What Is A Youth?

Today I received a request from Richard Lewis, long the voice behind the National Youth Union movement, as well as the poignant Chavez/King Youth Teams program. Richard asked me to help define what a youth is, and this post is my response to him. I began to define this in the Wikipedia article on youth, which I rewrote for the first time almost four years ago.

Youth is an attitude, like George Bernard Shaw met when he wrote, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In this usage Shaw isolates the experience of being young from the physiology of being young. This definition is apparent throughout our culture, and comes across when adults attempt to use jargon, wear clothes, or do other actions preferred among youth. This is apparent in mainstream media, consumerism, or other vehicles that transmit culture

The more static and concrete definition of youth is one that focuses on a physical age. It is this one that laws, rules, regulations, and other forms of policy at work in the structures throughout our society rely on (as shown in the Wikipedia article.). In this sense, youth may be defined as anyone between the ages of 10 and 20; 12 and 21; 14 and 25, or; any of the myriad other ranges that are so often staked out by local, state, national, and international policy bodies. These are usually determined in order to limit people from being involved, whether within the age range or outside of it. This can be the case in a youth council specifically defined to engage young people between the ages of 11 and 18; or a store policy that disallows anyone under 18 from entering without an adult.

Each of these definitions serves its own purpose in our society. Within youth-serving organizations many adults feel righteous and powerful as they define their own ideals with the first definition, while adamantly demanding the second is absolutely necessary. They might hang Robert Kennedy’s quote on their door, “This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease,” with a second sign underneath that says, “YOUTH: Don’t enter this office without knocking!”

At the same time, in a society that so strictly segregates young people from adults in schools, nonprofits, prisons, and jobs, we routinely blur the distinctions for the benefit of financial gain. Actress Sophia Loren identified this when she said, “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.” Her vision was youth as a perception, a way that you view things. This definition is dynamic and elastic, allowing for a lot of things to be defined as “youthful,” as well as allowing adults to appropriate useful things for their own desires. In turn, this allows for a lot of products and services to be targeted at adults who idolize youth, as it gives them permission to want to be young in spirit by buying their way to youth, rather than unlearning their internal adultism and confronting ephebiphobia. This perspective allows people who want to be young to discriminate against youth.

SO, RATHER THAN lay down a concrete definition of youth here, I will simply say this: Defining age is necessary in an age-obsessed society where youth are targeted as demons and as idols. In naming your age range, which are you intending to do, demonize or idolize youth?

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