What is youth? – exploring the concept

Interesting article on the conceptualization of youth. Originally posted on Africa photo stories blog and reproduced below with the kind permission of the author, Helen Gebregiorgis.

At the age of 20, I travelled to Africa for the first time and with my mother and four siblings, I went to our home of origin, Eritrea. Although my mother was the primary planner of how we were going to spend our time in the country, I still was prideful for independently funding my part of the trip. I felt like a true adult. But my perspective of myself was challenged when I met my younger cousins in the rural areas of Eritrea. It was then that I felt a lot more juvenile than I believed I was. It was there that I was exposed to hard-working young people with responsibilities that far advanced my own. I became more perplexed when I saw some of my younger cousins and their peers who were as young as 5 years of age who were just as hard-working. Here I was surrounded by children and they too had responsibilities that I never did at their age. I recall one cousin of mine who was about 16 years of age but could easily pass as a mature adult man. This was not because of his physical appearance but because of his mannerisms and the role he played in his house. In his situation, his father worked in a different city and could only visit a few times in the year. This circumstance put my 16-year-old cousin in the place of the ‘head of the house’ because he was the eldest son. He became a caretaker of the house and farm and supported his mother in caring for his younger siblings.

Sometimes people are born into situations where they do they not have the opportunity to fully explore their potentials and grow into themselves. Because of their socio-economic situations, they quickly transition from childhood to adulthood. Therefore, maybe youth is not a stage that is only definitive as a period between childhood and adulthood. A young person can automatically have adult responsibilities at an early age. They can sometimes even be the main money-maker of their families at an early age, resulting in them never fully exploring their ‘time of the youth’. This is something that I observed when I first travelled to Eritrea and it made me realize that I have had my time of youth but I also had a lot more growing to do.

George Barnard Shaw once said ‘Youth is wasted on the young’ and there are many who would disagree with that statement but I think it is the word youth, which is a complex concept that is hard to put into a fixed ‘group’. Youth to me is a stage of curiosity, growth, exploration, and cherishing your true nature, and being in a place where you are vulnerable. I don’t think youth wasted on the young. I think youth becomes taboo, as people get older. But the truth is we are always growing and we are always evolving. There are countless times no matter the age, where a person experiences the urgency and desire to know and learn more. We should be more youthful. All of us. Youth is a transitory period but it is in self.  And it can be experienced again and again and again. Just because a person has reached a stage in their life where they are considered ‘old’ in years does not mean that they don’t have the qualities of a youthful person.

Is there really a terminal age for youth? This is a fascinating question to think about because how can we truly determine the end of youth when so many people in the world experience life so differently? Perhaps youth is not a time period between childhood and adulthood but is a time period when we are in our most creative and determined and dedicated and willing to grow and learn. Perhaps it occurs at different times in our life. Although this may sound bizarre and idealistic, the truth is that many people do not experience youth the same and this makes the task of defining the concept a complex one and questions the idea of a universal understanding of youth.

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