Too Young to Know
Too Old to Understand
Design Intervention, 2017
Stories of adults who complain about misbehaving youth are literally classic. Socrates said 2,500 years ago: ‘The children now have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders’1. Why this contempt for the youth? Is a fourteen year old really less responsible than someone who is 30? 50? or 70? Together with Roman Gornitsky I was invited to do a design intervention at a conference on youth and politics in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Politicians have always used the youth to try to shape the future. Well-known examples are the Nazi Hitlerjugend, the young communists of the USSR Komsomol, and pro-Putin youth movements today like Nashi (2005) and Yunarmia (2015). ‘Fast Forward to Future’ is a conference that was held in St. Petersburg, Russia curated and organized by The Creative Association of Curators TOK in December 2017. The conference concluded the 4th season of TOK's ongoing project 'Critical Mass' which main focus was on the history of youth movements and the political influence on youth in Russia and Northern Europe.
During most of history the youth simply had to work. When laws in the beginning of the 1900s forbade child labour and made education compulsory, the youth finally had some time for themselves. Pedagogists were afraid they would spend their free time dancing, going to the cinema, hanging around on the street, and most importantly, get acquinted with the other sex.2 Youth movements, like the Boyscouts (1910), were an effective way to suppress ‘immoral’ behavior and shape good mannered citizens.
Youth movements in the beginning of the 1900s often sprung from religious or political organisations, like the catholic girls movement in the Netherlands, de Graal (1928), or the young communists in the USSR, Komsomol (1918). Whether liberal, socialist, catholic, or communist, their activities usually consisted of games, singing, camping, parading, and learning about morality and their parent ideologies. After the Second World War youth movements were slowly replaced by subcultures started by the youth themselves.2
The Kids Are Alright
While new subcultures of young people caused uproar in 1960s Europe, organized youth movements in the USSR remained in place well after 1989. Today, youth clubs in Russia are still a popular way to help gifted kids succeed better in society and to help kids escape disadvantaged backgrounds. During a two week stay in St. Petersburg we researched youth movements and youth rights, and visited three of the 26 different youth clubs in Petrogradsky district.
News about militant youth movements like Nashi heavily influence the image of the Russian youth in the rest of the world. Working with Russian curators, and the collaboration with Russian designer Roman Gornitsky, helped me to understand cultural differences about education and youth in Russia.
Lord of the Flies
During our research we realized that restricting the behavior of youth comes from the fear of a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario. In this novel by William Golding from 1954, a group of young boys is stranded on an uninhabited island without adults. Their situation quickly deteriorates into chaos as they try to govern themselves. One of the messages is that the youth are not capable of moral judgement, and will cause violence and mayhem without supervision.
Graphic design has an important role in directing the behavior of youth. Everything from age-coins, cigarette warnings, and labels on videogames, websites, or movies has a graphic system that discriminates between ages. Upon close inspection these age limits are quite arbitrary.
In some parts of Germany the legal drinking age is 14, while in the U.S. it is 21. Film ratings in the U.S. give an ‘R’ rating (accompanying adult for children under 17) to movies with nudity or cursing while some violent movies receive a PG-13 rating (accompanying adult for children under 13). Examples of PG-13 rated movies with plenty of violence are ‘Jaws’ (1975), ’Die Hard’ (1988), and ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008). The romantic comedy ‘G.B.F.’ (2014) was rated R for depicting gay romance, while it contained no nudity and no strong language.3
I Can Fight in a War but I Cannot Vote
The argument most commonly used for the restriction of youth rights is to protect them against things their bodies and brains are not capable of coping with. Whether it is violence, sexuality, alcohol, imprisonment, or legal representation.
Of course society needs to protect young people, but why are age restrictions different per country? After all, body growth is pretty similar everywhere around the world. We started to collect data on age limits per country and the differences were astounding.
In many countries the legal age to be married with parental consent is 16, but being able to watch nudity or sexual content on TV is restricted at 18 or even 21. In Saudi Arabia and some states in the U.S. there is no minimum age limit for marriage and child marriages are perfectly legal. In the U.K. you can join the military at 16, but not vote until you are 18. In the U.S. you can fight in a war at 18, but you cannot drink alcohol until you are 21. In the Netherlands you can be elected to the highest office at 18, while in Russia you have to be at least 35, and in China 45 years old. In India, Saudi Arabia and some states in the U.S. you will be trialled as an adult as young as age 7.4 Some of these age limits have little to do with physical growth of children and even violate the convention on the rights of the child (United Nations, 1990).5
The conference ‘Fast Forward to the Future’ discussed youth movements and alternative ways for emancipatory youth programmes. First we made an A6 booklet for each visitor which could be used to take notes during the conference. Each page represented one year between 6-35 and listed the rights attained on that age in different countries. The green cover was a reference to a popular Russian notebook (Тетрадь) used by school children.
The second part consisted of a short performance, where we printed age stickers and invited visitors to place stickers on wall infographics that were about youth rights and responsibilities. By inviting everyone to share their ideas on youth rights, we wanted to imagine a different approach to age restrictions. Red round stickers were for ages under 18, and the blue stickers for ages over 18.
Our design intervention was a reminder that as adults, we pose many legal restrictions on youth which perhaps should be revisited before we further intervene in the lives of young people. We argue that young people under 18 should be able to have a say in the policies that restrict their rights, especially since older people tend to be more conservative. We believe different ways of organizing youth rights in collaboration with young people themselves can be imagined.
More photos of the conference on the event Facebook page.
1. William L. Patty and Louise S. Johnson, Personality and Adjustment, p. 277, 1953.
2. Nelleke Bakker, Jan Noordman, Marjoke Rietveld-van Wingerden, Vijf eeuwen opvoeden in Nederland: idee en praktijk, 1500-2000, Koninklijke van Gorcum B.V., 2010.
3. Chris Klimek, ‘The ongoing failure of the PG-13 rating’, The Dissolve.com, 2014.
4. Youth Policy Labs
5. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
Concept and design by Roman Gornitsky and Ruben Pater, December 2017.
Panama typeface by Roman Gornitsky, Temporary State.
Mimeograph printing in St.Petersburg, Russia.
Made for TOK Creative Association of Curators, St.Petersburg, Anna Bitkina and Maria Veits.