Seen But Not Heard: Age Prejudice and Young People

Age-based prejudice toward young people is so rife and so naturalised that even advocates for young people often have trouble recognising it. Professor Bessant casts a sceptical eye over the stories we tell about ‘youth’, throwing light on where they come from and how they work.

Prejudice is at its most powerful when it becomes so naturalised that it goes unnoticed and indeed is taken for granted. When it becomes internalised, such prejudice can in turn shape the identity and lived experience of those at whom it is directed.

Age is one basis for this kind of prejudice. Many of us fear it or seek to hide it. Have you watched one of those ‘reality’ TV shows designed to scare you into taking up a healthy lifestyle? The ones that feature ordinary people with histories of partying too hard who are offered make-overs by celebrity doctors and lifestyle coaches. These shows use digital technologies like age progression equipment to produce morphed images of their rapidly ageing faces and bodies, or statistics on the party-goer’s health in ten, fifteen, or forty years. Similar techniques have been used by governments in public health awareness campaigns like Britain’s ‘National Care service’ involving a campaign aimed at promoting ‘the secrets of ageing well’. During the initial rollout of the campaign, Britons could access online software that generated sneak peak photos of what you would look like in 10 or 20 years.

What this technology underscores is what we all know — wrinkles, saggy skin, or white hair are negatives, markers of decline that many people will want to disguise or even remove surgically. Conversely, youthful wrinkle-free faces or blooming skin tones are typically read as attractive and desirable. This preoccupation with age and ageing is not just about the culture and psychology of modern life. It is also a major political and policy issue. And it produces an odd, even contradictory effect.

while we value the signs of youth, we also continue to discriminate quite savagely against young people.

Politicians and policymakers in most Western nations are concerned about the demographic revolution now taking place which involves significant increases in the numbers and proportions of elderly people. Among other things, agencies like the United Nations, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union have begun paying closer attention to the health, workforce, tax, and social policy implications of this major demographic shift. National governments also worry about the large and politically influential ‘baby boomers’ as they get older and hit retirement age.

We have seen for example the recent introduction of new laws and institutions to address the needs of ageing baby boomers as they leave the full-time labour market. We’ve also seen anti-ageist legislation designed to abolish compulsory retirement, establish age discrimination commissions and policy incentives to encourage older Australians to ‘stay active’ and in employment.

While these are positive steps taken to abolish age discrimination directed at older people of all walks of life in ways that that make us a fairer, more civil society, we seem simultaneously content to say that it is legitimate to continue to discriminate against young people, particularly those aged 12 to 25. I use the category ‘young people’ as opposed to ‘youth’ which usually defines those 12 to 18. The classification ‘youth’ is currently used by many government agencies (e.g. the Australian Bureau of Statistics). Legally the term ‘child’ refers to persons under 18, although this varies depending on what is being discussed (e.g. the nature of crime, educational status etc). Also, according to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) a child is a person up to the age of 18. Having said that, I note how all these categories (child, youth, young people, adolescence) are socially constructed and quite arbitrary, an observation that deserves critical analysis, but perhaps best left for a separate article.

I use the broader category of young people in this article to signal a recognition of the masculine and essentialist character of the term ‘youth’, and to signal a recognition of the diversity of people aged 12 to 25, not all of whom necessarily share a common identity or experience by virtue of their age. Having said that I also operate on the premise that many young people do share the experience of persistent systemic disadvantage and age based discrimination along with unequal access to valued resources. For example, young people tend to be treated in biased and unfavourable ways which too fit the description of ageism. This can result in many young people confronting basic and persistent political, legal, social and economic inequalities, in finding themselves in asymmetrical power relationships, and in having many rights and access to valued resources denied as a matter of course.

This form of ageism is evident in the way employers legally discriminate against some people by paying them a ‘youth wage’, a practice which relies on exactly the same arguments used historically to deny women equal pay for equal work. It is evident too in youth curfews, the use of Mosquito electronic technology which deploys high frequency sound to keep young people away from particular places (e.g. shops, public transport stations etc). If you are under 18 you cannot vote, drive a car, or have the privacy of your health records protected.

These are the consequences of prejudice. In effect, while we conventionally value the signs of youth like youthful faces and toned bodies, we also continue to discriminate quite savagely against young people. This creates difficulties for young people in accessing full-time employment, in being a student, or simply a young citizen.

For an indicator of both the pervasiveness and strength of the social myopia which prevents us from seeing this kind of age-discrimination I suggest a cursory survey of a key government agency charged with overseeing anti-discrimination, human rights and the protection of privacy legislation – namely the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).

It needs to be said from the outset that agencies like HREOC play a valuable role in making our community more just. Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (where the Age Discrimination Commissioner is housed) does a lot to counter various kinds of discrimination and to promote human rights. If we look at such agencies we see plenty of evidence of action aimed at addressing ageism towards older people. Paradoxically we also see evidence of the collective blind spot or social myopia that continues for the most part to obscure the ageism targeting the young. That this problem is largely missing from the agenda of champions of anti-discrimination like HREOC indicates how naturalised this form of age prejudice is and how far we still have to go in overcoming age discrimination directed at children and young people.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s website promotes a myriad of anti-ageist activities and publications. There are media releases which inform the public about recent ABS research that quantifies the discrimination older Australians experience. Notice is given of age-related inquiries such as the inquiry into the legal barriers faced by ‘mature-age’ workers. There are also links to helpful sites for those interested in age discrimination like the link to their ‘age positive Facebook’ site which I note is exclusively oriented to older people.

Missing is the same kind of attention to the issue of age discrimination directed at children and young people. The Commission’s ‘Age Discrimination’ information brochure for example carries an image on the front cover of a 60+ year old couple smiling and having fun on a bike. There is no equivalent brochure for young people. Indeed the only reference to children and young people I could locate related to the imprisonment by the Australian Government of Indonesian children suspected of being ‘people smugglers’ and the problem of determining their age. I also found one reference to complaints of employment discrimination on the basis of being too young.

Prejudice is one way of rendering our unequal treatment of others normal. If the HREOC, which is the main national champion of human rights, overlooks the prevalence of this form of age discrimination while highlighting ageism in respect to older people, what hope is there for young Australians?

Prejudice plays an important role in what we know about the world. As philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer (1980) and Gerald Holton (1988) have observed, all human knowledge relies on prejudices. Prejudices are beliefs not based on evidence, but without which we could not build what later becomes knowledge. In other words, they are indispensable. However they can also be harmful because they involve claiming to know things not based on credible evidence and that involve making generalisations about groups of people. For example, when we hear claims that women are ‘emotional’ or ‘bad at maths’, this is prejudice. To have ‘a prejudice’ is in effect to claim knowledge or belief protected from any disconfirming evidence.

The problem of trying to get rid of generalisations becomes apparent when we consider the loss to language that would result from removing all nouns used to name groups of things (categories). When we use words like ‘animals’, we make assumptions, namely that we believe we can use that word to nominate a class of creatures (creatures with warm blood, fur, etc). Clearly the array of creatures that fit this category is large and diverse. As zoologists know, identifying a species and distinguishing it from others by reference to lists of taxonomic characteristics isn’t a straightforward exercise. Especially at the edges, categories become fuzzy.

Prejudice involves essentialist thinking which proposes that ‘all x kinds of people are y.’ In the case of ‘young people’, this means all those who belong to the category ‘youth’ or ‘adolescent’ or ‘teenager’ are the same. Prejudice involves the use of negative stereotypes to mobilise resentment, anger, fear and anxiety. This can be seen in stereotypes of ’youth’ as risk-takers, lazy, self-absorbed, lacking judgment, impulsive, irresponsible and so on.

When we use the word ‘child’ or ‘youth’ we assume that we can talk meaningfully about a class of people as if the criteria we assign to define the class will be found in every instance of the individuals said to make up that class. This is one version of the ecological fallacy which refers to making claims about the traits of individuals based solely upon aggregate statistics, often expressed as averages collected about the group to which those individuals belong. While this practice helps to simplify the world, it does so at the expense of acknowledging the actual diversity of people that we want to fit the classification.

Seeing a person or group as different is not necessarily a problem in itself. It becomes problematic when the alleged differences or deficiencies are used to explain why ‘they’ need to be treated in ways that other groups are not, even in ways that may harm them. Being treated differently need not involve unjust, unfair or harmful policies and practice per se, but the potential is always there, especially if those subject to such stereotypes are seen as a threat or as a source of trouble to the ‘community’. I do not of course mean to suggest that real problems involving some young people like alcohol-fuelled violence, public transport hooliganism or drunk driving can simply be explained away in terms of adult prejudice. Real problems that involve young people need to be addressed. The challenge is to be able to tell the difference between when we have an accurate grasp of what is actually happening and when we are relying too heavily on stereotypical prejudice. Making this distinction is not always easy. Too often what we ‘know’ about young people (and much else besides) relies on myth, the origins of which we will begin to look into shortly.

Clearly we do need to engage regularly in generalisation. I am simply making the point that we need to be aware that we are doing it and be mindful of the harmful dangers in doing so.

Having gone some way towards clarifying the idea of prejudice, I now turn to the issue of how young people are represented. Here are some of the main generalisations frequently applied to young people:

  • people aged between 12 and 25 years share certain characteristics,
  • youth are inherently troublesome and troubled,
  • children and young people are limited in what they can and ought to do because they can only accomplish certain tasks at specified ‘stages’ and ages,
  • children and young people should not be allowed to do things that ‘only adults are capable of doing’.

Claims like these have a direct bearing on how ‘we’ know young people, and on how age-based policies and legislation regulating are developed, such as those pertaining to driver licenses, mandatory school leaving age laws, hospital privacy guidelines or ethics requirements for research. This matters, especially if we believe policy decisions and legislation should not be based on negative and ill-informed stereotypes.

age-based prejudice toward young people is so rife and so naturalised that even advocates for young people often have trouble recognising it.

According to Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, one way of understating prejudicial attitudes and practices is as outward projections of fear, hate or fantasy of the prejudiced person’s own psyche and history. She explains this ‘projection theory’ as a practice by which people project their hatred and fear traits downward toward people whom they have constructed as ‘inferior’ in order to oppress them. Conversely, we project positive traits upward creating heroes and powerful deities (2012 p.38). It’s not uncommon to see positive traits being projected onto more powerful older people, while dealing with their envy toward the young by belittling and controlling them.

Evidence of this can be found in the material that provides simple, staple copy for mainstream media outlets. The ‘truth about teens’ is that they sleep too much and give their parents hell. They are risk-takers, moody, rude, self-obsessed, difficult, lack respect, love loud music and are grossly untidy. It’s not just the tabloids that trade on stereotypes like these. Even ‘respectable’ outlets like Britain’s The Guardian publish prejudicial commentary without any shame or embarrassment. For example the journalist Julie Bindel filed the following report. While reading this extract, imagine if this was to be re-written drawing on tired old stereotypes about women, Afro-Americans, muslims, or people with disabilities:

The summer break is hell for the child-free and a burden for most parents. It should be cut in half … Why should those of us who are child-free by choice be penalised for six weeks in the summer, and a total of 13 weeks throughout the year? We have to put up with undisciplined, spoilt children – and heavy financial penalties. The cost of holidays quadruples, Chelsea tractors congest the roads all day, and parks become playgrounds. Why can’t adults who want a bit of peace have “quiet areas” in public places – including parks and restaurants – so we do not have to put up with hysterical children getting up our noses when trying to relax? Recently I was shocked to see that some trains have designated “family friendly” carriages. Can anyone explain why, when most train carriages seem to be occupied by noisy children and their parents throughout the holidays, they need special carriages? Bearing in mind that most public services are geared towards “families”, would it not be fairer to have child-free carriages? When I am waiting to board a flight, I hate hearing: “Can those travelling with small children please come to the front of the queue.” Fair enough to help those with babies and their paraphernalia, but why are adults with 12-year-olds being given preferential treatment? Many a time I have seen elderly people have to stand and wait while healthy children finish their cappuccinos, pick up their iPods and board the plane as if travelling business class. … (Bindel Guardian, 18 August 2006).

This illustrates a more general tendency to portray young people in ways that are deeply prejudicial and socially pejorative, one that is hardly unique to journalists. In this cleaning product commercial for example, the announcer tells us the product is so simple to use that ‘even a teenager could do it’. The power of such accounts lies in their capacity to resonate with existing ‘respectable fears’ and prejudices (Pearson 1983). Such dispositions have real influence both on the relations adults have with young people and the experience of being young.

So where does this story about ‘youth’ come from?

Modern generalisations about young people were assembled by the founding father of American scientific psychology, Professor G. Stanley Hall, who popularised a new category — ‘the adolescent.’ In his book Adolescence (1905) Hall depicted adolescents as difficult, often moody and rebellious. Adolescence was a period of ‘storm and stress’. ‘The adolescent’ was troublesome and angst-filled as they took the ‘precarious’ path from childhood to adulthood. For Hall, who as we may remember brought Freud to America, the key problem was sex — adolescence was a ‘period’ of turbulence when newly liberated sexual hormones threatened to overwhelm the young person. ‘The adolescent’ simply could not be permitted to give expression to their sexuality, but needed to wait until they became mature adults and could marry. Hall’s preoccupation with repressing ‘adolescent sexuality’ in the interests of social order had a lasting impact on the narrative of the experience of being ‘adolescent’. In declaring adolescents to be naturally difficult, moody and rebellious, Hall launched the modern story of teenagers as problematic, difficult and different to the rest of the population.

In his narrative of human development, Hall positioned adults as normal and the objective to which human development was oriented. The influential American sociologist Talcott Parsons was one of the first to write about ‘youth culture’. Parsons claimed that all young people under the age of 25 were part of a ‘youth culture’ that was deeply antagonistic to adult values and norms, and that adolescent behaviour was characterised by anti-social conduct and social irresponsibility. For contrast with this rather curious idea, we need only pause to consider the context in which Parsons made those observations — the mid 1940s. As he wrote this, Western governments run by ‘responsible adults’ were in the midst of the Second World War and busily placing millions of young men under the age of 25 into military uniforms to kill each other and any civilians who got in the way.

These stereotypes have changed little in the decades since Parsons was writing. The image of ‘youth’ as bothersome continues to be recycled. Evidence of the longevity of this mythos is on display as some experts draw on it and the authority of science (involving recent brain scan technology like MRIs) to claim:

  • there is something called ‘the adolescent brain’ that is structurally different from ‘the adult brain’,
  • that part of the ‘adolescent brain’ controls good judgment,
  • that this difference explains why people age 12 to 23–25 are impulsive, risk-taking and irresponsible, while those over 25 are not,
  • why those under 25 years of age ought to be more tightly governed.

What these kinds of claims can lead to was suggested at a conference I attended not so long ago where the keynote speaker, a well-known psychologist addressing a 400-strong audience of youth work practitioners and policymakers, claimed that ‘expecting a 16 year old to be able to reason is like asking your dog to recite Shakespeare’. This claim was followed up by a ‘humorous’ story about the stupidity of his son, a story told to bolster his claim that the ‘adolescent brain’ causes adolescent stupidity and other worrying ‘adolescent behaviour’ and to demonstrate just how lacking in reason all young people are.

Some neuroscientists understand that claiming certain physical structures in the brain determine or ‘cause’ complex human cognitive or emotional judgment is ill-founded (Gazzanigam Ivry & Mangun 2002: 74, and Damasio 2006). Generalising about something called the ‘adolescent brain’ provides an example of a longstanding historical problem that involves the use of legitimate scientific techniques and perspectives to promote prejudice that too often leads to damaging consequences. Recall for example the use of such scientific discoveries about the ‘female brain’, the ‘negro brain’ or the ‘Jewish brain’ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that were used to justify appalling crimes against humanity (Bessant 2008, pp.347-360).

The dominant account of ‘youth’ or ‘adolescence’ rests on the assumption ‘they’ are a section of the population who share certain common features. Those shared features have long been understood as the process of stadial development (i.e. transition through specified cognitive, intellectual, social and moral stages in the life-cycle) (eg. Piaget 1932, 1953). An underlying premise in this claim is that ‘the adolescent’ is a substandard adult. One day they will become adults, but in the meantime, the younger they are, the greater the difference compared to the adult. The differences tend to be understood as deficiencies.

From here it is a small step from saying they are less able to reason, to understand complex ideas or make sophisticated judgments than adults, to saying they are irresponsible, dangerous risk-takers, ‘anti-social’ and ‘delinquent’, (Piaget 1953; Kohlberg 1969). From here we can see how easy it is to slip into creating stereotypes about youth cultures and sub-cultures like Generation X, Y or Z or talk about ‘alienated youth’ or ‘the selfish generation’ that then informs responses to social problems like youth crime, homelessness, gangs and drug use.

In declaring adolescents to be naturally difficult, moody and rebellious, Hall launched the modern story of teenagers as problematic, difficult and different to the rest of the population.

One of the first points a reality check will reveal is that it doesn’t actually make much sense to generalise about young people on the basis of one characteristic – their age. Like any age group young people are incredibly diverse, and do not all share the same interests and values or do the same things. People age 12 to 25 engage in an extensive array of activities and have diverse leisure tastes from reading, to attending live music concerts to dog walking. We also find young Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists, and for some, religious or gender or ethnicity differences overcome the effects of any similar age based experience.

Having said that, and as mentioned above, we also need to recognise that many young people do have some common experiences. Like any group or age cohort, their lives are variously influenced and shaped by significant historic and cultural events that take place in the contexts in which they live. Historic events like war, natural disaster, economic recession or depression and policies designed to prolong schooling certainly influence the lives of young people who grow up in them. This shared status is complicated by other factors like ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, socio-economic status, geography and personal disposition that can compound, or mitigate the initial shared circumstances.

This raises the interesting question of what counts as credible evidence when calling for a reality check.

In social inquiry, understood as a scientific or inductive reasoning, evidence is central for determining the credibility of claims made. But what counts as credible evidence? In one sense it is simply evidence that is relevant to and which verifies the questions asked and the claims made. The quantity of evidence needs to be sufficient to secure agreement on the part of a reasonable audience that the evidence warrants the conclusions that are drawn, and that the quality of the evidence provided relies on the researcher acknowledging the conventions or assumptions operating in the particular discipline and/or theoretical traditions they work in as to the appropriateness and quantity of the evidence being ‘discovered’ or selected to render the claims credible.

This answer nonetheless begs a number of questions and fails to acknowledge that more detailed or specific answers are inherently controversial and contestable. Referring for example to ‘particular disciplines’ and/or ‘theoretical traditions’ reveals a range of often divergent conventions about what constitutes good evidence. For example, and apologising in advance for the jargon, both positivists and empiricists claim that social reality is an objective phenomenon — that it exists ‘out there’. Accordingly, it is only through a systematic scientific inquiry, drawing on natural scientific methods, using our senses and various technologies of operationalisation, measurement and statistical techniques of analysis that we can discover the true nature of the world and obtain data that counts as solid evidence. These social researchers use ‘scientific tools’ like surveys to produce numerical data to create statistics, to cross-tabulate, index, describe, classify and explain. It’s a ‘naturalistic’ disposition that tends to assume causality and makes a number of other assumptions such as treating social phenomena and social categories (‘youth at risk’ or ‘youth unemployment’) as existing in objective ways that can be known and measured.

Other researchers operate from what are called interpretavist or symbolic interactionist frameworks. This set of approaches have their origins in a range of phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions, and their proponents begin from a perspective on being which sees social phenomena as socially constructed and symbolic in character. They reject the traditional empirical-positivist ontology and the consequential understanding of evidence and are more interested in understanding the meanings people give to social interactions, events and peoples descriptions of reality. They also assume we can only know about the social world (in this case about young people) by interpreting the ways people variously create and use language, gesture and behaviour.

This approach results in quite different ideas about what constitutes credible evidence. Rather than treating ‘delinquency’ or ‘youth homelessness’ as objective phenomena, researchers working within the latter tradition treat such categories as labels applied by socially powerful actors to the other people. Operating within the interpretavist tradition does not mean dismissing empirical research so much as changing the way it is done. This might for example take the form of ethnographic research and various kinds of participant observation.

For the purpose of this article, we can take credible evidence about young people to mean evidence which provides insight into the experiences of those who are being researched, talked about or having policy made ‘for them’. The relevant question here is whether categories like youth, adolescent, youth-at-risk etc describe the issues and experiences pertinent to the lives of the young people being researched?

When assessing this kind of evidence, it quickly becomes apparent that most young people are actually ‘normal’. I refer here to an idea of normality that reflects the power of those who succeed in having their ideas of ‘healthy’ or ‘natural’ imposed and established as social rules, conventions and law, rather than making a statement about the existence of any dominant ideas of normality. While noting that contemporary dominant definitions of ‘normal adolescence – youth’ or ‘healthy adolescence’ are infused with popular and scientific prejudices like those mentioned identified earlier, I simply make the point that based on the evidence available, most young people have conventional aspirations, ideas and lives rather than the pathologies, deficiencies and vices ascribed to them courtesy of ‘respectable’ fears and fantasies about ‘scary youth’. Indeed, most tend to be like their parents. To quote the recent NATSEM report (2007) ‘… in many respects, Gen Y is no different to other generations in what they aspire to’ (2007, p.2).

This point was also made some time ago in a research project carried out by psychologists Daniel and Judith Offer. In a series of significant publications, the Offers (1968, 1972) also contested the popular idea that young people are confused, consumed with inner turmoil, and generally troubled or troublesome any moreso than any other section of the population. While recognising the challenges to be met while growing up, they showed how most young people are able to meet them intelligently and without trauma (1988, p. 110). They point out that:

Interestingly, investigators who have spent most of their professional lives studying disturbed adolescents [i.e. patient populations] stress the importance of a period of turmoil for the developmental growth of the individual, while investigators who, like us, have studied normal adolescent populations find a minimal amount of turmoil displayed (1972, pp.62 -63).

Their point is that popular accounts of adolescence or youth as a time of storm and stress have been strongly influenced by research on disturbed and atypical fraction of young people (see also, Gilligan, Ward, McLean-Taylor, 1988). Such accounts also draw on a Eurocentric world view with an interest in identifying universal laws of logic to ‘explain’ ‘adolescent behaviour’ regardless of space and time (Burman 1994).

Why have we developed a concern about ageism while ignoring the millions of children and young people who systematically experience ageist prejudice? Perhaps we have become so accustomed to this kind of discrimination that it has acquired taken-for-granted status. Indeed, age-based prejudice directed at young people is both rife and so naturalised that even those who identify themselves as advocates for rights and for young people often have trouble recognising it.

For Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, all the prejudices found in sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-semitism are also at work in the ageism experienced by young people. Young people are represented as ‘bad or burdensome, taking our resources, depleting us or corrupting us, and they should be pushed away, placed out.’ Ageist discrimination against young people claims ‘they are dangerous’, ‘wildly sexual and should be repressed or given a pseudo-adult role, used, enslaved, prostituted … turned into pornography’. Other attitudes akin to racism or sexist prejudice treat young people as ‘threatening and disobedient’ and therefore ‘should be controlled, indoctrinated into a cause … for to assume an identity, kept from over throwing or supplanting adults, kept from asserting their rights over or against their parents’ rights’(2012, p.36-37).

As Young-Breuhl suggests, learning from prejudice studies is one way of defining and identifying this specific kind of prejudice (2012). This she suggests can help us see it operating in the relationships between young people and those who claim custody or guardianship – namely, parents and the state. Overcoming this form of prejudice relies on firstly being able to understand how prejudice works, and how such practices that discriminate, separate and stigmatise play out in relationships between older and younger people. ◾


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