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Is Ageism Against Youth Rational?
Can we justify age discrimination against the young in a tolerant world?
Is it rational to discriminate against youth as a group, given the liberal, individualistic values of the present society? The common answer is yes, because Science says that young people are immature. This implies, then, that if it is rational to discriminate against young people, the same science must say that other groups which are protected from discrimination by the State are at least somewhat more mature than young people. On the other hand, if it is irrational to discriminate against young people, that science will show that young people are at least as mature as some older group which is granted full rights.
Consider a study done in 2005 by Margo Gardner and Laurence Steinberg called “Peer Influence on Risk Taking, Risk Preference, and Risky Decision Making in Adolescence and Adulthood: An Experimental Study.” The abstract says:
In this study, 306 individuals in 3 age groups—adolescents (13–16), youths (18 –22), and adults (24 and older)— completed 2 questionnaire measures assessing risk preference and risky decision making, and 1 behavioral task measuring risk taking. Participants in each age group were randomly assigned to complete the measures either alone or with 2 same-aged peers. Analyses indicated that (a) risk taking and risky decision making decreased with age; (b) participants took more risks, focused more on the benefits than the costs of risky behavior, and made riskier decisions when in peer groups than alone; and (c) peer effects on risk taking and risky decision making were stronger among adolescents and youths than adults. These findings support the idea that adolescents are more inclined toward risky behavior and risky decision making than are adults and that peer influence plays an important role in explaining risky behavior during adolescence.
This study is often used to justify driving laws which discriminate based on age, specifically laws regarding “probationary drivers licenses,” which have special restrictions such as no driving at night, or no driving with youth in the vehicle and no older individual. Such licenses only apply to youth, generally under the age of 18 or 21, and are not based on experience. This is, of course, rational, if young people make immature driving decisions independent of driving experience, due to innate differences in brain function.
Gardner & Steinberg’s study specifically relates to laws that ban youth from driving with other youth in the car. Such laws don’t apply to all newly licensed drivers, just ones under 18 or 21, depending on the state. It appears that their abstract justifies these laws, where it says “peer effects on risk taking and risky decision making were stronger among adolescents and youths than adults.” Indeed, the study is widely cited in support of such measures, and it’s easy to agree with the axiom that if group X is found to be more susceptible to peer effects on risk taking and risky decision making while driving, there should be laws that specifically target group X as to prohibit them from driving with peers.
It is with that axiom that people cite Gardner & Steinberg in support of laws that prohibit drivers, based on age and not experience, from enjoying the same privileges that other drivers enjoy. It is with that axiom that Steinberg himself says the following:
Armed with this knowledge, parents and communities can monitor and supervise their teens accordingly, especially when they are with their friends, said Steinberg.
He suggests that raising the minimum purchase age of cigarettes, more vigilantly enforcing the sale of alcohol to minors, expanding adolescents’ access to mental health and contraceptive services, and raising the driving age would be more effective in limiting adolescent smoking, substance abuse, pregnancy and automobile fatalities than attempts at making adolescents “wiser” through education programs.
This all seems rational, based on that easily accepted axiom. If group X is known to be more susceptible to peer pressure when with friends, and indeed, if group X has a higher crime rate than the general population, then communities should probably monitor and supervise them more, right? Perhaps, as a concrete example, communities could monitor and supervise group X more by having the police keep a closer eye on them. This is not okay when said group is equal, e.g. “racial profiling”, but when said group has a higher crime rate and more susceptibility to peer pressure, you want to keep an eye on stuff like gang formation and group X rowdiness. So, based on the study, “age profiling” seems rational, and is more or less argued for by Steinberg.
Steinberg also seems to agree that it makes sense to restrict driving privileges to group X, or even to take driving away totally, based on our axiom.
Now let’s look at the data from his study.
Okay, so the 13-16 year olds were way more effected by peer pressured that the 18-22 year olds, and the 24+ year olds were even less effected. Peer pressure susceptibility appears to decline monotonically as the “brain develops at 25” hypothesis would predict, and it looks like it’s reasonable, based on our axiom, to draw a line at some age and discriminate against the group below that age for the greater good of the community.
… There’s another figure. There’s another figure that the abstract didn’t mention. And it’s a doozy. Here it is:
Okay, well, in the interests of rationality we have to apply our axiom to this and see what laws we get out of it. First, though, let’s make note of some statistics.
Among the white participants, there are not statistically significant differences between youth scores (mean 19 years), alone or with a group, and adolescent scores (mean 14 years). This means that we can’t draw a line for whites below 22. Furthermore, among white 24+ year olds, the presence of peers actually led to increased risk taking to a similar degree as in the younger groups. This means that we should consider preventing white 24+ year olds from driving with peers, depending on our risk-toleration cut off. If they are to be allowed to drive with peers, then white 13-16 year olds must be allowed to drive alone, since their solo scores were less risky than 24+ year old peer scores. Only in the non-white participants is the pattern of increased group pressure at younger ages present. This might indicate that susceptibility to peer pressure is affected by social or environmental factors that might differ between races or age groups. But, based on our axiom, we don’t care about that. Steinberg et al. certainly don’t seem to care, so they should hardly be expected to be lenient on the race differences they themselves measured.
Also to note is s the fact that effect sizes between the racial groups are larger than those between white age groups. For instance, d = .29 between white 14 year olds and white 24+ year olds, while d = .69 between non-white 14 year olds and white14 year olds. d = .23 between non-white and white youth, while d = .18 between white youth and white 24+ year olds. White 14 year olds took less risks than non-white 19 year olds. Where are the brain scientists arguing to raise the driving age for non-white people? They think our axiom is rational, right?
Regardless, let’s talk policy based on our axiom and this study. Let’s see what various risk cut-offs get us. Say, a priori, we want white 24+ year olds to have full driving rights. This means we set the risk cut off at -0.80. The driving age becomes 13 for whites and 18 for nonwhites, and no one is allowed to drive with peers until 24. Let’s say we want a conservative risk cut off, at, say, the performance of non-white 24+ year olds driving alone. The white driving age becomes 18, since the difference between the white youth solo score not statistically significantly differ from the non-white 24+ year old solo score. Whites are never allowed to drive with peers, but the nonwhite driving age is 24 and they are allowed to drive with peers. A final cutoff more in line with the Overton window: we want most 18 year olds to be able to drive with peers (this is the law in my state). Then, the white driving age is 13, and all whites can drive with peers, while the non-white driving age is also 13, but non-whites are not allowed to drive with peers until 24, due to increased susceptibility to peer pressure relative to young whites.
Strangely, there is a word for these three possible driving regimes, and that word is “racist.” So it seems that, in our liberal, individualistic society, people do not actually regard the axiom that if group X is found to be more susceptible to peer effects on risk taking and risky decision making while driving, there should be laws that specifically target group X as to prohibit them from driving with peers, because it was found by Steinberg that non-whites are more susceptible to peer effects on risk taking and risky decision making while driving, but Steinberg (and certainly not others) has never mentions this in the media; instead he only puts down young people. Even in the abstract of his paper, he did not report the full results, because in a word, people see them as racist.
It follows that Steinberg’s proposal should be seen ageist, given the same standards. Like racist proposals, ageist proposals are irrational, given the current axioms of society. Steinberg would be known as a “bigot” if he seriously proposed the policies I explicated above, and so by the same reasoning he is a bigot for suggesting that we raise the driving age based on his data. Even more so, considering that he did not give us the full story about his data. But that’s beside the point, because the axiom that “if group X is found to be more susceptible to peer effects on risk taking and risky decision making while driving, there should be laws that specifically target group X as to prohibit them from driving with peers” is not accepted by society.
Like discrimination against non-whites is called racist no matter what Steinberg’s data says, discrimination against youths is simply ageist, given society’s axioms, if one thinks about it for a minute or so. People must not see this because they haven’t thought about it for a minute; people are never critical about ageism like they are about racism, sexism, or homophobia. The media doesn’t talk about ageism, and people don’t think about it. What if that changed? Let this be your minute.