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Last Updated: 06/01/2012Reconstructing the Notion of Youth
Shahbaz Israr Khan
Youth are variously described as the hope and future of our species or the most irresponsible and potentially violent of our kind. Unfortunately, it seems as though this later view has gained ground among certain social critics who see a large youth populations as potentially destabilizing to society. As Shahbaz Israr Khan argues, it's time to reconstruct our notion of "youth".
“Our civilization is doomed if the unheard-of actions of our younger generations are allowed to continue.”
This inscription was found on a 4000 years old tablet in Sumerian city of Ur. But unfortunately, in the world of today youth is one of the marginalized segments of the society and most of the policies of the governments of the world are unable to address and hear the needs and voices of youth. Mostly youth is seen as a security matter or a production unit. The International Labor Organization’s (ILO) latest report (October 2011) on global youth employment presents a grim picture for the future of youth in the job market in the face of the current economic crisis and calls them a ‘scarred’ generation. According to the report, youth are three times more likely than adults to be among the 900 million people currently unemployed and the trend is higher in female youth as compared to their male counterparts.
Recently, the theories like ‘Youth Bulge’ have got much attention and caught public attention in security circles, especially after the revolution in the Arab World, where youth have overthrown governments and become an overwhelming force of social and political change. Occupy Wall Street Campaigns have also caused many people to think about the implications of marginalization of youth in programs, policies, processes, and procedures.
The debate of youth gives birth to several questions: What exactly is meant by term “youth”? Is youth an important segment of the society? Is there any relationship of youth with violence? Do we need to treat youth as a risk or a dividend? Why do current approaches tend to look at youth as a machine or a labor force and not as human beings? This paper addresses some of these critical questions that are related to ‘scarred’ generation and deconstructs the present notion of youth.
What is Youth? How to define youth?
There are different approaches to look at how the term ‘youth’ is defined. Youth define themselves in the context of having plentiful energy, a sense of leadership, curiosity and vision for the future, “Dreamer, full of energy, want to make a mark in life, impulsive and one who are not scarred to take risks;” said a 19 years old volunteer of Bargad, Quratulain.Youth growing up today have far more power and potential to create change than any previous generation of youth. Much of this shift is a direct result of the information revolution and access to opportunities that have been provided to youth, especially to those growing up in the information age. Youth is one of most important time in lifecycle of a human being. This stage is full of enthusiasm, dynamism, vibrancy and has to be used in such a way that it results in overall development of the society. It has huge energy through the innovative and out parameter desire to look beyond traditional ways to solve societal problems may also work otherwise.
Dictionaries like Oxford Dictionary describes the word youth as the time period between childhood and adult age, immature, under the process of development and state associated with vigor and freshness. But the grim fact is that today the word youth is used in a negative connotation, the word that has become the symbol of security threat and violence. As Oxford Dictionary describes in word trend,
“Youth" was once the ultimate state, envied and romanticized by those who had left it behind, with youths themselves celebrated as the possessors of beauty and potential. But that time has passed, with the Oxford English Corpus telling a sorry tale of the state of today’s youth: unemployed, disaffected, nuisance, and drunken are some of the most common modifiers, while almost all of the verbs associated with youths are violent or threatening, with attack, smash, vandalize, intimidate, and assault all scoring highly. And youths cannot simply meet—they congregate, gather, and even plague: intimidating gangs of baseball-capped youths congregating around the newsstands a local parade plagued by nuisance youths.”
Different literature and agencies have different age brackets and concepts for “youth”, some people even negate the idea of youth and remark it as a Western agenda, “The concept of youth is a Western concept and a political construct.… Youth is a problematic, intermediary and ambivalent category, chiefly defined by what it is not: youth are not dependent children, nor are they independent, socially responsible adults.” According to United Nations youth are the persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years, World Bank accounts youth between the age of 15 and 24, Danish Youth Council defines youth between the ages of 15 and 34, common wealth program works with ‘young people’ who fall in the age bracket of 15-29 years and German social scientist Gunnar Heinsohn also indicated the age of 15-29 years as a youth age bracket where the probability of youth in violent activities may increase especially in ‘developing countries’.
In this paper, we define youth as an individual who falls in the age of 15-29 years. Moreover, we also state that youth is not a uniform group; it can further be classified into subgroups like female youth and male youth; youth with disabilities; privileged youth and unprivileged youth; married and unmarried youth; literate and illiterate youth; and so on. So here we acknowledge the fact that youth is not a uniform universe but composition of diverse subsets. Defining in terms of age will take into account all individuals who fall within this age bracket.
Is Youth Violent or Increase in Youth Population ‘Youth Bulge’ Makes it Violent?
Most of the literature does not establish that youth is inherently violent; rather most of the researches relate violence with increase in youth population and limited number of resources. Increase in youth population in a society is remarked as, ‘Youth Bulge’. What is Youth Bulge? When population pyramid, also called age structure diagram (shows the distribution of various age groups in a population) is in expansive stage: a high proportion of children, a rapid rate of population growth, and a low proportion of older people then it means that a population has large number of youth. The expansive case was described as "youth bulge" by Gary Fuller. The following age structure diagram shows expensive stage/ youth bulge in Pakistan.
Around the world, sixty-two countries, many of them in the Middle East, are currently ranked as “very young” which means that two-thirds of their populations are under the age of thirty. When countries that experienced new conflict in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were cross-referenced with their age structure at the beginning of each of those decades, very young structures were found to have the strongest correlation with occurrences of civil conflict. In 1990s, countries with a very young structure were three times more likely to experience conflict than countries with a mature structure. Between 1970 and 1999, 80 percent of all new outbreaks of civil conflicts occurred in countries in which 60 percent or more of the population was under age 30. Samuel P. Huntington also points out that the existence of large youth bulges account for many of the inter-civilization conflicts in the late twentieth century.This phenomenon is partially explained by Moller in ‘Youth as a Force in the Modern World’, a classic article which established the relationship of large youth cohorts with the French revolution of 1789and demonstrated the importance of economic depression on the largest German youth cohorts ever in explaining the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s.
What Factors Might Lead Youth Bulge to Violence?
Above presented literature holds view that youth bulge may lead civil unrest and may cause conflicts within a society. In this section, we will highlight different school of thoughts with distinctive approaches to the debate.
Gunnar Heinsohn argues that an excess in especially youth male population predictably leads to social unrest, war and terrorism, as the "third and fourth sons" that find no prestigious positions in their existing societies rationalize their impetus to compete by religion or political ideology. The investigation by Hudson and Boer about the security implications of Asia’s surplus male populations (high sex ratio) are on the same lines that brings into consideration the assumption that male youth is tend to be more violent as compared to female youth, especially in societies where male ratio is higher as compared to female ratio which as a result lead to offspring selection for instance in China and India. Richard P. Cincotta mentions following demographic risk factors in relation to youth bulge and violence : i) rapid urban population growth; ii) low levels of per capita cropland and/ or fresh water; iii) Migration; iv) Aging and Population decline; vii) High mortality rates among working age adults viii)Differential growth rates among ethnic and religious groups; and v) high sex ratio. Here the fifth demographic factor of Richard P. Cincotta also highlights the assumption of male youth as violent.
The UN High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change refers to youth as a potential threat to security and asserts that a “surging youth population” – combined with unemployment, urbanization and other factors – can lead to violence. Another notion emphasizes Malthusian population pressures on food and other resources. Thomas Homer-Dixon, for example, claims that such pressures produce scarcities that, in the presence of other factors, may lead to conflict. This perspective has been criticized by other scholars such as Tobais Hagmann who argues that “social actors” can “contribute to, perceive, and cope with environmental change and degradation” in a way that may significantly reduce the negative impacts of population growth.
Similarly, not all economists support the idea of youth as a security threat, arguing instead that more youth in the population structures of a region (a larger pool of human capital) creates opportunities for increased savings and investments for economic growth. The macro-level evidence complements and reinforces the micro-level evidence by showing that per capita income grows more rapidly when the number of working-age adults is growing faster.
Where is Female Youth in the Debate?
Most of the theories related to youth and violence are based on the assumption that male youth is more violent as compared to female youth. The flaw in this assumption is that it marginalizes female youth in the research circles and consequently in programs and policies. As if one assumes that female youth is less violent as compared to male youth then it is most probably that female youth is less important as far as security is concerned. Consequently, programs will be developed to cater the needs of male youth and there is high probability that female youth would be marginalized. As the UNDP report, ‘Youth and Violence Conflict-society and Development in Crisis’ highlights:
“Although the necessity of incorporating a gender dimension is recognized in theory, many studies on youth and violence still implicitly or explicitly refer to young males. Generally speaking, while there is a vast literature on the violence perpetrated against women and girls, young women tend to disappear when it comes to theories on youth and violence, most likely because they are perceived as less of a threat. As a result, the way in which young women negotiate the trials of youth, and their capacities and rationale for violence (and for peace) are under-studied.”
Moreover, such assumptions fail to recognize the social structures of the society and discriminations within the society. Around the time of puberty, societal expectations and the personal aspirations of male youth and female youth begin to diverge. Youth is often the time when “the world expands for boys and contracts for girls.” Many youth female face discrimination in getting education as their male counterparts are preferred over them. There seems to be a perception that youth, as a status, is more relevant for boys than for girls. Moreover, even if a female youth reaches the education institutions, her probability of getting a job are less, and even if she gets the job, she is under-paid.
Summing up the Debate
Most of the theories of youth and violence are from West, which view increasing male youth population in developing countries as a security threat. It seems to be highly political agenda to attribute increase in male youth population with violence. German Professor Gunnar Heinsohn, who is also known for his theory of ‘Youth Bulge’, is an advocate to stop funding of Western countries to UNRWA as he thinks that funding to UNRWA means to support the youth bulge in Gaza and to empower insurgents and resistant forces like Hamas to fight against Israel. Some of his comments are highly prejudiced, as in an article, ‘Ending the West’s Proxy War Against Israel- Stop funding a Palestinian youth bulge and fighting will stop too’ he writes, “The reason for Gaza's endless youth bulge is that a large majority of its population does not have to provide for its offspring. Most babies are fed, clothed, vaccinated and educated by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.” Most of studies conducted by United States Institute of Peace (USIP) are influenced by the theory of youth bulge and thus place youth in the security paradigm. Programs and policies based upon the foundations of such theories fail to recognize youth as human beings and treat them as ‘Others’ who in certain circumstances may become violent, howsoever, they fail to recognize the discriminatory systems and flaws within the systems that have deprived youth of basic necessities of life like shelter, food and clothing. If 900 million youth is unemployed then it is not the mistake of youth or it is not the inherent characteristic of youth, instead it is the failure of the system.
Instead of viewing youth of developing countries as a security threat, West must take into consideration the systems which suppress and oppress the youth of developing countries like capitalism and its domineering financial institutions, Transnational Corporations and war industries. Increase in youth population is not a problem but the problem are the oppressive systems and failure of institutions which provoke youth to come on the streets for their rights, it might be the wall street or the Arab street or any Afghan street. As, Goldstone points out that large youth populations can indulge into conflicts as they are more easily attracted towards new ideas and therefore challenge the conventional form of authority. Therefore, instead of blaming increased youth population and maintain the status quo we must deconstruct the systems that have led youth to rise.
One of the main reasons of youth to be in conflict with the system is the inequality within our societies. Economists like Kaiser Bengali (Advisor of Chief Minister of Sindh, Pakistan) attributes youth violence with ‘wealth gap’ in large cities of Pakistan: “When the level of economic activity is insufficient, it can lead to unemployment and naturally inequality.”Choucri argues that such economic depression can lead to instability and the weakening of state legitimacy, thereby creating social conditions conducive to youth violence.Other analysts link youth violence with failures in education and limited employment opportunities.
We sum up the debate with the thought that youth is the most energetic and forceful segment of the society and has tendency to change systems and whenever youth will be discriminated by the systems it will encounter the system. ILO must not call us ‘Scarred’ generation instead we are generation that needs to create change in order to deconstruct oppressive structures and reconstruct them. We will prove ourselves to be ‘Resistance’ generation.
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Shahbaz Israr Khan is an MA candidate at the University for Peace.