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The 'Crisis' of Adolescence and the Rights of Youth

From the great French and American revolutions of the late 18th century, democracy and civil rights have been expanded both across nation-states and in scope. This has been by no means an easy course, with many and varied attempts of imperial restoration, the rise of republican dictatorships based on the nation-state and dedicated to war, formal exclusions on the basis of sex, sexuality, 'race', ethnicity and class and the subtle and pervasive effects of reducing direct democracy in favour of public relations management and continuing the structural distortions from economic disparities. Proponents of democracy and liberty should however take heart as the early days of the twenty-first century indicate a world that is substantially improved when compared to one hundred years previous.

When one takes a perspective that is committed to expanding freedom and democracy with rational grounding they quickly become familiar with defending considered convictions against deeply ingrained prejudices, religious and pseudo-religious belief, the gross machinations of institutionalized political power and economic vested interests. Yet among all the libertarian and democratic perspectives espoused, none cause as much discomfort - or for that matter indicates the degree of irrationality in allegedly popular opinion - that those relating to adolescents and their rights. This discomfort comes from the contradictory interest in emancipation that simultaneously wants to (i) expand democratic rights to all capable of adult reasoning, (ii) to protect children and those incapable of reasoning like adults. Overcoming this discomfort is only possible by a rational elucidation of the status of youth in the natural, personal and social worlds.

In terms of the objective facts of the natural world, if one asks a zoologist, a botanist, or for that matter, anyone who's owned a kitten the question "When does a child become an adult?", the answer is devastatingly simple: "When the individual is, in principle, capable of breeding". The phrase "in principle" is used to include those who simply have a different sexual orientation that makes heterosexual breeding unlikely and for those rare individuals who due to biological dysfunction are infertile. In terms of human beings there is extensive research on these matters; menarche arises in women around their early teen-aged years with significant variation on the basis of nutritional levels with average male maturity arising soon afterwards. According to the most recent research from the British Medical Journal, the median age of menarche is 13, with insignificant variation according to geography, social class and ethnicity with almost 100 percent reported by the age of 16.

What is not as well known, or even accepted despite the empirical evidence, is these physical changes correlate exactly to mental abilities. The onset of puberty correlates with the beginning of adult reasoning. Over the last century developmental psychologists who approach the issue cross-culturally have investigation this problem from every angle - Jean Piaget in terms of cognitive operations, Lawrence Kohlberg in moral reasoning, George Herbert Mead in role acquisition, even Sigmund Freud in psychosexual development. In Piaget, adult reasoning is determined by the capacity to engage in "formal operations" that is, thinking involving abstractions, in Kohlberg, the adherence to post-conventional morality which endorses democratic procedures in social relations and basic rights for individuals, in Mead performativity as role behaviour, rather than playing or gaming, and finally with Freud, the recognition of the alter and superego. In every instance, the answer is the same: In terms of mental abilities - as in biological fact - adolescents are adults and potentially capable of engaging in adult reasoning.

None of this is to suggest that young adults will always use their mental capabilities to their fullest capacity. Older adults certainly don't as witnessed by the performance of politicians, who are supposedly our community leaders. They, like anyone else are affected by the irrationalities cause by socialization, peer-pressure and relationships. Indeed, when Kohlberg, Langer, Haan and Kuhn studied the development of formal operations in logical and moral judgement in 1977 they found that whilst a small percentage of 13 year olds were capable of formal adult reasoning only 30%-35% of the population ever reached such mental maturity. They rather wryly remark that this is due to "environmental reasons" - that is, that whilst adult physical maturity provides the capacity for adult moral and logical reasoning, socialisation and the education system seems to prevent it.

The fact of the matter is that most adults, whether young, matured or aged, act and reason like children (if late childhood). They are personally egocentric, they refuse to engage in abstract thought and they have the moral principles and ethical behaviour of a lemming. Perhaps it is then hardly surprising to discover that some older adults engage in the height of ignorance, prejudice and even forgetfulness to suggest "teenagers aren't really adults" or "that they need to be protected [read: 'controlled']". What is disheartening for anyone who advocates the rights of youth is the number of times that these statements comes from very people who enjoyed a wild and wonderful teen-aged period and fulfilled "adult concepts" to every degree imaginable. Such behaviour is the highest standard of hypocrisy: "Don't do as I do, do as I say".

One can rightly ask at this point if adolescents are adults then does the English language bother differentiating between them. This is a good point as it elucidates some of the conceptual and political problems through a study of language. The fact of the matter is that both terms are verb forms of the same Latin root "adolescere ". An 'adolescent' is an adult who is "growing up" whereas an adult is adolescent who has "grown up". It is another unfortunate case of the conversion of verbs into nouns, or process into things, an adolescent has already "grown up" (out of childhood), and all adults continue to grow and develop throughout their entire life. As an abstract definition of the relatively rapid physical and mental transformation that usually occurs during the early teenaged years it is adequate. As a basis of social and political rights it is fundamentally flawed. To put simply, child to adult is a precise and real distinction, whereas adolescent to adult is imprecise and abstract.

The contradictions between language and meaning, cognitive ability and use, physical reality and legalistic description, provide the cultural, psychological and political curtailment of legitimate rights for young adults. Within the formal political system we may note that only a tiny handful of nations grant voting rights to people under 18 whereas some twenty countries require individuals to be greater than 18 - the Vatican City restricts voting to (male) cardinals over 80! Mention must also be made of that most basic of interconsensual acts, sexual relations, and the "patchwork quilt" which varies between nation-states and even within nation-states (most notably the United States). The United States also seems particularly infatuated with criminalising same-sex relations between youth and others and maintaining an age of consent law which is high relative to European and international standards.

Add this to the divergence between youth wages and those based on seniority. To be sure, there is some justification for wage increases based on experience, but these must, using the strict criteria of economic rationalism, be equated with improvements to productivity. Where marginal costs to a business are substantially lower that the marginal revenues received from labour someone is being exploited. Guess who? Ask the young worker who has just been sacked the moment that they've worked ninety days in a business or has just turned twenty.

It is notable that the overwhelming majority of primitive societies, existing far closer to nature than we moderns, recognize the importance of the transition from childhood to adulthood through rituals marking the transition. More often than not, the timing of these rituals is not determined by chronological age, but on the maturity of the individual subject. Not all of these rituals are particularly pleasant of course - genital mutilation is not an uncommon brutal and unnecessary introduction to adulthood. But the point here is to recognize the timing and individualization.

The highly complex and technologically advanced modern societies are certainly capable of providing such precise individual evaluation, but this runs contrary to the interests of those who control the economic resources. It is far more "efficient", in their view, that human beings are actually more like robots, and everyone is granted the same rights at the same age, whether they were ready for it two years prior or in two years hence. The "single age of adulthood" system that we use treats young adults as machines are belittles the importance of the most significant biological, mental and social transition point in an individual's life, with the obvious exceptions of birth and death.

It is also in these economic interests and backed by popular prejudice that various legal norms are imposed on young adults. The "niggers" of the contemporary times, they cannot vote or stand for public office, they are refused equal rights of welfare and employment, they are discriminated against in housing, the opinions and feelings are treated with contempt, their access to literature and film is censored, they aren't allowed the same access to alcohol or tobacco, the sexual expression is restricted, and their children are taken away from them. The fact that there is evidence that this legal situation is getting worse, rather than better, stands in stark contrast to the fact that young adults, with the benefit of advances in health and education, are actually more capable that people of a similar age, say one hundred years ago.

One does not need a degree in sociology or social psychology to work out the result of such oppression. It generates resentment and disrespect to civil society among the young adults who have been excluded from it, it generates private and civil disobedience from those who reject the authority and legitimacy of such forces and it requires the social system to expend resources - much better spent elsewhere - on policing those who have done nothing more than assert their individual autonomy and the right of others to participate in relationships as they feel fit. Further, there is the enormous psychological distortion that occurs in adolescence - the so-called crisis period of early adulthood where reasoning and physical abilities do not correlate to social and political rights. The conservative claims of "irresponsible" teenagers become a trivial truism when said people aren't provided the right to engage in responsible behaviour.

At this stage, the details of an actual strategy for advancing youth rights do need to be elaborated. Suffice to say, the key principles come down to recognizing that moral and ethical adult reasoning correlates to physical adult maturity, that this age is not universally chronological, but individually subjective and deserves to be treated as the most important political right that a young person can achieve. As always, the success of such reforms depend on the recognition that the priority of political action is freedom, that mass education is required for reform of existing institutions and if the system does not listen to reason, then civil disobedience is the only available alternative.

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