Ageism is the stereotyping and discrimination of individuals or groups based on age. It exists in youth work and negatively impacts the youth we serve and also older youth workers. If our programs are to foster an environment that is respectful to all, we must dismantle ageism.
Recognition of ageism in our youth work is the first step. Last week at the YIP Rally Day, one young man said something that has stayed with me all week. He told his peers that as young people they had to make sure to use their voices that day because “we’re not really full humans yet” in our society.
This young man’s assessment is true. Youth workers may feel that we empower the young people in our programs, but the truth is that youth in the United States have limited rights.
Decisions that matter most to youth are largely made without their consent, much less their input.
Even though we work to improve the lives of young people, it’s important to ask ourselves how adult privilege shows up in our work with youth. We must be aware of policies and practices that maintain ageism in our interactions with youth we serve.
Kel Kray explores ways “adultism” negatively affects youth in the non-profit world. Examples are:
- Including microaggressions in everyday communications such as “You’ll understand when you’re older” or “You’re very mature for your age”. These statements convey to youth that they are less valuable than adults.
- Using victim narratives that cast pity on struggling youth as a way to raise funds for our programs.
- Expecting youth to do organizational labor, such as consulting on a project, for free.
- Creating mandatory attendance rules that penalize youth for balancing commitments similar to those adults have such as work, friends and family, school, and a budget.
Many of our programs are falling short and are perpetuating ageism against youth. We must be willing to dismantle those systems if the young people in our programs are to be truly empowered.
Ageism exists in the youth work field against older adults too.
Time and again we hear from older youth workers that they feel discriminated against by their colleagues. They fight a stereotype that they may not be able to connect with young people based on appearances.
Ageism can cause a great mentor to be left without a match because they don’t look the part. Supervisors may not give an older youth worker a high-needs client because they are looking for someone who
can connect with that young person or they perceive the older adult as not being “up to the challenge”.
According to Generations United, numerous benefits occur when young people and older adults connect. Benefits include:
- Dispelling inaccurate and negative stereotypes by bringing together diverse groups and networks.
- Reducing feelings of alienation among children, youth and older adults by recognizing that each can be contributing members of society.
- Promoting the transmission of cultural traditions and values from older to younger generations
- Helping to build a sense of personal and societal identity as we encourage tolerance.
In order to truly fulfill our missions to improve the lives of young people, we have to make sure that our organizations are inclusive and respectful to all, regardless of age. Because we can directly see the damage ageism causes, as youth workers, we should be leading the charge to dismantle ageism.
Maggie Dudley is the Membership Director for The Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA).