Young People, Society, and Change

by Josh Franklin

How do young people, especially adolescents, become identified as political subjects? How do their desires become legible, individually and collectively? This is a question that loomed for me when I recently attended a panel presented by teens who created the MoCAT – the Museum of Contemporary American Teenagers. Teenagers from a Maryland high school created this pop-up museum inside a building that had formerly housed a restaurant. The students spoke about the works that they had created, exploring love, gender and sexuality, suicide, technology, body image, and art (among others). A teacher moderated the panel, making repeated references to the value of adults getting out of the way and allowing young people to create, to speak, and to advocate. I think it is worth thinking about the meaning and significance of this invitation for teens to take the stage.

I see this in my own work with transgender and gender-nonconforming youth. Clinicians who work with trans and non-binary young people speak about following the child’s lead by understanding how they are expressing their gender identity. Parents often express to me that they had no understanding of gender beyond the binary until they learned about it from their child. Beyond these specialized, professional, and normative registers, young people are actively seeking to change the terms of gender in individual ways as well as in collaboration with others.

In a way, this seems like a reversal of the expected course of events, where parents are expected to “transmit” basic, unwritten social norms to the next generation. What parents are called upon to recognize is not only the gender identity of their child, but a substantially new set of terms for understanding what kind of experience gender is. It represents, in some sense, a transformation of social reality.

Yet young people speak out in ways that transform adult culture within a context that invites them to do so. Clinicians do this in explicit and technical ways. Yet this is only a small part of the broader investment in youth with which society hopes to transcend its entanglement past cycles of violence or failure. As one physician wrote in the wake of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting, “We often rely on the righteous indignation of youth to move forward as a society. We always have. Young people possess the inherent capacity to see what is wrong and to call for change.”

The teenage panelists from MoCAT, for their part, spoke about the opportunity to express, “the teen voice.” They suggested that this spontaneous and collaborative work resonated not only with the young people who valued it as an opportunity to express themselves honestly, but also with adults, serving as a reminder of what their own teenage years were like. Indeed, the teens who spoke had attended carefully to the shared experience of being a teenager across generations. Some had interviewed parents and grandparents about their recollections of their own youth – they had become students of adolescence itself, adroitly positioning their work within a framework that makes the teen voice legible precisely by marking an intergenerational divide. So, this suggests that the process by which young people change society is a dynamic and complex one. It also raises the question, why, if teens are expected to transgress, does the collective action of young people come as such a surprise?

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