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The Indignities of Being Young

Written by Alex Koroknay-Palicz Jan 18, 2006

Ageism manifests itself in so many ways. Typically at NYRA we chose to focus on the big issues that are enshrined in law and stand as barriers to equal status and civic involvement for youth like the voting age or the drinking age. However it is often the day-to-day elements of our age apartheid system that are the most insulting.

Its the little indignities that build and accumulate to form the frustration young people feel. Like blacks in Montgomery, Alabama being made to sit in the back of the bus was just a small matter. It really didn’t have any wide reaching consequences for blacks like the denial of their voting rights did. However it was a daily reminder that whites were deemed better, superior, more deserving of some honor or privilege. Facing such a social system strips away one’s dignity. It is in this multitude of small ways that youth have their pride and dignity striped away from them by ageism.

This story from the NYRA Forums is one more example of this:

Earlier this morning, I was lap swimming at the YMCA, and this lifeguard came up to me and said:
LIFEGUARD: You’re going to have to stay in the shallow end.
ME: Why? (right eyebrow up)
LIFEGUARD: Because a lady wants to swim in this lane. We can’t allow children to lap swim if the pool is full.
ME: This is a problem.
LIFEGUARD: Well then you’re going to have to get out.

He wasn’t causing a disturbance. He wasn’t screwing around. He was doing laps. Exact same thing the adult wanted to do. Yet because he was young he had to get out to allow the adult to swim instead.

The adult is deemed superior in this society and is given special privileges. Just like whites were before the Civil Rights movement. Blacks had to give up their seats to whites, youth have to give up their pool lanes to adults.

This teen wasn’t just asked to give up the lap he was swimming in, he was asked to give up his dignity. Asked to give up his self-respect and his very humanity. When you have to submit yourself to such a system you lose a bit of yourself. Afflicted with a million pinpricks of ageism, the self-worth and idealism of youth dies a slow death. They grow cynical and weary. And after many years of submitting to an unjust authority, ultimately their young self dies and becomes… an adult. I can think of no worse injustice.

Age apartheid isn’t a system that protects youth, it is a system that protects adults. It enshrines and protects adult privilege, which is its intent and purpose. Indeed it creates adults, the worst kind of them. Bitter, cynical, tired, and selfish. Adults who instead of turning on the corrupt system that broke them down years ago, embrace that system and use it for their own benefit. Adults who think they can make themselves feel better by stripping the dignity away from others. But kicking kids out of the pool isn’t going to bring your youth back; it is just going to destroy someone else’s.

Some have accused the youth rights movement of trying to destroy childhood, and making all kids into adults. Indeed it is quite the opposite. Our current age apartheid system is destroying childhood and kills our youth into a bitter adulthood. We don’t wish to destroy childhood, we wish to destroy adulthood, and in so doing save both youth and adults.

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