Age Segregation is Unnatural

By Sue Wight

In today’s society, age segregation is an accepted way of life. Children are separated off from adults daily into crèches, kindergartens and schools which in turn further segregate them by birth year. Elderly people are frequently consigned to nursing homes and, to further exacerbate the isolation of each age group, families are inclined to purchase new homes in subdivisions full of families with similar age children. Their lives provide limited exposure to other age groups.

This segregation is artificial and leads to a lack of understanding between ages. It is also a modern invention. For centuries families lived together in rural societies with a mixture of ages. In large families there was a spread of ages from the oldest child to the youngest of twenty years or more. One household could contain parents and children ranging from infants to young married people with children of their own. Alternatively, the household might include an aged parent being supported by their grown children. All these people of different ages lived and worked together, adjusting to each other’s needs and abilities as required. People therefore had an understanding of the issues facing a whole range of ages. The benefits included a sense of continuum. Having younger siblings reminded people of themselves minus a few years, and older ones formed a connecting bridge between childhood and adulthood. For those children who survived the health hazards of the first five years, the dependent stage of life was over. They then entered a long period of semi-dependency in which each had their own place in the family and gradually took more responsibility as they grew. Young people had the advantage of serving a kind of apprenticeship in parenthood as they cared for their younger siblings and had their parents or older siblings as role models and mentors whilst they grew into adulthood.

The industrial revolution brought a decline in this way of life. The mass population movement to the cities broke down extended families. Initially, children accompanied their parents to work in the new factories just as they had always been involved in their rural and domestic work. Perilous factory conditions led to the Factory and Education Acts of the nineteenth century which defined children as a separate population and excluded them from adult work-places and daily company. They were henceforth confined to schools and could be admitted to adult society and work only after they had served their required years.

In the Australian colonies the separation of children from adults was earlier and more deliberate. Separating children from their convict parents was the prime reason for the early establishment of official schools in NSW (1792) in contrast to England where no government money was spent on schooling until 1833. As Governor King explained in 1802, it was felt imperative to remove children “from the destructive connexions and examples of their dissolute parents.” Children of convicts and the poor were, from the age of three, incarcerated in schools. The age of three was quite specific. Mothers in the female factories were permitted to keep their children with them until then as an earlier separation would make hand-feeding necessary – a system under which the death rate would be too high. The children were intended for the cheap labour market and a high death rate was therefore undesirable. Many convict parents may have complied happily with the schooling believing that their children would have a better start in life. They did not know that the hidden agenda was to teach children to despise their convict origins.

This goal was enormously successful. By the 1820s government officials were congratulating themselves on how well they had managed the ‘rising generation’. Young people were ashamed of their convict origins, were law-abiding and respectful of authority. They remained a carefully watched minority “whose welfare was seen to demand an extraordinary degree of intervention between parent and child,” as historian Jan Kociumbas states. “State officials and charitable organisations had become intimately involved in the fracturing and reformation of families to an extent unheard of in Britain.”

For the wealthy elite of the colonies, a different segregation prevailed, many of their children (some as young as five) were sent ‘home’ to England to be educated. Others were given a liberal education in the colonies by tutors or governesses.

Although schools separated children off from the adult population, only half of our European population was in school at this time and they were organised by a ‘monitor system’ in which older children taught younger children. The fact that young Australians were still viewed as a convict population is evidenced by the fact that the man chosen to head the new ‘national school’ system in 1851, William Wilkins whose teaching experience included time with Parkhurst prison for juveniles. His experience there suggested separating students by ability and sex was the most effective way to manage children in an institution.

During the 1800s the work of a child and the income they could bring in was still very important to their family. As in rural England many colonial children were occupied in milking, ploughing, sowing, harvesting and taking care of animals. Many performed these tasks for their own families before working in the service of more well-to-do farmers. Child labour was particularly important during the gold rushes as so many men deserted towns in search of wealth. Even the advent of compulsory education across the states in the late 1860s and 70s brought quite slow change. Families resisted the compulsory clause because they could not afford the loss of income inherent in school attendance. Many children attended sporadically or seasonally. Family survival depended on everyone doing their share of work and children were often kept home to assist with shearing, lambing, fruit picking and harvesting or to free other family members for these jobs. In recognition of this, compulsory attendance laws allowed for a significant degree of absenteeism (e.g. 20 out of 55 days in S.A. in 1878). This limited the extent to which school impacted on children and their separation from adults. The contribution of all ages was important and elderly family members cared for babies whilst more active members worked around the house and/or farm. Even those whose life had contracted to their chair could soothe an infant, tell stories and hand out advice.

Some girls attended school accompanied by their pre-school sisters and brothers whom they fed and cared for during the school day. Despite the difficulties of such a situation they did retain the benefit of experience with younger children, even though they were increasingly cut off from adult example. Schools, however, began to discourage this practice and girls were persuaded that they were being held back academically by their childcare activities.

Children’s games were not segregated by age or gender. Girls and boys of a wide age range played together in the street up until 11 o’clock at night when not assisting their mothers although in more upwardly mobile families children were inside and in bed by 9 o’clock.

In the early 1900s, families were still large and much of the care of young children continued to fall to their older sisters. An elderly lady of my acquaintance recalls how, as the eldest of a large family, she was known to her young brothers and sisters as “little mum”. School attendance was not universally enforced at this time but schools were moving irrevocably in that direction. A. B. Facey, for example, born in 1894 never attended school and left home to take up a gruelling farm job at the age of eight. He returned home several times in between his bouts of work (some of which were disastrous and for which he received no payment) wiser and more experienced.

For city children, schools were becoming larger and more organised and attendance was more effectively enforced. Age segregation within schools was being refined although being ‘put up a grade’ or ‘kept down’ was a not uncommon experience. School rooms still accommodated a large group of children at different levels and children of every age mixed freely during breaks. Families of children ate lunch together. One man recalls how he would take a cooked rabbit to school and divide it up between his brothers and sisters at lunchtime.

The twentieth century brought a drastic reduction in family size. Not only did families become smaller but the age range of siblings became narrower. All of a sudden there were two distinctly different groups within the family – adults and children. The earlier sense of continuum was lost and the ‘generation gap’ was born. It was now possible for families to consist of parents with three teenage children and no others. Teenagers were suddenly viewed as a separate, somewhat alarming species and parents turned to experts who wrote prolifically about adolescence at this time. Prior to the early twentieth century, ‘adolescence’ as a concept really did not exist. Writers had referred to ‘young people’ ‘youths’ and ‘children’ but the terms were non-specific and a ‘youth’ could be thirty years old. The push for separate secondary schools was, Joseph Kett argues, to separate adolescents from younger children in order to preserve the younger ones’ innocence and prevent their ‘contamination’ with adolescent culture and sexual knowledge whilst simultaneously providing careful adult supervision for teenagers. Ironically adolescent culture really became defined and took off from this time. Children and teenagers were being more effectively isolated from the adult world and from each other.

By the nineteen fifties young women having babies were without the wealth of experience and observation that their counterparts one hundred years before had to draw on. They left hospital with a baby they had barely been permitted to touch and went home not knowing what to do. They did not turn to their mothers for help as they had no memory of their mothers holding babies or childrearing. They turned instead to expert opinions.

By the 1970s, Joseph Kett wrote, “Compared to their predecessors in 1800 or 1900, young people in the 1970s spend much more time in school, much less at work. They are essentially consumers rather than producers. Their contacts with adults are likely to occur in highly controlled environments such as the classroom, and the adults encountered are usually conveyors of specialized services such as education and guidance. For the most part, young people in the 1970s spend their time in the company of other young people. This pattern of age segregation frequently prevails even when the young people hold jobs. Only in television commercials are the employees of short-order food chains likely to be over 21; in the real world, they are usually teenagers.”

The present system of almost complete age segregation is now so entrenched as to defy mainstream questioning. Schools grade children strictly by age and children are discouraged from playing with those in other grades. Some primary schools even have separate break times for the lower, middle and upper grades. Schools and homework have now expanded to take up the largest ever proportion of a child’s day and youth. At the same time four-year-old kindergarten has become a standard, though not compulsory, experience with three-year-old kindergarten classes also growing each year. More children than ever before are in day-care making it one of the fastest growing industries in the country. As day-care centres have become larger and more regulated, the children in them have come to be grouped by age.

Far from having adults as natural and loving mentors, school children and teenagers are now suspicious of adults as much of their life experience with adults has been in power-based relationships. Age segregation has very effectively crippled the understanding between people of different ages which occurred naturally in the past and this lack of understanding has contributed to many of today’s social problems. Locked into their own age groups, children’s emotional and social growth is limited. They are incapable of truly understanding people older or younger than themselves because they lack experience with either. Their time with younger or older siblings is limited by school and their siblings are likely to be within five years of their own age anyway. Many spend their out-of-school hours in organised sports which are grouped according to age. They are cut off from the real daily work and concerns of their parents. Grandparents are people to be visited – for some only occasionally and briefly. I doubt the rise of crime against elderly people would exist in a society where young people grew up with grandparents as part of a happy household.

John Taylor Gatto writes of today’s school children as living in constant childhood. School, he says, has done a “spectacular job of turning children into children” and ensuring that they “would grow older but never really grow up.” It is my belief that young people who have had access to people of a range of ages and experienced the gradual shift from being looked after, attaining independence and then caring for their aging parents or grandparents do truly grow up.

Young adults need access to older adults whom they respect and can communicate openly with in order to learn about being an adult. No amount of study, peer support or media exposure can replace this quality of life experience. People of all ages and stages of life enjoy the company of others who share their interests. Sometimes this means that they will choose companions of a similar age — but not always.

We are fortunate to be able to look back through history and in doing so take note of the benefits of families living and growing together. These benefits are the intangible ones of emotional growth and stability, of learning and teaching, of giving and sharing with people of all ages. Elderly members of the family were once looked on with respect and were useful until they day they died and young children were given the chance to take part in the adult lives as soon as they could and they did so with pleasure, pain and pride – and learnt all the time. This richness is lacking from modern lifestyles but in having our children home with us again home educators can hope to recapture that richness and hope that our children will take it with them into their adult lives to enrich their children’s lives.


  • Barcan, Alan, A Short History of Education in New South Wales Martindae Press Pty Ltd 1965
  • Facey, A.B., A Fortunate Life Penguin 1981
  • Gatto, John Taylor: Against School Kett,
  • Joseph F, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present Basic Books Inc, 1977 Kociumbas, Jan, Australian Childhood: A History Allen and Unwin, 1997

From Otherways Magazine, issue 103