Children are not the future

2022 March 15th (25/13)

Children are not the future. The actions of people today produce the future. Children do not have equal power to enact the future, because political, economic, and social power primarily belongs to adults.

A lot of thinking about culture in economically-deprived towns such as Rotherham directs energy towards education of young people. There is definitely valuable advocacy to be done here, as arts and culture have been stripped from the curriculum and somebody has to speak for their value. But the value of arts and culture cannot be entirely carried by a child-focused agenda.

There's a concept in queer theory that I always misuse, called "reproductive futurism". If this was a proper essay I'd go and get a quote from Lee Edelman's No Future and explain the concept well, but this is not a proper essay so instead I'll summarise what I am thinking of when I think of the phrase "reproductive futurism". When I think of "reproductive futurism" I think about the idea that children are the future, the idea that The Child in some way holds the future within itself. I think about the fact that we see children as unfinished people, and therefore as fixer-uppers - we imagine that if we can fix them up them well, we'll create a better society, because better humans will automatically enact a better society. I think about the way stupid pundits sometimes say "I have children" as a preamble before talking about their concerns for the future, as though they could only be invested in our collective fate via a concern for their personal investment in specific individual humans. I think about the fact that these specific individual humans are more important to those people than other species or even other humans. I think about eugenics, racism, etc. in connection with this, but that's all a little heavier than the actual issue that I'm writing about today.

Reproductive futurism is a conceptual shortcut that helps people to manage their cognitive dissonance. People want the future to be better than the present, but they don't want to change too much about how they live today, and they don't want to think too much about how powerless they are in the face of massive systemic issues. So instead, they imagine that investing their energy in the creation of high-quality children will naturally yield results without them having to actually address the causes of the issues that concern them.

Take the example of Rotherham. Currently, it is very difficult to be a person doing creative things in Rotherham. It is difficult to persuade adults to participate in creative things, because they are either working or looking after children. The most obvious exception is when you put on a creative activity for children - then the adults in charge of those children will also encounter whatever arts are being provided. You can even sometimes get schools to bring children to an arts venue for a day, which is obviously something that you can't persuade the employers of adults to do. Since entertaining children is a task that arts practitioners can actually find employment doing, the act of entertaining children takes on monumental importance in the local arts sector. Eventually it swallows almost everything up, until the most significant cultural organising in Rotherham is entirely focused on the education of children.

It is imagined that children with access to creativity will develop valuable skills that can then be applied in the creative sector, which by some definitions is among the largest and fastest-growing areas of the British economy. However, Rotherham has almost no jobs for adult artists, other than those jobs that involve entertaining children. Any young adult who is inspired to make art for adults is forced to leave Rotherham. This means that there is no cultural provision for adults, so adults don't engage in culture, and artists therefore continue to focus on the education of children. With no adults around modelling a career as an artist other than as an arts educator, why would these children feel inspired to go into the creative sector? At best the result is a brain drain, at worst it results in a widespread perception that the arts are, intrinsically, a childish activity.

Since there is no room in adults' lives for education and culture, they never get an update on the cultural education that they received decades ago when they were at school. Then when their children have wildly different ideas about culture and society to their own, they say "oh I'm too old, I don't understand this stuff" and struggle to develop a shared worldview with their own kin. This exacerbates the generational divide. Not only does this lead to ill will between the generations, it also means that whatever future young people do feel inspired to bring forth into the world cannot be realised, because everyone who actually has political, economic, and social power is incapable of understanding their vision.

Most of the people who are 45 today will still have political, economic, and social power 20 years from now, when today's teenagers are my age. It is beyond useless for people in their forties to say "I'm too old to understand this new gender stuff" or "I don't care about climate change, I won't be around to see its effects" or "I can't use these new technologies, they didn't exist when I was a child", while imagining that whatever social changes are required will be enacted by their children. Their children will not have the power to change things, even when they do become adults, because older adults will still be enacting a crappy society.

I'm speculating of course, and I do not know what will happen when today's children become adults. But surely we do not have time to wait around and see what happens - adults need to be engaged and educated now, so that we can work together to actually make the kind of future that we would like today's children to emerge into.