“Youth” are who?

You would think that this would be easy to answer, but the point we enter “youth-hood” and leave “youth-hood” is open to much ongoing debate. As an economist working in a school of public health, searching the Harvard library that has no bound, to answer this question I find myself in a book that critiques five Latin plays from medieval literature and defining youth as one of the five “Ages of Man” (Dunlop, 2007). (It was noted in the book that Man referred to men, and that women did not exist in the Middle Ages). In the Middle Ages, youth was the fourth of the five “Ages of Man”, presumably reflecting the very low life expectancy at the time.

Infantia, pueritia, adolescenia, iuvenus, senium

Ages of Man

Usefully, the book discusses that youth is defined as an age range, and that the “Ages of Man” was just one way of dividing up Man’s life-cycle to include a period of youth, iuventus.  Even in the Middle Ages, scholars debated the boundaries of the period of youth, and whether it was defined by biological transformations, social and legal responsibilities, or gender differences. Social responsibilities of knights compared to servants differed, and thus age boundaries of youth differed depending on the social class. Men and women differed in the biological development in adolescence, and the age of the transition for men and women into the club of “youth” differed accordingly. Indeed, we still see this today in some countries that have different ages of consent and legal age of marriage for men and women.

“Knight” by Tim Cummins on Flickr, shared under
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the Middle Ages, youth were defined as those making the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Youth had their own distinct age range, and adolescence was before, and adulthood after. We have now done away with youth-hood as its own distinct period, and rather it overlaps with legal bounds of childhood and adulthood. However, we have preserved the idea that youth is an important time of transition, more so than the other “Ages of Man” of infancy, childhood, adolescence (before youth) and adulthood (after youth). This seems as true now, as it was in the Middle Ages. It is the period in which people transition from being a child and adolescent to an adult.

To make this transition from child to adult, the UN gives you 10 years (15-24 years), the WHO gives you 15 (15-30 years old), and others are flexible and will give you up 20 years or more (eg Rwanda Ministry of Youth 15-36 years old). If anyone who was present at the round-tables that fleshed out the discussion that led to these decisive age bounds, it would be very interesting to hear from you about the considerations that were at play when determining these age ranges.

To stay with the UN definitions, adolescence is 10-19 years, childhood is less than 18 years, adulthood is 18 years or older, and youth are 15-24 years. Ahhhhh… the Middle Ages suddenly looks conceptually easier. However, having a boundary around this period of the life-cycle seems to be important, although the definition of youth has long been a bit handwavy.

“We The Youth” (Keith Haring, 1987) by chrisinphilly5448 on Flickr, shared under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Majors (>=18) and minors (<18) seems to be something we can get our heads around. This is the legal line slicing through your life cycle on your 18th birthday. As Dunlop (2007) states, minors are those in a legal period “when people are not subject to particular obligations and are not permitted to avail themselves of particular privileges”.

“Cutting Cake” by Tuldas on Flickr, shared under
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Adolescence and youth-hood, then overlay the binary division of minor and major. But on what grounds? Both adolescence and youth-hood are defined as transitional ages. It seems that the answer lies in the types of transitions that occur during adolescence, and the types of transitions that occur in youth-hood. The transitions that occur within adolescence are physical and psychological. The transitions of youth-hood are social.

YOUTH. Flickr photo by (Ovo), shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The social transition from student to worker, getting married, having children, define youth-hood. These social transitions in the period of youth are not linear (Simpson, 2013) nor the same for all people. Nor do these transitions fit neatly within the 10, 15, or 20 years that the UN and others confine youth-hood. Arnett proposed that rather than extending the upper age bound of youth, we should allow youth to graduate from youth-hood in their mid-20s and then if they need more time to make the transitions to adulthood, then let’s call this period “emerging adulthood” (Arnett, 2004). Arnett makes an interesting case to better define emerging adulthood as the relationship with parents changes, heading out of college and towards meaningful work, heading towards marriage, and defining ones values. This period in the life-cycle is quite distinct from the social transitions of a 15 year-old. Combining a 15 year-old and a 35 year-old in the same group of youth will under-serve those on the upper and lower ages. Maybe this is why the UN keeps the age-range 15-24?

“Youth led solutions for youth problems in Montenegro”. Flickr photo by UNDP,
shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Let us keep to youth and their social transition, with the caveat that the age range is still up for debate. Defining youth-hood as a time of social transition encapsulates youth social identity. Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership (Tajfel, 1982). I would like to report to you that youth, and youthful, are the same group, but I cannot. The youthful group have the vitality of youth, but you need not be a youth to be youthful. Much the pity we cannot all be youth, and at times when one is admiringly dancing to Taylor Swift (for example) we may feel youthful, and then when we worry about her happiness and ability to maintain a stable relationship (for example) we may feel less youthful. Shake it off, and be content with belonging to the youthful group in support of the youth group.

Youth-hood as a social construct, could also be defined as a period that is particularly defined through youth culture. In this line of research, “youth are creative actors shaping their identities and cultural lives” (Simpson, 2013). Youth are “agents of social change and transformation” (Simpson, 2013). This puts much responsibility on youth to construct their own identity and culture, navigating the risks as they transition to adulthood, and also shouldering any failure to thrive.

However, youth are not alone in their journey to adulthood, and in the literature on economic opportunity it is well recognized that the options youth have as they transition to adulthood is in a large part a result of their circumstances in which they were born, raised, educated, and economically and politically assisted or constrained (Chetty et al., 2014; Chetty et al., 2016).

If youth-hood is a time of social transitions — through youth identify, youth culture, and youth economic opportunity — then this social construction has the vantage point of youth themselves, and from the vantage of non-youth who discuss youth, present an interpretation of youth, and project an image of youth onto youth. Thus, in this blog, we invite the youth perspective, and the perspective of mentors. I look forward to this forum, and seeing how the topic of Youth and Opportunity evolves through Action Academic, YOUth Contributions, and Mentor Moments. Have your say! Get involved today!


  • Arnett JJ. (2004) Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties, Oxford, New York.
  • Chetty R, Hendren N and Katz LF. (2016) The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment. American Economic Review 106: 855-902.
  • Chetty R, Hendren N, Kline P, et al. (2014) Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 129: 1553-1623.
  • Dunlop FS. (2007) The Late Medieval Interlude: The Drama of Youth and Aristocratic Masculinity, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: York Medieval Press.
  • Simpson D. (2013) Key Concepts in Youth Studies, London: Sage.
  • Tajfel H. (1982) Social identity and intergroup relations.

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