge that growth without treating others as inferior and still recognizing that young people, even with less experience still have *enough* experience and competency to run their lives:

We’re always “unfinished.” You’ll have the same greater perspective when you’re 36. I recently jotted something down about the experience issue:

That greater life experience is usually associated with greater insight, knowledge, and wisdom is certainly true, but these increases in mental ability vary substantially among individuals as a result of the similarly varying nature of personal experiences and the capacity to acquire such increased mental attributes from them. With the ever-important rule of generality in mind, it is not controversial to state that older people are generally more likely to possess greater life experience than younger people, and consequently, generally more likely to possess greater insight, knowledge, and wisdom. What is important for our purposes, however, is not the accumulation of the greatest total insight, knowledge, and wisdom, but the accumulation of a sufficient amount to act as a competent self-manager.

A 50 year old has a higher chance of possessing greater wisdom than a 35 year old, but this has no direct correlation to her ability to manage her finances and property. While persons generally gain additional insights into the fields of literature, sports, recreation, love, sex, fine dining, politics, religion and beyond as they age and grow seasoned having acquired so many experiences over the course of their lives, this cannot be taken as evidence that they possess greater self-management abilities, or even if they do, that people in their thirties do not still possess a sufficient amount to be permitted to conduct their own affairs as they wish.

There do not exist greater self-management rights for people in their fifties than people in their thirties, as it is understood that the greater life experience generally possessed by people in their fifties does not invalidate the fact that people in their thirties generally possess the ability to make competent decisions about their own lives. Similarly, were self-management rights extended to youth, their lesser life experience would not necessarily be correlated with their competence.

Julian is quite right, especially when it comes to policy implications. But I think he still makes the mistake of thinking of growth and aging as a purely linear process. A one-way process that takes a person from having less to having more. I don’t see it like that.

Such a notion, that we become more experienced, wiser, ultimately better as we age is, I think, ageist. Or, if Adam Fletcher and I can finally call a truce in our ageism vs. adultism war and create distinct meanings for each, perhaps it could be better said that such a notion is a adultist.

According to his new definition, Adam describes Adultism as “the addiction to the attitudes, ideas, beliefs, and actions of adults.” The rest of his definition, I feel, doesn’t connect very well with this first part. However, if we wanted to permit the coexistence of ageism and adultism, I would claim the latter half of his definition as “ageism” and expand upon the first part, i.e. the addiction to adult attitudes, ideas, values, etc.

So, put simply, how about this for the two, differing, definitions:

Ageism – Discrimination or oppression based on age.
Adultism – The addiction to the attitudes, ideas, beliefs, and actions of adults.

If we accept these definitions, reading over Julian’s response to Katrina shows how you can be adultist without being ageist. Ageism would imply some negative action taken: discrimination, oppression, restriction, etc. Julian’s view would recognize adults as better and more experienced than youth, but would call for them to be treated the same. An organization like NYRA that focuses on tangible outcomes and seeks to change laws and policies that discriminate against youth has always focused on ageism, and thus could be comfortable with a view such as Julian’s.

So while I’m really interesting in expanding upon this possible distinction between ageism & adultism, I want to address the initial point. Is an adult more experienced, wiser, and better than a young person? I’d say no, and say that it is adultist to say so.

The average young person and the average adult have different experiences, different types of knowledge, different skills, and are each wise in their own way. There are things I know now that I didn’t know 10 years ago, certainly. There are other things that I knew 10 years ago that I’ve forgotten now. This doesn’t mean I’ve moved forward or moved backwards, I’ve just become different. My skills and thoughts fit me for where I was 10 or 15 years ago. Just like today I responded to the environment I was in. If I were thrown back into my 15 year old life back in 1996 would I make all the same decisions? No, I wouldn’t. Would I make better decisions? No, I don’t think so.

I would be making decisions in 1996 that were based on my environment and experiences in 2010. Some of those decisions would be completely inappropriate. My 15-year-old self was far wiser about being a 15-year-old than my 28-year-old self would be.

The way to leave adultism behind is to stop thinking of knowledge and wisdom as something we can simply accumulate more of, and start thinking of it as very situational. What is wise and smart behavior for an African bushman is quite different from a London businessman. The knowledge that the businessman knows is suited for his situation and his life. So is the knowledge that the bushman knows. I don’t think it is appropriate to say which person is more experienced, wiser or better. During the age of imperialism we, the western, “civilized” nations decided we had superior knowledge, skills, and wisdom and went around the world sharing it with the unwashed masses. When they didn’t want to embrace our obviously superior knowledge, skills and wisdom, we forced them to, because it was for their own good. Nowadays we see that such a perspective is quite biased, bigoted and wrong.

I think, as Adam says, we are addicted to the values and ideals of adults in much the same way we were (are?) addicted to the values and ideals of western civilization before us. That means we use adult values and experiences as the standard by which we compare all others. When other values are different we see them as inferior.

This sentiment is best summed up by Albert Einstein:
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Our problem is that we force young people into environments that strip them of their ability to make decisions, experience consequences, have leadership, be responsible, and then judge them based on adult notions of responsibility and decision making; unsurprisingly they don’t measure up. Then we all think youth are stupid. We even think our younger selves were stupid. Young people, and our younger selves, certainly do and did stupid things. Without question. But every single person today who looks at a teenager and shakes their head at how stupid they are, or looks back on their own younger self and chuckles at how stupid they were, are doing pretty damn ridiculously stupid things today. Yet we seem to be addicted to the stupid things that adults do, and don’t mind it so much.

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