Rethinking Youth: Perceptions of Young People Shape Public Agenda

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At first glance, youth would seem to be a very straightforward concept. It is a period of life, sandwiched between childhood and adulthood. Being there is framed by a number of identifiable physical and psychological characteristics. Yet, defining what youth is, and who belongs there, is increasingly a matter of debate. Rethinking Youth (Wyn and White, 1997) was written to provide a perspective on this debate – one of several books and articles that were published at that time, arguing that a new approach was needed.1 The distinctive feature of each of these works is that they take a sociological approach to the study of young people, emphasizing the interplay between social conditions and individual lives. In this article, I present the key elements of our “rethinking” of the concept of youth and briefly discuss what this means for practice. Why Rethink Youth? Basically, rethinking the concept of youth is necessary because the social, economic and political conditions under which young people are growing up are changing. Yet, thinking about youth, adolescence and young people-and the policies that address their needs-continues to carry a strong legacy from concepts that gained currency in the 1950s. These concepts were framed by developmental psychology approaches, which carried the assumption that social and physical maturation were closely linked. The idea that there were identifiable and [universal stages of development] and of identity formation was plausible in the 1950s, when patterns of life were in many respects more predictable than they are today. The notion of a linear progression through a series of linked stages was reinforced by the practices of many young people. A profession grew out of this idea and catered to the concern that young people who did not proceed according to the established model of adolescent development would not become normal adults. At that time, school was the main occupation for young people, catered for by the newly introduced mass education system. For most, employment followed the decision to leave school-a minority went on to further study. Establishing an independent place to live was the next step, and for the majority, marriage. Even in the 1970s, these patterns were still largely in place. The Post-1970 Generation More recently, we have found the concept of the post-1970 generation useful in generating a contemporary definition of youth.2 The name enables us to focus on the ways in which the meanings of growing up have changed, and at the same time to hold onto continuities with the past. A look at some statistics (see Social Indicators Box) provides an indication of social change from the 1970s to the 1990s. During this period there has been rapid, and some would argue unprecedented, social change to people’s lives. Comparing the statistics for the 1970s and 1990s shows the extent of change to these patterns in Australia. In the 1970s, the majority of young women (83 percent) were married by the time they were 25. Twenty years later, well under half of young women aged 25 were married, and the trend to put off marriage or not to marry at all is increasing. This is affecting the age at which women become mothers. In the 1990s, around a quarter of Australian 25-year-old women were mothers, but the figure was much higher in the 1970s (66 percent). There have been big changes to work patterns too. Young people between 15 and 19 years old are less likely now to be in full-time work than they were 30 years ago. The proportion of 25 to 34-year-old women in full-time work has increased over this time, and the proportion of men in this age group in full-time work has decreased-although there are still twice as many men as women in full-time work. These changes between the 70s and 90s mean that young people who were born after 1970 (the post-1970 generation) know no other world than one in which the traditional markers of adult status (such as employment, marriage, and parenthood) are uncertain and in which change, fragmentation and disruption are the norm. Fuzzy Boundaries One of the most difficult questions for defining youth is defining the boundary with adulthood. Most of the markers of adult status are ambiguous, often reversible (like marriage) and contradictory (for example, different legal limits for adult practices such as drinking alcohol, driving a car, or enlisting in the army). Many studies of youth transitions argue that youth has become an ever-extended transition process. Our own research shows that there is strong evidence for the view that the boundaries of youth have become extended at both ends. One of the most well researched elements of this is young people’s experience of education and work. It is now the norm for young people who have graduated from university to make do with part-time jobs in occupations that are peripheral to their field of training, while they negotiate a fragmented, contract-based labor market (Dwyer and Wyn, 2001). Our interpretation of this, however, is not that the period of youth has become extended, but that some key features of adult life have been changed. We suggest that the idea of “extended youth” is based on the misapprehension that this generation will achieve a transition [into the adulthood that was possible for the previous generation]. It would be mistaken to rely on the experience of a previous generation as normative. The reality is that even older people have had to change jobs and careers when they did not expect to and have had to reinvent themselves through various forms of continuing education. In other words, rather than facing an extended period of transition, there is evidence from Australia and the U.S. that the complex patterns of life that young people are shaping constitute a new adulthood.3 Recent studies have found a disparity between the aspirations of college students and their actual employment outcomes. For example, the following comment from one of the participants in our research on the experiences of graduates is typical: “Since obtaining my degree in biological science (majoring in physiology and biochemistry) I have found it increasingly difficult to find work. My friends are also unemployed and some work in areas not involved in science because they couldn’t find work. I have now decided to do voluntary work.” Many of our participants have difficulty in getting work that is related to their area of study, and others have been bitterly disappointed with the nature of the work, even though it is related to their study area. For example: “I’ve worked for the same company for six years and really don’t have any job satisfaction at all. The money is good and that’s all that keeps me there.” Our research is supported by studies from the U.K. and Canada that show that young people are having to cope with increasing contingency and risk in negotiating their transitions to adulthood, exercising choice and personal discretion. For example, when young people find that they cannot get a good job using their university qualification, they have to think of other options by themselves. They have to take chances, make difficult decisions and somehow keep positive: “Life has some very unexpected twists. The university course I took (and completed) lead to very limited opportunities. Now, through starting at the bottom, I have managed to step up a few rungs in an indirectly-related field, but it was my degree that enabled me to do this. My future is now looking very promising-it changes your whole perspective on life when your job satisfaction increases!” These studies are of older, college and university youth. However, even secondary school students are affected. It is now the norm for young people, even while they are in secondary school, to juggle study and work. While the exact proportions differ across Western countries, the pattern is fairly stable (Dwyer and Wyn, 2001: 81). This means that school and work are no longer sequential-they are concurrent. Young people are engaging earlier rather than later with adult life, in other areas of their lives too, in exploring sexualities, in having responsibilities for the care and support of other family members, and in their capacity to respond to consumption markets. The lines between youth and adulthood are increasingly blurred and non-sequential, and at the same time, it is increasingly evident that education, work and leisure are all important (simultaneous) sites for the identity work that young people have to do in order to survive. New Patterns Our concept of youth has generated an understanding of the extent to which young people today are required to make choices about all aspects of their lives, which in turn generate new patterns. For example, there is evidence that horizontal mobility is valued over the older concept of social mobility. Willis’ (1998) study of American youth describes the positive value they place on the autonomy of moving sideways from job to job, instead of the more traditional approach, of working one’s way up a vertical career ladder. Yet Old Patterns Remain At the same time that we explore these new patterns, it is important to acknowledge that older patterns are evident. Young people who can mobilize resources are better equipped to negotiate the new adulthood and young people have differential access to resources. Class, gender, race, geographic location and other divisions continue to exercise constraint on young people’s lives. Indicators of educational participation, educational outcomes, employment patterns, income and health reveal significant levels of inequality amongst young people (Dwyer and Wyn, 2001: 70). Yet the extent of inequality is often masked by a lingering belief in the existence of a mainstream, a majority who are normative, and those who are “at risk,” a minority who do not measure up to the norms. In fact, studies in the U.S., Australia and the U.K. reveal that close to a quarter of youth (a significant minority) are outside the mainstream (Dwyer and Wyn, 2001: 40). We argue that for the purposes of effective policy and program generation, it is necessary to move beyond conceptions of youth that place too strong a reliance on the assumption of normative behaviors, groups or patterns. Conclusion We have suggested that the idea of youth needs to be re-thought, because there have been so many changes to work, education, marriage and many other aspects of our world. Young people often have to live like adults and yet they are routinely denied the security of employment and of relationships that a previous generation took as the norm. Young people are the first group to be directly affected by changes and they will reflect these changes very immediately in their attitudes and behaviors, because they know no other world. This means that when older people are working with young people, in any capacity, they cannot assume that young people are just younger versions of themselves. The easiest way to do this is to make sure that young people have the opportunity to contribute to how things are done, to decisions that affect everyone and to solving problems. This is especially important for the management of nonprofit organizations, because of their role in providing social connectedness, support, opportunity and cohesion in very uncertain times. Endnotes 1. Examples include Rethinking the Youth Question by Phil Cohen, 1997, Macmillian: London; Young People and Social Change: Individualisation and Risk in Late Modernity by Andy Furlong and Fred Cartmel, 1997, Open University Press: Buckingham; and “Denaturalizing Adolescence: The Politics of Contemporary Representations,” Youth and Society, by Nancy Lesko, 1996. 2. This concept is spelled out in detail in Youth, Education and Risk: Facing the Future by Peter Dwyer and Johanna Wyn, 2001. 3. There are parallels between our Australian study of young people and studies of young people in the U.S. (Schneider, G. and Stevenson, D. 1999, The Ambitious Generation, Yale University Press: New Haven.) References Dwyer, Peter and Wyn, Johanna. 2001. Youth, Education and Risk: Facing the Future, Routledge/Falmer: London. Schneider, G. and Stevenson, D. 1999. The Ambitious Generation, Yale University Press: New Haven. Willis, S. 1998. “Teens at Work, Negotiating the Jobless Future,” in J. Austin and N. M. Willard (Eds), Generations of Youth: Youth Subcultures and History in 20th Century America, New York University Press: New York. Wyn, J. and White, R. 1997. Rethinking Youth, Sage: London. About the Author: Johanna Wyn is an associate professor in education at the University of Melbourne, Australia and director of its Youth Research Centre-many of the YRC projects involve participatory research with young people and collaborative research with schools, community organizations and government departments.