Youth as a subject of study has evolved from its consideration as a biological category to its conceptualizations as a social construct. In what follows, I explore the meaning of youth as a social construct. In doing so, I first examine the standard age-based definition of youth. To provide dimension to the latter understanding, I present the youth demographic imperative that has arisen in many developing nations in the essay’s second section. In the third and last part of this analysis, I seek to expand the definition of youth based on age to one that acknowledges first and foremost the concept as a social construct.
Youth as a transitioning phase
For statistical and record-keeping purposes, the United Nations (UN) has defined a youth as a person aged between 15 to 24 years old. The UN Secretary-General first referred to this definition of youth in 1981 in his report to the General Assembly concerning International Youth Year and thereafter endorsed it in ensuing reports (UNDESA, Fact Sheet). Nonetheless, defining this group precisely is quite challenging because what constitutes youth varies in different societies around the world. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) website, for example, has suggested that a young person is,
A person between the age where he/she may leave compulsory education and the age at which he/she finds his/her first employment. This latter age limit has been increasing, as higher levels of unemployment and the cost of setting up an independent household puts many young people into a prolonged period of dependency (UNESCO Website).
Meanwhile, the African Youth Charter characterizes young people as individuals between 15 and 35 years old. In these definitions, the distinction between “youth” and “adult” is somewhat arbitrary. The fact that a 24-year-old or a 35-year-old is considered a youth, while a 25-year-old or 36-year-old is an adult is a social construct, based on the conventions established and promoted by organizations such as the UN, African Union and the International Labor Organization (O’Higgins, 2001). Such organizations’ definitions have characterized youth as a transition in life that is “neither childhood, nor adulthood,” comprising young people’s transitions from school and/or work, to forming families and securing independent status and households.
Sukarieh and Tannock (2015) have offered an alternate perspective on how to conceive of youth. These authors have conceptualized this demographic cohort as a social category in the context of the global economy. However, before delving into their argument, it is important to outline why youths have emerged as a focus of attention for policy-makers, international organizations and corporations.
Youth Demographic Imperative
The first and most obvious reason for today’s increasing interest in young people is the fact that the world currently has the largest population of such individuals in its history. Earth now has about 1.8 billion youths between the ages of 10 and 24. Persons between the ages of 15 and 24 now number 1.1 billion, a figure that constitutes 18 percent of the global population. Youths and children together, including those aged 24 years and younger, account for nearly 40 percent of the world’s inhabitants. The largest number of young people is concentrated in Asia and the Pacific. Approximately 60 percent of the world’s youths live in Asia; 15 percent, in Africa; 10 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean and the remaining 15 percent, in developed countries and regions (Advocates for Youth, 2017). About 80 percent of the world’s young people live in developing countries. The following figures illustrate this point: more than half of Egypt’s labor force is younger than age 30. Half of Nigeria’s population of 167 million is between the ages of 15 and 34. In addition, more than two-thirds of the population of Afghanistan, Angola, Chad, East Timor, Niger, Somalia and Uganda is under the age of 25 (Foreign Policy, 2017).
Nearly half (45.9 percent) of the world’s youths live in low-income countries, while another third (34.1 percent) reside in lower middle-income countries. The remaining fifth (20 percent) live in upper middle-and high-income countries. Nevertheless, more than 30 percent of 15-24 year olds in the world live on less than $2 per day (Advocates for Youth, 2017). Understanding the importance of these demographic realities is essential to grasping the importance of how young people emerged as a salient demographic for policy-makers.
Youth as a Social Category
According to Sukarieh and Tannock (2015), the social category “youth” has always been double-sided, encompassing both negative and positive stereotypes. On the one hand, young people have been said by some analysts to constitute a “ticking bomb” that presents a threat to the security and fabric of society (UN Africa Renewal, 2017; NPR, 2015). In this view, young people represent potential denizens of unemployment, delinquency or extremism. On the other hand, for some writers, youth constitute the “promise of the future,” the hope for addressing the ills and flaws of their societies (Daily Nation, 2015). This binary stereotyping highlights the fact that who is considered a youth, as well as how they are imagined, are social constructs. Indeed, young people have been viewed as a resource that can either be mobilized ‘efficiently’ or emerge as a major social risk. Thus, youth may be a signifier that embodies both potential and negative risk simultaneously.
Young people today not only represent a significant demographic cohort globally, but they also are navigating many of life’s perceived crucial transitions in a relatively short time as they emerge as adults. A 2007 World Bank Report on Development and the Next Generation, for example, has identified six main transitions that many youths undergo: learning, working, migrating and staying healthy, forming families and exercising citizenship. These shifts suggest that a successful passage to adulthood involves navigating all or the major share of these transitions, laying aside the fact that some may conflict with one another.
It is useful to cite a few examples that illustrate the tension among these milestones. One might involve a situation in which a young person would have to work a low paying job and pause their studies at a university to support themselves and pay the costs associated with their education. In such cases, a tension exists between learning and working. Another example might occur when a young person is deterred from forming a family, despite the fact that they want to do so, for fear they cannot support a spouse and children, or from visiting a doctor because they are unemployed or fear they cannot pay the related costs. In these cases, youths’ transition to work and forming families, as well as remaining healthy, are in tension.
Simply citing these changes as markers or milestones for young people fails to take into account the structural conditions that can mediate each, including poverty, family violence, inequality, war or conflict. Indeed, the 2007 World Bank Report did not acknowledge the ability of young people to access work, school, healthcare, mobility and so on when it highlighted these (necessary) transitions to adulthood. Viewing youths as an asset and a resource tends to commodify them and suggest that they need to work to adapt their aspirations and capacities closely to the interests of employers, the workplace and the market economy if they want to avoid being regarded as a risk or detriment to society..
In light of this pervasive perspective, it is important to emphasize that youths are more than a grouping of individuals who constitute a more or less arbitrary assigned age category. Instead, they are a heterogeneous group that possess agency and may seek to chart their own course as individuals and as a group in ways that embody risk and potential in many different ways:
Young people are never simply passive dupes or empty vessels when they participate in youth programs that have been designed by other organizations and states, but actively contest, resist and rework such programming to their own ends (Sukarieh & Tannock 2015, p.29).
While it is essential to recognize young people’s potential agency to defy the socially constructed binary in which many find themselves enmeshed, it is also paramount to emphasize that the institutions shaping youth today, such as schools, corporations, the state, media and social media, foundations, NGOs, the military and youth experts, all play roles in shaping and constructing what it means to be young and successful.
Youth can be shaped and constrained by these entities’ discourses that too often fail to take into account the structural circumstances young people confront. That is precisely how a definition of youth as a social construct serves to bring to light the multiple ways of defining youth and their implications. The fact that we live in an era characterized by the largest youth population ever recorded evokes the importance of these social constructs. This is so not only because such constructs define how the experience of youth is understood by young people and society-at-large alike, but also because those views shape public policies and actions that materially affect young people’s life prospects.
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Nada Berrada is a native of Morocco and a Ph.D. student in the ASPECT program (Alliance for Social Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought) at Virginia Tech. She previously earned an M.A. in Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and a B.A in Political Science and Economics from Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie de Rabat (EGE) in Morocco. She currently teaches for the Political Science Department. Berrada has worked for The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia, the German Marshall Fund, the United Nations Development Program, the Foundation Orient Occident and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. She also served as a Youth Delegate representing Morocco during the 70th (2015-2016) United Nations General Assembly session.