CYC-Online 92SEPTEMBER 2006
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Why a community needs its adolescents

Michael Baizerman

I chose this topic a year ago and it has been reverberating in my head ever since! From the moment the title popped into my head, I had an intuitive sense of the subject and what I wanted to say. Working out this presentation has been harder because I’ve come to see that the topic is more real and powerful than I thought it would be. I want first to tell about the setting I was at the day I envisioned the topic so that you can sense the power of what we together will explore.

I had spent the previous evening and the whole day on a Native American Indian reservation meeting with tribal leaders, public officials, parents, youth and school staff in a workshop on a youth development approach to the prevention of adolescent pregnancy and other adolescent troublesome behaviors, and as a means of enhancing the place of youth in the tribe and in the community. As usual, almost everyone wanted a “magic pill,” the secret prescription known by others but withheld from them: If only they knew the answer, they would be saved, and so too would be their youth.

The more we talked together about youth development, the clearer became their issues: Few in the tribe spoke their language; there are few jobs in the community; youth are out of adult control; teenagers are oriented more to television and rock music than to local concerns and local teachers, and the like. This is almost the same deeply felt litany one hears around the world. As these issues were raised and commented on, it became increasingly clear to me that the reductionistic solutions typically offered by many were almost bizarre in the setting; they were certainly dishonest, for here was a group at an existential abyss – the moment when their language could disappear, and with it, their individual and collective biographies. Something profound was emergent – the community’s recognition of its most basic fear – its very existence.

As an outsider, I became at that moment a witness to their anguish and terror. And at that moment it was clear to me that this community must see its children and youth as a metaphor for its future and as a major force for tribal revitalization. What seemed called for was community mobilization in the service of survival.

I begin with some of the attributes adults assign to adolescence and to particular adolescents and suggest that these are used often to imply pathology, deviance or morality in keeping with our socio-cultural conception of adolescence as a medical condition. A brief transitional paragraph about the relations between patterns of adolescent and parent development lead to the main section which can be phrased as “what burdens does a community put on its adolescents,” “what burdens do adolescents carry for their community” or “why does a community need its adolescents?”


Let me simply list these. Adolescents are:

These attributes form a partial list of how adults see and understand adolescence and particular adolescents. All of these are present in most youth at some moment. But the list suggests that there is an ideology of adolescence and a rhetoric of adolescence which are typical adult ways of perceiving and thinking about teenagers. The ideology and rhetoric fit well with the increasingly common reductionistic conception of adolescence as a medical condition, i.e., adolescence as pathology requiring trained adult professionals to cure. Adolescence is again a medical metaphor rather than a unique, existential moment. Kids are now patients because adults have lost their tolerance and patience.


Adolescent and youth development is a body of knowledge, values and prescriptions concerning the systematic biological, psychological, cognitive, moral, interpersonal and social changes which occur to individuals in all cultural settings between ages defined, typically, as 12-20 years.

There is a similar body of knowledge concerning adults (and another about families). Most important for us is the relation between adolescent and adult (parental) development. On the level of possibility, adolescents, in general and compared to adults, are walking into a cornucopia of possibility, while adults at mid-age (their 40s) are coming to see the limitations on their wishes – the kids orient to a life and world opening-up, while the adults sense a ceiling to their potential and achievement. Using this perspective there is little wonder that the clash between adolescents and adults can be sharp and loud. What is at issue is the very being and possibilities of each, the very essence of their personhood.

In our society this existential tension may be a source of the great ambivalence between adults and adolescents found in our sociocultural institutions as well as in our families. This is at a different level than the many valid insights from literature, the human sciences and the therapies about this inter-age tension and its sources. It is as if the adult world needs kids for its own uses and thus went about inventing them as a category of life (i.e., time). Development is the biological metaphor which legitimizes this architecture.

The question of “why a community needs its teenagers” can be answered from the perspective of the human sciences and/or from the perspective of a moral philosophy of action. The latter is the approach I will try next.


For aesthetic reasons, ten answers are offered. I am a westerner and apologize now if my ethnocentric perspective is either disrespectful or irrelevant. A community needs its teenagers, adolescents and youth:

1. To be a metaphor of the future.
It will be youth who make and live the future. The future is possibility; as hope, it carries the burdens of dreams such as creating a community of caring.

2. To carry adult immortality.
Adolescents are asked to carry the past into the future and, in so doing, carry specifically their parents and the larger adult society. “The future is theirs,” we say, but we adults also want it to be ours. This is the burden brought by mortality.

3. To demonstrate a way of being proscribed for most adults.
Youth try out possibilities more easily than adults, they are typically more adventuresome. Adults often exploit these youth innovations to their own pecuniary ends, while both decrying the new as immoral and envying those who take it on.

4. To define the community’s moral boundaries.
The moral boundaries of sex, chemical use, play, anger and the like are defined in the innovations of youth. Thus is found the new horrors, the problems, of adolescent life such as teenage prostitution, suicide and pregnancy and parenting which, in their definition as “problems,” define adult tolerance, adult moral behavior and adult helping behavior.

5. To define the relationship between self and society.
In their setting of moral boundaries and living a way of being, adolescents define the many ways in which individuals and groups can live in a pluralistic society. Youth define, through their lives as youth, a philosophy and a political order binding morality and possibility. Thus, youth invigorate and stimulate adult control, and this teaches the community the relationships among the personal and social selves and the larger community.

6. To be the objects of adult concern.
Adolescents are the social category of persons created and now called upon to be the object of adult concern, frequently as the subject of displaced adult anger. In the very acts of testing and creating personal and social innovations, adolescents call forth adult response and through this response, define the moral and actual boundaries between individual and society. If adolescents had not been invented, someone would have to do so!

7. To create community for adults.
In their innovations they call forth response and through this response bring us all together – often in tension, at times in peace and joy. Adolescent organized play, particularly team sports, accomplishes the same: A community is felt among us as we cheer “our team.” (This also gives us the opportunity to revere and envy the young body as a sexual, biological and aesthetic ideal.)

8. To tend the elderly and sell fast food.
Teenagers serve us and through this serve for us in the tasks we won’t or can’t or are frightened to do. In my society, they do economically marginal work at low pay and in relatively tough working conditions. In this they are set to compete with the socially marginal and undesirable. They keep the marginal and undesirable from us, thus sheltering us from the unpleasant and our failures. They keep us from facing the nature of life seen through aging and mortality. Adults are protected from the biographical inevitability of death.

9. To exclude as resources for and participants in societal revitalization.
Adolescents are rarely invited to participate in the decisions about their collective and individual lives, and the revitalization of the community and society. They do these directly through their innovations, but rarely as part of a rational political or other social action. It is as if adults want to pass their handiwork on to youth and let them work on the issues when it is “their turn.” Why do we deny to ourselves the energy, adventurousness, strength, etc., of adolescents? Why do we exclude them?

10. A community needs adolescents because in their exuberance and enthusiasms they tell us that it is worth going on, that life must be lived.
A caring community for young people cannot be made until adults recognize the place of youth “both as an idea and as real people “in their own lives. This simple paper was intended to stimulate such reflection. At best, adults will use these insights from afar to analyze their own, their community and their society’s understanding and action toward youth. Once done, a basis for adult-youth relationships has been set.

This feature: Baizerman, M. (1989). Why a community needs its adolescents. International conference “A caring community for young people.” Hong Kong, 1989.

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