Contemporary adult society takes an ambivalent attitude to youth, which is seen as both a state to be envied and as a population to be feared. The desire to capture or retain ‘youth’ has long been part of the human condition, including in an exemplary way when, in 1511, Ponce de Leon is said to have set out for the New World in an attempt to discover the Fountain of Youth. That impulse remains powerful today. In striking contrast, however, youth has also been seen as at best irresponsible and, at worst, as posing a threat to the social order if left untutored or unrestrained. Conveying in this way contradictory messages about a key formative stage in the lives of successor generations, the word youth encapsulates a complex conceptualization which surfaces in a changeable mix in any contemporary debate on what being young might mean or what wider significance such a phase of personal and social life may have.
The noun youth comes from OE geogulp and Old High German jugund. As presented in OED, the word has six main senses. Senses (1) and (2), however, “often blend together”:
(1) ‘the fact or state of being young; youngness’, as for example in the phrase “in the bloom of youth.”
(2) ‘the time when one is young; the early part of life; more specifically the period from puberty till the attainment of full growth, between childhood and adult age’.
Both meanings are of course subjective. According to the United Nations, definitions of youth change in different “demographic, financial, economic and social settings…”; it nevertheless proposes that age is the easiest way to define youth, and fixes on the years between 15 and 24. In the UK, by contrast, Youth Courts deal with young people between 10 and 18, while in New Zealand the age-range is 12 to 16. In the first OED meaning, it should be noted, youth need not apply only to humans. The word also has wide-ranging and suggestive metaphorical power (e.g. when, in 1850, the Morning Post referred to Canada and other colonies as formerly “in their youth”, but at that historical moment on their way to maturity). In such metaphorical senses, as with human youth, actual age is variable and perhaps irrelevant.
In sense (2), youth is often used interchangeably with adolescence, and is understood as a period of physical change. Increasingly in 20c, the period of bodily change is viewed as being also marked by psychological development. But the psychology of youth was from its earliest construction problematic. The pioneering psychologist G. Stanley Hall, whose books include Youth: Its Education, Regimen and Hygiene (1906), claimed that youth, particularly in males, involves a need to learn both discipline and control in order to offset physical and psychological changes (often related to sexuality). His work influenced the later rise of the field of Youth Studies, which put forward the idea of specific youth cultures and sub-cultures. For some researchers, such as those of the Chicago School, such sub-cultures might commonly manifest themselves in criminality, for example in the form of youth gangs (in marked contrast with institutionalized youth clubs or youth movements). In the 1960s, by contrast, youth came to be viewed not only as a period of potential alienation from mainstream culture but as also a time of counter-cultural creativity and attraction to anti-establishment political movements. More recently again, recognition of youth as a period marked by cultural difference has been increasingly seized on as a marketing opportunity, evidenced by the number of companies which claim to specialize in youth marketing.
Sense (3), ‘A quality or condition characteristic of the young’, and sense (4), ‘personified or vaguely denoting any young persons’, can be grouped together. Each rests on an assumption that generalization is possible once youth is viewed as a distinct period. OED examples show the possibility of either positive or negative connotations: youthful freshness and youthful vigour, as compared with youthful folly and youthful rashness. Conceptually these attributes may be two sides of the same coin; the quality of youthfulness is invoked not only to explain but also to mitigate blame for less positive behaviours. Another collocation, youthful appearance, seems to have only a positive meaning and has long been one of the key attractions of youth. Youthful appearance is also, in contrast to many other youthful characteristics, seen as predominantly female and of course like youth culture, has been heavily commodified.
Sense (5), ‘Young people collectively’, and the concrete sense (6), ‘a young person’, are also closely related. The OED suggests that the latter meaning is used especially of young men, but it is arguable that both meanings are heavily gendered and male (and have been so since at least 19c). For example, while the Nazi Party established its Hitler Youth, this was an entirely male organization; the female equivalent was known as the League of German Girls. While youth as a characteristic may be seen as both positive and negative, and the period of youth as time for growth to maturity, phrases such as the youth and youths are typically viewed in a negative way, by both government and many in the general population, as constituting a social problem. There is evidence that young people between 14 and 18 are more likely to offend than other age groups. Anxiety about youth and the youth in contemporary society also appears far more general. In the words of Henry Giroux, “Youth are no longer at risk but considered the risk” (Z Magazine, 1999).
The idea that youths pose a particular risk to society is not new. There have been a succession of moral panics about youthful behaviour since at least 19c, which saw the conceptual construction of the youthful hooligan as a particular social threat. But anxiety about youthful misbehaviour has intensified in recent years. One example of this is the reaction of both public and government in the UK to the murder in 1993 of the child Jamie Bulger by two twelve-year old boys. Although child murderers were and remain extremely rare, the result of the killing was a moral panic which saw, according to one criminologist, the introduction “of ever more repressive youth justice policies” which were designed, in echoes of G. Stanley Hall, to “re-install discipline, decency, standards and order” in young people and which have resulted twenty years later in a system of “youth justice which is the most repressive in Europe”. (Prof Barry Goldstone, the Guardian, 11 February 2013).
In response to such developments, which as with most criminal justice policies have had greatest impact on the poor and racial minorities, some young people (again predominantly male) have chosen to reclaim the terms youth and the youth as markers of their marginal social status. As 2 Pac sang in 1994, “They got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor; say there ain’t no hope for the youth and the truth is the it ain’t no hope for the future.” Or as the band NWA put it in 1989, “Since I was a youth, I smoked weed out; Now I’m the mother fucka that ya read about.” Others have incorporated youth into the names of their ‘gangs’, such as “Villa Youth”, although they are more likely to call themselves Boys or Boyz. Perhaps the apotheosis of the commonly held view of youth and the youth as posing an undifferentiated social threat was the recent invention, and then widespread adoption by shop owners, of the “Mosquito MK4”. The Mosquito is a “sounder” which emits a very high tone that can only be heard by people under 25 years old; the tone, according to its manufacturer, becomes “highly annoying” but is “completely harmless”. Serving to “disperse groups of teenagers” who are “loitering in an anti-social manner”, the MOSQUITO is marketed in a manner that conflicts with many other forms of commercialization of youth: as a “YOUTH DETERRENT”.