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American Youth in the 21st Century: Pathologized, Criminalized and Disposable

Young people today face imprisonment, the prescription of psychotropic drugs, psychiatric confinement, and zero tolerance policies that model schools after prisons.

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Clearly, there is more at stake under the current regime of neoliberal politics than an attack on children largely characterized by “negative labels and characterizations of youth [that] are falsely totalizing” and punitive laws and public policies. Youth have also become collateral damage for conservatives and neoliberal advocates who want to dismantle the social state and in doing so justify themselves by pointing to an alleged rise of a generation of disorderly and dangerous youth dependent upon government entitlements. Within this discourse, government support for young people is both undermined and inappropriately blamed for creating a generation of kids labeled as psychologically damaged, narcissistic, violent, and out of control. Scapegoating youth as both a generation of suspects and a threat to the social order allows conservatives and neoliberals to further privatize those public spheres that youth need, such as education and health care, while developing policies that move away from social investment to matters of punishment and containment. In this instance, the punishing state combines with the logic of the market to produce priorities and policies that disinvest in the future of children and assert a ruthlessness that largely treats them as reified commodities or disposable populations. Both childhood and the state are now being reimagined in ways that reveal the priorities of a society that has fully embraced the reckless abandon of casino capitalism, where the only rules that matter are made to order by powerful corporations and rich investors. How else to interpret neoliberal-inspired government programs that in the midst of deepening inequality, rising levels of poverty, catastrophic increases in failed mortgages, and growing unemployment invest more in prisons than in public and higher education?  

It is more necessary than ever to register youth as a theoretical, moral, and political center of concern, even as it is increasingly evident that youth are one of our lowest national priorities. It is crucial to connect the current crisis in democracy to the war against young people. Doing so will remind adults of their ethical and political responsibility to invest in youth as a symbol for not only securing a democratic future but also keeping alive those elements of civic imagination, culture, and education that subordinate economic principles to democratic values. The category of youth may be one of the most important referents for beginning a critical examination about the pernicious consequences of a society driven by market values, one that not only abstracts young people from the future but shapes the present in a theater of war in which youth become the most innocent victims. Youth provide a powerful touchstone for a critical discussion about the long-term consequences of neoliberal policies, which undermine any viable notion of justice, equality, and freedom, while also gesturing toward those conditions that make a democratic future possible. Many young people are part of social movements that not only address these crucial issues but also provide a politics, modes of resistance, and connective relations that adults should take seriously as part of their own civic and political formation at the beginning of the new millennium.

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. His most recent books include "The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex" (2007) and "Against the Terror of Neoliberalism" (2008).

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