Should we stop talking about “youth”?

Youth and young people are becoming a hot topic among development donors and actors. But who exactly do these "labels" apply to, and are they too broad for effective policies? Or do they create too narrow a focus which is blind to larger structural issues?

A driver of the Mogadishu Taxi Company waits for a fare outside the company's head office in the Somali capital. The company, according to one of it's drivers, also enables employment opportunities for Somalia's youth following two decades of conflict in the Horn of Africa nation that shattered a generation. Photo by Stuart Price via flickr (CC0 1.0) 

Varyingly, "youth" are being identified as "at risk” – of unemployment, of marginalisation or abuses – or “as risk”, where they may engage in undesirable activities from crime to terrorism, armed violence or migration. However, there are also many calls to understand youth “as opportunity”, particularly in the context of Africa’s “youth bulge” and its promise of a vast demographic dividend. 

A recent visit to the Dutch Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) and some great discussions with research colleagues there, brought some clarity into the interlinked promises and problems arising from development actors’ burgeoning interest in youth and work. Clearly, a better understanding of the specific vulnerabilities and needs of particular young subpopulations is useful, and related efforts should be welcomed.

But if applied wrongly, a simplistic focus on young people (or a narrow “youth lens”) may obscure more than it illuminates. The reasons include categories that are too unclear,heterogeneous needs and what a “youth” focus misses. 

In the context of questions around young people’s labour market prospects, particularly in agriculture, which both IDS and KIT are working on, these are particularly salient.

So who exactly are "youth"?

Youth or young people are anything but an evident group. Even more than “women” or “ethnic minorities”, it is unclear to whom the “youth” label applies.

The United Nations generally defines youth as 15 to 24, but also sometimes as up to 32 years of age; the African Union, meanwhile, understands anyone between 15 and 35 to be youth. Flynn and Sumberg report youth savings initiatives targeting people of up to 35 years of age.

If where to draw the line is unclear, whether to draw it may also not be clear.

Given that an estimated three quarters of Africa’s population are under 35, and that 40% of the population is between the ages of 15 and 35, does it make sense for policies and programmes to specifically target a separate “youth” population?

Policies aimed at "youth" often imply "young men"

This large  an extremely heterogeneous group. For instance, what associates an ethnic-minority, poorly literate, married male small-scale farmer in rural India with a university-graduate bachelorette seeking formal employment in an African city? Does a 21-year-old male parent and household head in decent employ have needs in common with a single, unemployed 30-year-old female living with parents?

“Youth” may not be much of a relevant unifier. Moreover, the label, and policies to tackle youth employment in particular, often implies: young men.

While most policies and programmes do differentiate, the label “youth” itself often suggests a different gender than “young women and men”. Not least because of intersecting identities, the “youth” category might misinform policy development by suggesting homogeneity and distracting from more meaningful identity markers and relative positionalities – perhaps most acutely gender, place, ethnic privilege and economic class.

How many issues are actually youth-specific (and not part of a wider problem)?

Another key question is whether many issues are actually youth-specific.

For instance, if problems pertaining to young people’s role in agriculture are related to factors such as climate change, lack of water, adverse markets, or class-based exploitation (landowners versus labourers), a youth lens doesn’t fit.

It may even focus attention away from structural problems and exacerbate them.

Working on young people’s (lack of) access to finance might be counterproductive or harmful in contexts where farmers generally are already chronically indebted. Asking why farmers (regardless of age) are indebted, meanwhile, could help address some of the structural problems which both older and younger generations’ face in the rural economy. Maybe the key to making farming more attractive for youth is making it more attractive overall.

Climate-smart farms in Western Kenya, photo by Cecilia Schubert via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Are we simply superimposing, Northern Eurocentric images of youth?

Going conceptions of youth might also reflect Eurocentric assumptions. For instance, becoming an adult is generally represented as a process from dependence to independence; from being provided for to providing; from being a responsibility to having responsibility.

However, many young children in developing countries already provide economically and otherwise have responsibility in their households, as some of the more critical “youth transitions” literature emphasises.

Imagining the development of young people into (ideally) autonomous, independent agents might make little sense in the context of tight-knit, multigenerational family economies. These involve far more complex interdependencies and less individualism than Northern small family units.

There is a risk of policies instrumentalising youth

Young people are often seen as agents or vessels for change. Development practitioners often focus on youth to obtain particular outcomes, from ICT adoption, to uptake of so-called modern financial products and “good financial habits", or transforming society through entrepreneurship.

The instrumentalisation is very striking in some parts of the agriculture discourse, where fears that young people may leave farming communities connect with concerns over food security.

Some policies and programmes, therefore, aim to keep future generations on the land, often ignoring obstacles faced by farmers of all generations (including exploitation by landowners, financiers and procurers; price volatilities; insufficient land; or climate-related risks). A focus on youth could engender policies that deny young people their agency and aspirations, which may include being the first to leave often exploitative and financially unrewarding occupations.

Young lives do matter…

Since youth constitute a large proportion of the population in developing countries, it is clearly important that programmes and policies be appropriate for them – not primarily out of fear that they may otherwise join gangs, fight civil wars, or cross the Mediterranean.

It is good if development policymakers and practitioners develop a keener eye for the variegated issues which diverse young people in different countries face.

…but need to be better understood.

However, for reasons including those above, the youth lens on development problems also entails risks.

Good policies will involve not just employing the concept of “youth”, but also disentangling and problematising it, with more thinking along the lines, for instance, of “How to ensure that young, rural married women from disadvantaged backgrounds can participate, and benefit from this intervention?”, and less “How can we focus this on youth?”, or “How can we bring youth into the picture?”.

This blog was written by Philip Mader and originally published by the Institute of Development Studies.