The concept of the ‘young adult’, also synonymous with adolescence and youth, is one which is heavily context-dependent. Over time, the perception of the concept has shifted from merely a developmental outlook to one which is also bound by a socio-cultural understanding. Broadly, it is believed to be a stage between childhood and adulthood, and is influenced by several social, economical and cultural factors.
James and James (2008) in Key Concepts in Childhood Studies defines youth as a young person who is not yet legally an adult, but also not necessarily a teenager. It is a young person who is often too old to be considered a child. The scholars hold that youth can be seen as a period in one’s life between childhood and adulthood. They emphasize that it is a societal construction. Especially in the western industrialized societies, it is not just related to chronological age (usually regarded as the ages of and between 13 and 18) but also to physical and social development. As such, then, a young adult is defined by puberty and adolescence. This transition from childhood to adulthood is associated with social experimentation and the emergence of the social self and social identity. Adolescents need to also deal with the general expectation of preparing for and eventually learning the socio-economic skills linked to adulthood.
James and James (2008) explain that the term youth is one which is laced with ambiguity, because it is ultimately a social construct. The short period of being a young adult has changed in modernity as compared to before, more so because of the emphasis on education and prolonged dependency on the family in western industrialised societies. The spatio-temporal reality of youth therefore changes with time and context.
In his introduction to Act Your Age! A Cultural Construction of Adolescence (2012) Frank Topping further highlights the social construction of the concept of the young adult. The concept is riddled with assumptions, particularly from those who are not adolescents themselves. Young adults are thought of gradually ‘coming of age’ into adulthood. They are believed to be controlled by hormones, a view that grounds the idea of adolescence to biology. They are also expected to be non-autonomous and conforming, as they are apparently peer-oriented. They are also often signified by age. Furthermore, historically, and mainly in the context of the United States, defining adolescence was a way of perpetuating certain popular preoccupations of the public. An example he gives is that of nationalism. It was a common post-war belief that young persons (boys in particular) were the ones who needed to be swayed into developing love for one’s nation. Defining and utilizing adolescence, then, proved useful for the spread of popular beliefs among older persons.
Based on these assumptions and the historical reality of the concept of young adult, Topping (2012) contends that there are two dominant views of adolescence. One is the biological framework, linked to the belief that bodies of young adults have naturally occurring and biologically generated characteristics. The second is the socio-historical framework, linked to the belief that youth is constructed in distinctive ways based on economic and social opportunities. Topping (2012) provides an alternative view to better understand the young adult: that of the post-modern framework. Borrowing from Foucault, he attempts to shift the perception from a human-centred to a discourse-centred view. The other frameworks and assumptions concentrated on adolescents, but with this post-modern view, the emphasis will be on adolescence. He argues for the rejection of assumptions and the only way to do it is to look closely at the social relations linked to youth.
This view concludes that youth is indeed defined differently by different groups and is context-dependent, and that simultaneously, all adolescents are subject to the ideas and expectations related to the concept of adolescence. The idea of the young adult has various implications in particular moments and localities, but it is also broadly defined as the not-adult, which is an influence prevalent in all cultural groups. Topping’s (2012) post-modern view thus goes beyond the limitations of age tied to the ‘young adult’, and takes into account social relations while keeping in mind the oppositional nature of the concept: a young adult is, in fact, always perceived as not an adult. According to him, this perspective allows for adolescence to be seen with visible personal qualities of young persons – qualities that are essential for the building of modern society.
Since adults hold the view that young persons are harbouring qualities that should ideally shape them into capable adults, young adult as a genre, noted especially in today’s literature and media, is prejudiced by what we want to say to our teenagers. Writer and scholar VanderStaay (1992) underlines this detail while discussing the role of young adult literature to young readers. Such literature serves as a model from which to learn from, identify with, and most importantly, to emulate. But he further notes that this genre is not merely dominated by adult imposition, since it is also equally influenced by what young people want to hear.
James, A. and James, A. (2008) ‘Youth.’ In: Key concepts in childhood studies. Sage, 141-142.
Topping, F. (2012). ‘Introduction: Troubling Teenagers’. In: Act Your Age! A Cultural Construction of Adolescence. (2. ed.). Taylor and Francis.
VanderStaay, S. (1992). Young-Adult Literature: A Writer Strikes the Genre. English Journal, 81(4), 48–52.