Defining ‘youth’

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

On the surface, it might appear that defining the term youth is a very straight straightforward endeavour.

A youth is a young person, right?

A while back, I had the opportunity to attend a Critical Youth Work course, a professional development certificate offered to Ontario youth workers with the space to engage in critical dialogue and learn about the political, social and economic realities that characterize youth work.

When the topic of defining youth and what age group youth constituted came up, there were varying opinions and some uncertainty amongst the participants. In a room full of about twenty youth workers, we could not come up with, or agree on, a concise definition of youth.

A term that often appears to be straightforward, and a label we frequently use carelessly, left us puzzled when it was presented to us through a critical lens.

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Defining ‘youth’

Defining the term youth is often a controversial topic.

What exactly defines a youth? Is it their biological stage? Is it an age range? Is it a stage of their psychological development? Is it some or all of those things combined together? What other criteria can we use to determine youth?

The common definition of youth refers to the transition period from childhood to adolescence. Generally, age is used as a primary criterion to define youth, usually between the ages of 14 to 25. 

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. It assumes that there is a symmetry between biological age and social processes [3].

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 to define youth, the life-course perspective has amassed greater support for bringing together different viewpoints and perspective to identify young people.

The life-course perspective focuses on social pathways, trajectories, transitions and key life moments that follow each other fairly rapidly [1]. It acknowledges that the possible pathways to adulthood are multitudinous and diverse.

For instance, differences in family background, education, and life experiences have a strong influence on how the transition into 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].

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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 and delay their entrance into the workforce, which has extended their transition into adulthood [2].

Additionally, the current economic climate, specifically 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 acknowledge that such structural changes are most challenging for young people that come from disadvantaged communities, such as immigrant and low-income youth.

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Why it is important to consider a more inclusive definition of ‘youth’

The trend towards an extended youth phase is becoming widely accepted in our society.

There is a growing awareness amongst contemporary youth researchers, youth workers, and youth program and service providers to critically examine the common assumptions when defining youth as a group. 

How we identify youth has a critical impact on legislation, policy development, and social support that have varying consequences for young people.

As mentioned above, defining youth on the age criterion alone fails to account for different factors that influence the transition of young people into adulthood. 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 youth should match the different realities experienced by different groups of young people across the country.

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 marginalization and oppression on the lives of young people from marginalized communities.


[1] Youth in Canada Today | Policy Horizons Canada

[2] Environmental Scan: Extended Age Definition for Youth 15‐24

[3] The concept of youth

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