Is Youth Wasted on the Young?

One of my Metroland Newspapers columns from March 31, 2016

KSD_6393_CSm “I think morals are getting much worse….There were no such girls in my time as there are now. When I was four or five and twenty my mother would have knocked me down if I had spoken improperly to her.”  (Attributed to 60-year-old Charlotte Kirkman)

It’s difficult to listen to conversations in the local pub or coffee shop without hearing someone dissing young people, with the griper giving a nod to days gone by as better times.

As for the above quote, it was uttered in 1843, which leads me to believe that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

You can go back to a much earlier time to Greek education between 300 and 600 BCE, and find this paraphrase from the Schools of Hellas.

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Still, our world has survived.

Do some young people cause trouble? Certainly. But so do some less-than-young people.

Over the past five years of writing my other column, Enchanté, I have featured and will continue to feature many young people who are contributing much to the world. They give me hope for the future.

Last weekend, I had an opportunity to work with Move Collective, a dance/movement/youth group that performs in many areas of the City of Kingston. The session featured parkour-themed movement behind the Tett and Bader centres. It was a testament to creativity and positive energy.

Members of Move Collective jumped from ledge to ledge, flew over a metal park bench, and pounced up and off the walls of the Tett Centre.

The session even provided some entertainment for Kingston Symphony-goers. During the symphony’s intermission, many attendees drifted outside to watch the action going on at the lakeside behind the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. Some concert goers asked questions. A sophisticated, impeccably dressed elderly gentleman chatted with a teen whose attire was less than impeccable. Both nodded, smiled, and laughed. It was a fascinating mingling of street and symphony culture.

So, are we headed down some highway to hell?


There never was a Golden Age of the past in terms of childhood and youth behavior.

I simply do not see that poor behavior in many young people. Do teens swear more and take drugs? Sure. So do their parents. Children learn what they see.

If we perceive more youth crime, it’s because anything even slightly outside the norm, that might have been considered quirky in the past, is no longer accepted. What would have been settled on the school yard twenty years ago now becomes a cause for major crisis intervention. We’ve pathologized youth.

If there is a problem, it doesn’t lie with young people; it lies with parents and with corporate manipulation of the youth culture. The adult world beckons. It tempts a teenaged (or younger) person to jump into adult activities. Then when they do, we condemn the teen. We glorify the sexualization of children and we commercialize youth culture. Just look to childhood beauty pageants and dance competitions for proof of that.

At the same time that many parents make few life demands on young people, we have also come to see typical youthful behavior as harmful or criminal. The Western world perceives any childhood activity as harmful if it falls outside some rigid norm. Never mind helicopter parents who hover over their children lest they feel any anxiety or pain, our entire culture is hovering over the young.

There is no time or place for a young person to legitimately experiment. No climbing; you might fall and get hurt. No running; you could scrape a knee. Don’t go up that tree, you could break your arm if you slip. Here, let me put a tracking device in your backpack so I can hover over you 24 hours a day.

All this monitoring gives children the message that they will never be capable of handling themselves without some outside authority taking care of everything. It also leads them to grow into adults full of anxiety because they were never allowed to learn the skills to deal with falls, pain, and failure.

According to a British Broadcasting Corporation report, youth crime rates have been falling consistently in the United Kingdom for over a decade, yet the climate of suspicion toward young people has consistently increased. There’s almost a panic that many have about the perceived poor behavior of youth.

There is a similar situation in Ontario, Canada. According the Dr. Scot Wortley of the Centre of Criminology at the University of Toronto, in a report on the roots of youth violence, prepared for the Ontario Government, the fear of crime in Ontario has been increasing, despite a lack of actual increased crime.

The Media focuses on what will draw ratings and website clicks; in other words, anything that will lead to advertising dollars. Individual crime cases draw huge ratings. According to Wortley’s report, focusing on sensational individual cases, creates fear of crime and increases the belief that violent crime is getting worse.

“Media coverage of individual cases still has a powerful impact on public perceptions of crime and violence,” wrote Wortley. “Criminologists, on the other hand, tend to rely on both official and unofficial crime statistics when forming their opinions.”

There is a trend that has not changed over time and it has to do with brain development. Young people have always committed more crimes than older members of the population. We also know that risk-taking is higher among young people. Those brains just haven’t developed enough to keep the owner out of trouble. Violent and criminal behavior decreases drastically in the late twenties. Wortley refers to this as the “age-crime curve.”

Wortley notes that the majority of Ontario residents believe that the violent crime rate is increasing.

“The results presented…suggest that this widespread perception is fundamentally incorrect,” he concluded.

The youth crime rate has steadily been falling, although there was a marked apparent increase in the 1990s. But that increase came after the Safe Schools Act was passed and many school boards adopted a zero tolerance policy.

Again, from Wortley’s report: “Critics have argued that this increase in the province’s official violent crime rate had more to do with the increased use of police in schools than with real changes in youth violence.”

So is there any real cause for concern? There is, but it is related to socioeconomic status, not age.

In his conclusion for A Province at the Crossroads: Statistics on Youth Violence in Ontario, Wortley noted:

“Finally, though overall crime rates have remained stable, severe violence is apparently becoming more and more concentrated among socially disadvantaged minority youth. Most disturbingly, recent data suggest that this general pattern of violence may become more entrenched if current economic trends continue.”

In addition to my photography and writing work, I teach at St. Lawrence College. In photography, video editing, music, and media classes, I witness amazing young people every day doing things that have never been done in the past. I watch our future nurses, police officers, electrical engineers, biotechnicians, and child and youth care workers grabbing the world and taking over from the previous generation. I proudly pass them the torch.

I’m thrilled at the quality of the people who will be running our country in the next generation. Many of them seem much less self-centered than the older generations. They’re thinking globally with a social conscience and acting locally with integrity, intelligence, and perseverance.

From examining current research as well as writings of years gone by, all I can conclude is that each generation thinks there is some kind of crisis in relation to the behavior and actions of its youth.

George Bernard Shaw claimed that youth is wasted on the young. Perhaps it’s not wasted, but it would be nice have a share of that energy once in a while.

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin


About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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