On the surface, it may seem obvious or common sense to define the term ‘youth.’
A youth is a young person, right?
A quick Google search defines youth as the period between childhood and adult age, young people considered as a group.
I recently attended a Critical Youth Work certificate offered by YouthREX, and when the topic of defining ‘youth’ and what age group youth belong to came up, there were varying opinions.
There were about twenty youth workers in the room and we could not come up with a concise definition of ‘youth.’ Something that often appears to be common sense, and that we use carelessly, left us debating and confused when it was presented to us through a critical lens.
How do we define ‘youth’?
- Is it a biological stage?
- Is it an age range?
- Is it a stage of psychological development?
- Is it some or all of those things together?
- What about other criteria?
Defining youth is often a controversial topic.
The common definition of youth refers to the transition period from childhood to adulthood independence. Generally, age is used as a primary criterion to define youth, usually between the ages of 14 to 21.
However, using age as a criterion to define youth as a group is a flawed concept. The age range criterion assumes that within a given age range all youth are similar.1 It assumes that there is a symmetry between biological and social processes.3
However, defining youth primarily by age is increasingly being challenged as young people’s life trajectories have become more diverse and complex.
As we adopt a critical lens on defining youth, the life-course perspective has amassed greater support for bringing together different viewpoints and perspective to identify youth. The life-course perspective focuses on social pathways, trajectories, transitions and key life moments that follow each other fairly rapidly.1 As such, the life-course perspective acknowledges that the possible pathways to adulthood are multitudinous.
For instance, differences in family background, education, and life experiences have a strong influence on how such transition to adulthood is experienced by individuals. In addition, the transition into adulthood has been extended as more and more youth are failing to become independent adults until their mid-twenties and even early thirties resulting in an increased reliance on family resources.2
Tremendous changes in pathways to adulthood are “a consequence of the changes taking place in society as a whole, in the spheres of work, family, social relationships and civic life”.1
For instance, a greater requirement for advanced education as our society moves to more technology‐based economies has forced many young people to stay in school longer, delaying their entrance into the workforce, and as a result extending their transition into adulthood.2 Additionally, the current economic climate in terms of lower wages, job instability, and higher student debts are all contributing factors to the current shift in transition into adulthood.
We must also acknowledge that such structural changes are the most challenging for young people that come from disadvantaged communities in society, such as immigrant youth and youth from low-income families.
The Canadian context: why it is important to consider a more inclusive definition of ‘youth’
How we identify youth has a critical impact on legislation, policy development, and social support that have varying consequences for young Canadians. As I explained above, defining youth on the age criterion alone fails to account for different factors that impact the transition into adulthood for many young people.
Considering an all-inclusive definition of youth is of great importance. Young people do not have equal access to social, educational and financial resources to help them successfully enter into adulthood. The images of Canadian youth should match the different realities experienced by different groups of young people across the country.
All in all, the trend towards an extended youth phase is becoming widespread in our society. There is a growing awareness amongst contemporary youth researchers, youth workers, and youth programs to critically examine the common assumptions when defining young people as a group. When defining ‘youth,’ we must take into account the significant impact institutions and changing economic and political circumstances have on young people as they transition into adulthood, as well as the impact of marginalisation and oppression on the lives of youth from different communities.