Youth is a state of transition between childhood and adulthood, and in most formal definitions the period of youth spans from later childhood to early adulthood.
The United Nations (1) defines youth as the ‘period of transition from the dependence of childhood to adulthood’s independence’, setting the age of youth for statistical purposes at the ages of 15-24.
Youth: a flexible concept
The U.N. recognises that the concept of ‘youth’ is a social construct, because the ages typically associated with this period of life vary considerably from society to society. In Nigeria for example youth refers to people aged 18-35, while Brazil uses the same age ranged as the OECD (3) which places the ages for youth at 15-29.
Youth and puberty
Youth is partly associated with puberty in all societies.
Puberty is a universal biological phenomenon involving rapid physical growth, increasing strength and endurance, the development of reproductive organs, hormonal changes and more body hair.
The age at which puberty happens varies from individual to individual, but typically in the early teenage years between 10-11 and 15-17 years of age for girls and 11-12 and 16-17 for boys.
Taking the definition of youth from the U.N. above we can see that the period of youth includes the very end of puberty but mainly occurs after puberty.
Youth and Adolescence
Youth is not the same as adolescence. The World Health Organisation defines adolescence as the period between adulthood and childhood ranging from 10-19 years of age.
Hence youth includes around half of this period but also extends several years beyond it.
The transitions of youth
There are several transitions commonly associated with the 10-15 year period from late childhood to full adulthood including, but not limited to…
- Moving out of full time compulsory education which ends at 16 years of age in most Western societies.
- Further and then higher education or training. Typically this means two years of further education and then three years of higher.
- Low paid (relatively), varied, and maybe intermittent employment and maybe further training. (Moving into one’s first full time professional job role is often seen as one of the key indicators of having moved into full adult status.)
- Living with parents or in shared rental accommodation.
- Entering into one’s first long (or medium) term relationship, possible co-habitation.
- Starting out on finding oneself and one’s true identity.
- Importance of Leisure and lifestyle: going out, partying, music, festivals, travel.
- Higher prevalence of deviance and drug usage.
The meanings people attach to the term ‘youth’ also vary considerably, and it can have both positive connotations such as youth being a time of energy and vigour and negative connotations such as moral panics over youth gangs and knife crime.
Individual variations in youth transitions
The fact that ‘youth’ spans such a long period of time: 15-29 years if we accept the time frame of the OECD, means we should not be surprised that there is a lot of variety in when young people transition to adulthood.
Some will go straight through Further and Higher Education and end up in their final, stable careers by age 23, or younger if they opt for higher apprenticeship route, others will take much longer because of time taken out before and after graduating.
It isn’t just individual factors that affect the age of transition to adulthood, social class and gender can have an impact too. For example middle class youth are more able to buy their own houses earlier than working class youth because of parental support, and moving into your own home is one indicator of transitioning to adulthood.
Transitions to adulthood in traditional societies
In some societies the transition from childhood to adulthood is clearly marked out through ceremonies.
For example the Nandi people of Kenya circumcise boys to mark them out as transitioning to men, and for the Bemba people of Namibia a girls transition to womanhood happens when she has her first period, when she is washed ceremonially and then isolated indoors for a period before she is allowed to return to the community as a woman.
The concept of youth: conclusions
Youth is much more of a social construct than other concepts associated with the sociology of age such as childhood and adolescence because it mostly encompasses young adulthood.
Hence this is a very broad concept spanning a very broad age range and we can expect there to be huge variation in the experience of youth both across and within societies.
Besides the semi-formal definitions of the concept provided by agencies such as the United Nations the term is commonly used informally, applied to young people of various ages often younger than 15, so when we use the term sociologically it is important to keep in mind and be clear about what ages we are referring to!
(1) The United Nations (2013) Definitions of Youth.
(2) Timeline Image of puberty, adolescence. – By Mikael Häggström – Own work, Public Domain.
(3) OECD: Updated Youth Action Plan.