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How Segregating Kids By Age Led To Youth Culture And Fueled Family Disintegration


“Youth culture” is a benign phrase for the post-World War II phenomenon of age segregation. In truth it is a radioactive element in our society, one conveniently co-opted by the wealthy and powerful to ensure a more manageable, less rooted populace.

The post-war era witnessed the culmination of efforts to standardize mass compulsive state education, a movement initiated in eighteenth-century Prussia. Propaganda not only insisted professionals would do a better job of educating, but also proclaimed a moral duty to hand children over for “socialization.” The American faith in the new bureaucratic class, which they saw as having rescued them from the Great Depression and Hitler, was so strong that they succumbed without protest.

One-room schoolhouses where older children cared for the smaller were a thing of the past. Instead, children of vastly different abilities were shuttled into factory-sized buildings and sorted by one category alone: age. They were isolated from extended families and from the aged who were increasingly sentenced to nursing homes and elderly communities. Classroom sizes steadily ballooned, assuring children received even less of the adult attention they need and crave.

Although the effects of stratification harmed learning ability, no one questioned this brave new system. Lacking guidance, herded like cattle, and treated as indistinguishable units, children craved ways to distinguish themselves from one another. Thus the catastrophe of youth culture came upon the world, facilitated by the explosion of cheap goods in the post-war boom.

Cut Off From Adult Influence

Age may recognize wisdom and the value of the unprofitable. The youth, though, were cut off and left to their undeveloped resources to craft identities, and were thus unguarded and ripe for advertisers. A unique identity required novelty, fashion, and stimulation, a recipe for endless demand which capitalism absorbed with glee. Trend followed trend, making the conspicuous consumption of the 1920s appear quaint and restrained. Thus youth culture and capitalism made a toxic marriage, one the youth often claimed to disdain as they aged, though they remained addicted to endless novelty.

Beauty, goodness, truth, slowness, wisdom: these are not profitable commodities one can update by the season; neither are dictionaries. This was how a culture shaped by peer pressure, impulse, and the frenzy of constantly stimulated emotion decided “love is love.”

Any responsible caregiver worth her salt knows “love is love” is tautological nonsense. “Love is love” translates as “don’t judge.” But to love a child means endlessly guiding, shaping, disciplining, and explaining, all of which requires judgment, discernment, and picking some things over others. To constantly indulge a child is not to love a child; it is to love one’s temporary comfort over the child’s long-term needs.

But the role of parents was valued less and less in the post-war economy, and capitalists and feminists pressured women to discard what remained of the home economy in favor of fuller participation in the marketplace. The home was no longer a place where things were made or children could be educated by unlicensed amateurs. Because no man is an island, the families willing to sacrifice extra income to have a parent at home were also isolated. The rest were punished by the subsequent rising cost of living so staying home was rendered economically impossible

Thus millions of children and teenagers received their catechesis from television, magazines, peers, and institutional workers who, good as they may be, have neither the time nor means to develop the deep relationships a child requires. Generations of youth were deprived of the chance to learn responsibility by caring for younger children, while their elders were pushed out or pressured to conform to the spirit of the age.

Turning Love Into a Weapon for Manipulation

Unfamiliar with responsibility or respect, the young returned from their daily holding pen with pent-up anger and indulged emotions. They came to hold their parents hostage with that timeless piece of emotional blackmail so often used by youth and now the motto of an entire society: “If you love me you’ll do what I want.”

The proclamation “love is love” avoids clear delineations but nonetheless makes a broad proclamation. To read beneath the vapid surface is to discover an ill-formed definition, a demand to do the exact opposite of love. The speaker has neatly co-opted the ability to determine what love is by reducing love to one’s emotions. This shuns the hard work of making distinctions, drawing connections, or understanding responsibilities. The individual demands attention and validation. Anything else is hate. Anything else stands against the dictatorship of identity, an identity crafted by peers, strangers, and the indulgence of desire.

This is the rotten fruit of a demographic where bullying runs rampant: we all become emotional bullies. Social media has revealed this toxic core of youth-peer culture, acting as an acid to dissolve illusions. Middle school suicide rates are horrifying, teen suicide rates are rising, and those who should be personally invested in the child are too busy, burdened, or isolated themselves.

Abandoned to appetites and instincts, youth are certain they have nothing to learn from their parents. They’ve been failed by them. Love becomes a power play: “Do what I want or face my wrath.” It is the perennial cry children testing boundaries, hoping deep down someone will come forward with love and gentle firmness to make sense of the universe, to assure them they have not been abandoned to their impulses. Children throw themselves against the prison of their desires; it is the caregiver’s role to free them for better things.

We cannot undo the abuses of capitalism or the sexual revolution without facing how much of the chaos stems from the decision to isolate children by age, to be cared for by strangers. This development has shown a profound disrespect to caregivers, the elderly, parents, and children. We know infants require loving touch to thrive; so, too, do children require the constant presence of loved ones invested in their well-being, loved ones who know the child’s history and are thus able to help them define themselves in opposition to a society which profits when the child is ruled by appetites.

We cannot guide a child or refine a definition if we do not show up. If we do not, pop culture, cool kids, bullies, advertisements, professional strangers, porn on the screen: they’ll gladly define it for us. Those who have the means or time must do what they can to build a culture that does not pressure parents emotionally or economically to outsource childrearing. If our education has been so fantastic, surely we should have the creative energy to envision healthy alternatives that do full justice to the child’s needs.