The way we speak about our youth is fundamentally flawed

March 03, 2023 09:15
Photo: Reuters

There are few societies in which I am as conscious of my age, as in Hong Kong. “A twenty-five year old…”, “A youth academic”, “A youth writer”… So on and so forth, you get the gist and I get the drill.

To some extent, such emphasis upon one’s youth and consequent vitality is endearing. After all, presumably to be seen as (and praised for!) a ‘young’un’ is a compliment – not a denigrating remark. Youth is valourised as the source of hope, vivacity, and change. And it is youth leaders that herald changes, as opposed to ossified gentocrats perched atop pedestals built with the blood, sweat, and tears of our forefathers.

Yet I shall take a slightly contrarian position on this. I suggest here that the fixation upon the ‘youth’ of individuals – i.e. their age – is in fact to the detriment of not just the youth, but also society at large. We don’t see prominent academics, researchers, and writers in the West branded as ‘youth academics, researchers, and writers’; instead, they’re recognised as successful professionals in their own right – with perhaps fewer years under their belt, but no less credible and respected in public discourse.

Let us begin with the subjects at hand – the youth. In this part of the world, the bizarre fixation over whether one constitutes a ‘youth’ is paired with a deeply perverse, almost inane stretching of the term to include everyone from 0 through to 50 years old. I mean, social constructivism can only go so far in warranting the assignment of categorical labels in such a facetiously flippant manner, but then what do I know? Undergirding both is in turn the inculcated norm – that the ‘youth’ are ‘inexperienced, cherubic, and fundamentally innocent’. The protector-protected dyad kicks in again, and we are told to accept the patronising, infantalising connotations associated with the youth.

“Wait till you grow older – after all, I’ve had more salt than you’ve had grains of rice.” (Recipe for kidney problems) This oft-trotted-out proposition is underpinned by the assumption that, “The youth know much less than they think they do; than adults do.” When paired with the constant reminder that one is a youth, it is no wonder, then, that a significantly greater number of young adults and teenagers in our community, finds themselves dismissed, neglected, or policed constantly with all sorts of interventionist quips and spins on their abilities. Individuals are – on one hand – celebrated for their purported youthfulness; on the other hand, they are de facto castigated as immature and lacking in knowledge derived through phronesis.

In truth, there is much that the youth do know, and that their elders do not. They are likely to be better versed with contemporary digital and information technologies, the latest developments to popular culture and arts, and the future of humanity qua existential challenges. Yet they are also more likely to possess divergent cultural and normative beliefs that are no more or less justified than their prior generations. Who is to say that the conservative, reactionary dogma dictating homophobia must thereby be credited with greater weight, simply because it is held by older people? Why should we accept policy proposals put forth by individuals with little to no actual skin in the game, where the primary effects of these policies are due only to surface in a few decades’ time?

The youth do know. And the youth can know more. Yet the exclusionary rhetoric employed to maintain an artificial divide, and thus hierarchy of knowledges and knowledgeability (yes, I coined that term there), fundamentally saps away their agency. It renders them frustrated, alienated, and ultimately – in some cases – resentful towards what they perceive to be an ossified structure. Social discontents don’t arise from material or relative deprivation alone – they arise from the collective experiencing of voicelessness in face of intransigence. Youth policies and work hence matter, not just for PR sake or for redistributive purposes, but as a means of bridging the ever-increasing gulfs between the establishment of the present, and the youth of our future.

Perhaps the rejoinder is this: too bad, the youth should just ‘suck it up’. So long as the rest of the society prospers and thrives, what’s wrong with compelling the children of Omelas to acquiesce to a few decades of pedantry and sophistry directed their way? After all, we’ve all been through the same stages, no?

Yet just because it’s always been the case, doesn’t mean it is therefore just. There have been many a time when I find myself correcting folks who dress me down for being “too young”, or accuse me of being “too naïve”. As it turned out, I was right, and they were… imaginatively removed from the point of veracity. I am not staking this claim to demonstrate that youth know it best – I am merely suggesting that at times of great upheaval, where structural reforms and overhaul are needed, we must come to herald and respect the voices of the youth.

One last note on this. Tokenism is a serious issue. Be wary of coopting youth that are pliant and sycophantic for this is the only means for them to climb the ladder. It is easy and tempting to think that so long as there’s a bunch of 20 year-olds floating about, they are thereby representative of all 20 year-olds. That isn’t how representation, diversity, or common political sense works. The establishment must engage with folks who dare to speak out and up for what is right, including those whose viewpoints they may not always find agreeable.

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Assistant Professor, HKU