This question keeps coming to me from my son. He wonders if a civilization could be built around young leaders, with the primary citizens being youth as well. The idea that he has excludes grownups from citizenship. The youth separate themselves from the grownups in power, and assert control of an isolated land (which is preferably an island). What would the primary challenges be for this civilization? What resources would they need to start their community from scratch?
Alot of answers thus far have focused on the notion that children are significantly less capable than adults at governance. I'm not sure there's clear evidence of this principle given the definition of youths and adult has shifted dramatically over the course of human civilization (Many of the founding fathers were under 35 when they signed the declaration of independence for example). Instead there are two other key principles to focus on that would make a youth led society difficult.
- People and groups rarely voluntarily diminish their power
- People age
If you could create a youth led civilization, where rights and benefits of civilization have an age based cut off, what happens when the original leaders and citizens get closer to that cut off? Will they voluntarily given up the benefits and rights they have as citizens? Will they vote to adjust the cut off upward?
The main problem is that any civilization that is structured around special privileges and power for the youth requires that many citizens regularly work against their own self-interest. To make it work you'd need strict demographic controls (to make sure aging members don't outnumber younger ones), strong cultural norms (to make sure older citizens don't try to change the rules to ensure their continued power and relevance), and a satisfactory "retirement" strategy (so older non-citizens don't straight up revolt)
There are certainly ways this could work temporarily, but after a few decades, when the youth start to grow up, the old order of adults in charge will naturally re-assert itself.
Controversial answers have a tendency to bring heated comments. Your best solution is not to argue with me in comments, but to post a rebuttal answer. If I think the comments have grown out of control, I'll invite the Moderators to lock the post to stop further comments. Stack Exchange is not a discussion forum.1
The resources the children need are the resources every nation needs: food, water, shelter, defense, mining, forestry, education, industry, medical, engineering, public works, diplomacy, politics, marketing, etc. etc. etc. Your son is asking why people who don't have the skills to provide and govern these things couldn't do so.
This fundamental idea has been explored in a great many novels including The Lord of the Flies, Logan's Run, and the Star Trek episode Miri (and undoubtadly others). Whether supportive of the idea that youth can govern itself or (as is usually the case) detracting, all the stories have trouble overcoming the limitations of youth without simply ignoring them and treating them as very young-looking adults. Here's the problem:
- No experience
- Little knowledge
- Undeveloped discipline
- Little wisdom
- Undeveloped selflessness
There are likely more, but this is enough for the point. Teens (and I assume we're talking about teens, you didn't tell us your son's age) inevitably believe they are none of these things. They confuse their new-found cognitive capacity with adulthood — and in this they err something awful.
A simple example was a recent conversation I had with the 15-year-old daughter of a friend. She wanted a tatoo. Her parents were against it. She wanted me on her side. She gave me a very lengthy list of reasons why she should have the authority to choose to tatoo her body. Among them were, "my teachers say I'm the most mature person in my class." What she doesn't understand is if she were actually mature, we wouldn't be having the conversation and she wouldn't be asking for a tatoo at her age.
An excellent example is the current trend in the U.S. for school children to petition the government for gun control. The action is noble, but they want to drive the change as a grass-roots movement. It is not surprising that what they want are simply laws to control or remove guns.2 It never seems to cross their minds that the nature of criminals is to break laws and that, generally speaking, simply taking the guns away from honest people won't solve anything.
The U.S. is undergoing a period of testing that will prove fascinating. Supported by organizations like FairVote the growing trend is to give 17-year-olds the right to vote in an increasing number of elections. The basic argument is that they're old enough to be affected by the policies put in place by their representatives, so they should have a voice in which people serve as representatives.
Except, of course, that 17-year-olds haven't lived long enough to understand why sometimes you need to take rights away from 17-year-olds. For example, 90% of new smokers start smoking under the age of 21. Only 10% start smoking over the age of 21. What's the difference? No experience, little knowledge, undeveloped discipline, little wisdom, undeveloped selflessness.
I could go on and on and on. The evidence and body of knowledge clearly explaining that children need their chance to become prepared for adulthood (vs. giving them adulthood right away) is overwhelming. It's politically unpopular, but overwhelming nonetheless.
A friend of mine, once a micro-publisher, made the following statement:
We write stories about children saving the world for our own sake. We realize as adults that the world is lost to us and we well know no child has the resources, education, or wisdom to overcome this fate. Our stories are our fantasies that the world can be made right by the innocent. – E. Keith Howick, Jr.
The simple truth is, children cannot govern. For every one exception you find (if you can actually find an exception, IQs that high are pretty rare) there are the proverbial 1,000,000 who will act selfishly, foolishly, and ignorantly. And as my final example, let me point to the failing3 U.S. healthcare system, "Obamacare" (formally known as the Affordable Care Act). This act came into existence due to President Obama's fantastically successful effort to engage college-age voters based upon (among other things) the idea of universal healthcare. They loved it so much they elected him into office.
Then they chose not to sign up. Causing, in part, its failure.
No experience, little knowledge, undeveloped discipline, little wisdom, undeveloped selflessness.
The challenge of every generation is that children want to be treated like small adults. But they're not. The great failure of my generation is that they actually started buying into the idea.4
1 Some adults may downvote this, many teens will. We're about to get a snapshot of the site's demographics.
2 And even less surprising to see parents and very large, well funded organizations quietly moving in on their efforts.
3 Please don't argue with me about this. For every justification of success you bring me I can bring two examples of failure. The question isn't "did it work?" the answer is "no." The question is "what do we do next?" That's the question nobody wants to talk about.
4 The astute observer will point out that there are plenty of idiot adults. The difference is they had their chance to become skilled, experienced, and disciplined, but failed. Despite that, they have some experience to draw from. Teens have not yet had their chance and have none. Generally speaking, an adult might fail, a child will fail.
It can be done. However, the first question you have to ask is "what is civilization." Did your son think to ask that question, or was it assumed that everyone knows what civilization is?
The H. sapiens platform is a pretty darn impressive one. We can do a lot of great things. In the Neolithic era, life expectancy of an older individual (aka life expectancy not accounting for infant mortality, which is much lower) could be 28-33 years. Your "youth" may already be half way through their life! But there were definitely "civilizations" in that era, as defined by typical prehistorians. So that shows that young individuals can lead.
Do you want cellphones? Just from experience, I find it unlikely that a nation lead by youth could maintain the particular technological capacities needed to make cellphones a reality. But food on the table, roofs over the heads, and a general sense of peace with one's neighbors is probably within reach.
Related to that, what is "youth" anyway? In many cultures there is a coming of age ceremony, where a youth transitions into an adult. Intuitively, one should see it is reasonable to assume that there was a reason the youth were being treated differently. Your civilization would not want to think of "youth leading," but instead would want to define a new class of individual who is old enough to make important decisions, but young enough not to be put in what I will call the "old fogies" category.
The next question would be why. What advantage is there in excluding the old fogies? Are we going to assume that all civilizations in the world simultaneously all reject the old fogies in unison? If not, you have to consider that there will be nations where old fogies are still ruling. If your youth-lead nation which intentionally cut themselves off from the majority of their experience, they may find it hard to compete.
All that being said, there are a few directions I would consider for such a civilization. The first is to note that there appears to be a pattern where it takes about 7 years to build neural patterns. It's not an exact number, but it seems to be that 7 years is indeed an important number in our genetic code. Well, what if that wasn't the case? What if your civilization had the technology to decrease that to 2 years? You may be able to accelerate the point where a "youth" can become "responsible." Also, you may be able to argue that said technology also causes a mind to become unstable after a while, which would create a valid reason for why you reject the old fogies after so many years.
There's also the interesting idea of exploring what it really means to rule. Now this is a bit of a maturity challenge. What does it mean to rule a nation? You might be able to create a culture where the old fogies intentionally give up rule in order to train the next generation to rule wisely early. You may be able to craft a nation where it's actually more effective to put the youth behind the driver's seat. However, they would need to take advantage of the experience of their elders (note the shift in my words from "old fogies" to "elders"). They would need to realize that they should defer to the experience of their elders on a lot of things they don't quite understand.
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning, I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
- Coldplay, Viva la Vida
Now this is interesting because it may create an environment where the youth have all the power on paper, but they defer enough to their elders that it becomes unclear as to who is really "leading" in the first place. If your son can work through that and create a fictitious culture which can maintain stability with such a structure, he might be onto something!
Children are currently not leaders because they lack one of the most important aspects of leadership, experience. Even if we define "Youth" to include people up to age 18. Their new civilization, which is completely lacking of any experienced leaders, and populated with citizens who are physically weaker.
Additionally the civilization would be completely unstable. The older the child is, the more suitable to leadership they are. At some age, they are no longer children, but adults. What happens to them then? Are they removed by the other less-capable children? Do they voluntarily leave?
Being children, they would not have the ability to replenish their population. meaning that the adult civilization would have to support this civilization and provide new members, and most likely take them back once they age out of the civilization of Children. At best this settles out to a fancy hands-off multi-year summer camp, rather than an enduring Civilization.
It may be more a clarification than an answer, but it depends on where you draw the line between youth and age. It is certainly possible that the eldest segment of the population ages to an extent the dementia makes them mentally incapable of managing their own lives, let alone governing. Similarly physical deterioration could leave them frail and totally reliant on younger helpers.
For current humans, you can notionally divide the population into "pre-puberty/early learning" of around 15 years, then another 5 to 15 years of "could have children but don't", 20 years of "bringing up children" and then around 30-40 years "post children". A wide democracy would generally put power with those in the older groups. They also have had more time to accumulate assets, giving them more economic power.
An sci-fi or fantasy setting could easily add a longer "could have children but don't" phase, accompanied by a fast physical and/or mental deterioration after childbirth.
I'd say simply no because of a the very nature of hierarchy, which can be observed not only on humans, but on a lot of animals too. Leading something has might involved. There are always humans which try to be as mighty as possible, and won't hesitate to use violence to achieve this. This is a basic animal instinct which is still part of us.
A youth is not on the peak of his physically strength yet, and therefore no match for an adult.
Nice example on animals are lions.