The World Economic Forum at Davos showcased wider problems with the coverage of young climate activists. Journalists and politicians alike continued to refer to several activists as the Gretas of their country, overlooking their individual stories, activism and, at times, ethnicity. Trump’s speech stood opposed to Thunberg’s message and contained thinly veiled insults as well as climate science denial. The president described “alarmists” making “predictions of the apocalypse” as “the heirs to yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers.” Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin derisively asked of Thunberg: “Is she the chief economist? After she goes and studies economics in college, she can go back and explain that to us.” Rather than engage on the merits of Thunberg’s message, Trump administration officials showed a preference to shut down debate based on the age of the messengers.
This reaction by adults to politically active youths will seem familiar to many. The young activists of the Never Again movement and the March for Our Lives protest were subject to similar responses and online hate. Former senator Rick Santorum told those teenagers to take CPR classes instead of marching in Washington to demand action on school shootings. To some of the American political class, young people belong in classrooms, not in politics.
The history of this dynamic between old and young has a longer history, rooted in the Progressive era. Progressive reforms, designed to protect vulnerable children, have produced distinct adult-only spheres restricting how children can advocate for their causes. When Trump, Mnuchin and others cast Thunberg as a misbehaving child, they are asserting adult authority, to be wielded only by politicians. But by breaking down the political construction of “youth,” young people may be able to access these spaces and speak with a different form of authority.
During the Progressive era, reformers worked to protect children from perceived dangers. In 1870, the census collected data on child labor, as reform-minded adults questioned whether young people belonged in dangerous industrial workplaces. In 1899, the nation’s first juvenile court opened in Chicago, as reformers argued that a different legal framework was needed to effectively deal with young people in the criminal justice system. Over a decade later, the federal Children’s Bureau was created to oversee child welfare. Florence Kelly’s 1905 book, “Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation,” summed up the mood of the child-savers, declaring “every child has the right to a childhood.”
Efforts continued over the next few decades, culminating in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibited the employment of children younger than 16, with exceptions for some industries. More dangerous industries were no longer a place for children. Neither was the American street at night after the end of Prohibition. Juvenile curfews were introduced in many towns and cities to protect young people from the “vices” of adult society.
Most of these reforms resulted from the work of adults mobilizing on behalf of children, who were generally not seen or heard in these debates. These reforms helped create separate spheres for young people and adults, with the aim of protecting children. But these separate spheres also meant that young people were rarely listened to and had to find innovative ways to be heard.
An early exception of a reform movement led by young people was the Toledo Newsboys Association, formed in 1892. Local businessman John Gunckel helped to set up the self-ruling group, which defined as its missions advocating for better working conditions and self-improvement through cultural enrichment. Reasonable success followed, inspiring a national newsboys association and a “Newsies” band, which was invited to perform at President Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration. The association’s success can be attributed to being narrow in focus, not calling for serious upheaval and managing to position the group and its efforts as mutually beneficial to children and adults alike. Residents noted their improved behavior on the streets following the introduction of Sunday leisure activities for members, as well as the establishment of effective representation for dealing with their bosses.
Other children remained unheard in mainstream politics, and some turned to the political fringes to make sure their voices were heard. The Young Pioneers of America, a self-governing communist-linked group for 7- to 17-year-olds proved successful in Northern cities, with poor and minority youths attracted by leisure opportunities such as summer camps and the fact that the group was integrated.
A member of that group, Brooklyn schoolboy Harry Eisman, gained notoriety as a young activist in the early 1930s. First arrested at age 14 for obstructing Boy Scouts attempting to board a ferry, he was supposed to avoid engaging in political activity. When he attended an unemployment demonstration at Union Square in 1931, seemingly in breach of those terms, he received a six-year sentence for violating his parole. The state was cracking down both on communist organizing and youth participation in political events. The American Civil Liberties Union took up Eisman’s case, labeling him “America’s youngest political prisoner.” He embraced the subsequent publicity to advance his political profile. After being elected honorary president of a Moscow youth congress, Lenin’s widow, education minister Nadezhda Krupskaya, took up his case. After her intervention, Eisman was released early, on the condition he stay in the Soviet Union.
Viola Ilma founded the American Youth Congress (AYC) in 1935 to give young people a voice in the political discussions surrounding the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the impending global war. The AYC published a declaration of the rights of young Americans, criticizing “reactionary legislation” and the economic exploitation of young workers. Eleanor Roosevelt, among other prominent figures, engaged with the group, and by 1939 it had a membership of almost 5 million.
The downfall of the AYC would be as swift as its rise thanks to its antiwar messages, which attracted sustained criticism. The group argued that war should be avoided, as it would lead to millions of young deaths. Endorsement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a nonaggression treaty between the Soviets and the Germans, and support of Oxford students’ pledge to refuse to fight proved controversial. Likewise, opposition to draft policy, which saw people as young as 18 drafted even though American adulthood was legally defined as 21, irritated politicians. Congressmen Hamilton Fish III and Robert Dies criticized the group as being “un-American” and its views as being “too juvenile to consider.” A committee chaired by Dies uncovered links between some AYC members and communist organizations, which essentially ended its mainstream influence. Although the ability to attract attention from people in power signaled the potency of young people organizing and sharing a voice in politics, the group’s demise continued the pattern of silencing young voices.
Adults who dismiss young activists today are perpetuating the view that young people have no business engaging in politics. The reforms that protected children from the most dangerous abuses of the Industrial Age also relegated them to a separate sphere that limited their voices and ensured that politics would remain an adults-only space.
Young people have never stopped trying to project their voices and change the world. UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 declared: “Every child has the right to be listened to and to have their opinions taken seriously when decisions are being made about their lives.” Adult-only spaces may be necessary for the protection of children, but there needs to be a way for their opinions to be taken seriously in politics as well as at home. The future is theirs, and they are demanding action on climate change and gun violence, among many important issues. It’s past time we listened.