“I can help you with the brand new technology / You can help me with the age-old philosophy.” –Better People, India Arie
It repeatedly comes to my attention that many adults of our society suffer from an ironic form of cognitive dissonance when it comes to their politics on aiding youth. Many hasten to advocate for the empowerment of urban youth through mentorship and guidance, but many adults do not challenge the language and discourse they use to describe and engage with young people. Uplifting youth necessitates being a youth ally, and it is my stern belief that one cannot begin to aid youth if we do not respect youth. We must continually see youth as profoundly resilient beings that rationally contend with their social circumstances. Accordingly, creating true cross-generational dialogue necessitates an active mutual respect on the part of adults and youth. This means not thinking of youth solely as sponges through which adults can imbue a mythological experiential wisdom, but we must realize the lessons that youth have to teach the world.
My thoughts on this are spurred by a brief ride on a crowded bus on the South Side of Chicago. When a particularly rowdy bunch of youth boarded the bus, scarcely a moment passed before the chorus of adultism erupted into the air. “These kids nowadays ain’t got no sense,” one gentlemen chimed, and just adjacent to him a younger man added, “now I know I’m not too much older, but even when I was young I would’ve gotten beat for all that cussin.” Their comments shot past their upturned noses and melded easily with the looks of disdain that many of the other adults threw at the youth. This discourse is nothing new. These anti-youth sentiments materialize in the discourse around youth fashion trends such as sagging pants. Or let’s not forget the ease with which adults scapegoat and demonize young rappers like Chief Keef, and perhaps other youth “like him.” Many people have an intellectually lazy proclivity to treat youth as initiators and perpetuators of their social problems rather than as victims of a larger oppressive structure that ensnares us all.
I do not mean to exacerbate a tension between adults and youth, but I wish to advocate for a way to bridge the gap between generations. It is my deepest hope that adults would work against the tendency to treat youth as separate beings that somehow dropped off a different planet. Youth are products of history in the present, and our emotional and social propensities are a result of the successes and woes of generations in the past. Perhaps a more interesting mode of inquiry would be for more adults to see youth as reflections of themselves rather than as alien creatures. Adults, though they have much wisdom to impart, should realize that they do not always have the answers to the most pressing issues of our contemporary reality. Additionally, they cannot continue to perpetuate this ahistorical narrative that the “old days” were always better. Adults should honestly be aware that in the past, they themselves were under the same scrutiny from older generations. As youth even they made mistakes, and therefore should understand that what they might deem as the “misdirection” of youth is actually a necessary and real part of what it means to be young. Moreover, adults should look at youth as whole beings, who make decisions for real reasons. Ask us questions, do not judge us, nor launch us into a destructive narrative that most youth do not fall into. If adults continue to act as the bastions of moral authority, then they are sacrificing opportunities for real connections with youth.
But finally, perhaps even in this midst of all this self-reflection and intergenerational dialogue, adults might find that they just cannot wrap their minds around the values and priorities of today’s youth. Well perhaps, this is where adults must swallow their bewilderment and recognize that in much of this disagreement is where the future happens. Youth have always played an important role in agitating social sensibilities for the sake of progress. It was youth who ruffled political feathers by strutting around in their zoot suits, it was youth who helped fight on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, it was youth who turned out in record numbers to help elect the first Black president. From the political stratosphere to technological innovation, youth have achieved insurmountable odds, and have taught the world unequivocally substantive lessons.
Yes, there is much for us to learn, but adults, please understand that we have a lot to teach as well. Let’s start talking to each other, not at one another.