Monday, September 20, 2010

The Three Abandonments of Youth

In Present World, two vital and interdependent age groups –youth and the aged- are socially marginalized from one another through a cultural and even physical isolation at the two extremes of the adult lifespan. Instead of elders who, through relationships and mentoring, guide youth across the threshold to adulthood, we witness an abandonment of youth, dismissed en masse as hormone-crazed narcissists, delivered to impersonal and developmentally inappropriate middle schools, stowed away for years in a culturally-created cargo bay of ‘adolescence’ while society anxiously awaits their eventual emergence hopefully intact, all this, coupled as it were, with the consistent neglect of those members of society best equipped to guide and mentor youth, those grey-haired retirees viewed as no longer capable of ‘meaningful’ work, long-lived elders with stories and lessons untold, shelved without obvious use or purpose, dumped in prison-like retirements homes, or sitting by the dusty window as they await some dignified death.

In addition to the isolation produced by our school structures, young people today experience another set of obstacles to establishing authentic connections with adults in Present World. While the agricultural revolution ended our nomadic lifestyle, and with it the ritualized support structures for youth inherent in tribal initiation rites, young people in agricultural times continued to receive mentoring through trades apprenticeships. In fact, early adolescents remained very closely tied to adults and mentors until the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s produced massive cities where urban living and alienating factory jobs replaced extended-family farm life and mentor-based, small-town craft apprenticeships. In these new urban cities, an adolescent culture was born distinct from adult culture. Divergent generations emerged as separate and isolated horizontal social layers, and youth fought the increasingly alienating façade of ‘progress’ –a cultural frame in which they felt consistently abandoned- through ever more distinct and dangerous rituals of self-initiation. Together with the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution represented a kind of ‘second’ abandoning of youth.

Today in Present World, we are in the midst of what may constitute a third revolution, and a third abandoning of youth. Certain features of the Digital Revolution (aka The Information Age) have further alienated many adults from contemporary youth. As young people have adopted new technological language and new sets of digital skills, they have become the ‘digital natives’ in an adult world of digital ‘immigrants.’ Some of these adults are actually functionally illiterate when it comes to digital technology, and only a small fraction of parents and grandparents manage to approximate the levels of digital literacy of their children. As young people immerse themselves further into the growing digital world, especially into the new social networking media that has appeared in the 21st Century (constituting what is commonly called Web 2.0), the adult world has become further isolated from the world of young people. For much of the 20th Century, adults were openly critical of the clothing and musical tastes of younger generations. In much the same way, many adults in Present World are quick to dismiss the new social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) and are staunchly unwilling to become students of these trends, applications, and social phenomena. There is a collective disdain among certain segments of the digital ‘immigrant’ adult population, expressed in books such as The Digital Amateur, where best-selling author Andrew Keen accuses Web 2.0 of promoting, “digital narcissism, this embrace of the self.” Yet unlike the traditional outward symbols of generational differences –be they clothes, pop music, or street lingo- the hardware, software and the cultural changes brought about by the Digital Revolution are not passing trends. They are here to stay, integral features of a still-blossoming Information Age. When adults shun technology out of dismissal, fear, or misunderstanding, while at the same time criticizing technology trends or youth involvement in technology, this only creates further alienation between adults and young people.

Another potentially divisive element within the Digital Revolution worthy of note is the fragmenting of youth into sub-cultures. As access to choice within popular culture has expanded exponentially, with unlimited online music genres and artist, thousands of radio stations and cable television channels, and niche-based online social communities, young people no longer need to share pop cultural preferences with same-age classmates or neighbors. A dozen teenagers plugged into iPods on the school bus might be listening to playlists that have nearly no overlap in content. They may be members of niche-based online communities that have nothing in common with one another. Thanks to the unlimited choice provided by the internet, ‘culture’ for youth is no longer determined entirely by geography. As a result of this heterogeneity of tastes and preferences among youth, many adults cannot even assemble a clear picture of youth culture in order to engage it in a meaningful way.

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