Young People And Transition From Childhood To Adulthood

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Young people can indeed fail to achieve adulthood but before I begin to answer this question, I would like to state that for the purposes of this essay, I will be using the term ‘youth’ to refer to all young people for this is the term that has come to represent this particular group of individuals in late modernity. It is important to acknowledge that both ‘youth’ and ‘adulthood’ are Western socially constructed categories that have come to dominate international discourse (Hall and Montgomery, 2000) for they make up what Young (1990) conceptualises as ‘social groups’. As per the characteristics of social groups, there are boundaries; boundaries which operate within rules of inclusion and exclusion (Valentine, 2003) into and out of the social group. Thus, throughout this essay, I draw largely from Valentine’s notion of boundaries as a tool of analysis to answer this question. Ultimately, I argue that it is these boundaries that determine whether or not a young person can become an adult and hence achieve this notion of adulthood for achievement is dependent upon the successful crossing of the boundaries. Whilst these boundaries exist universally, the nature of these boundaries in definitive terms vary across different temporalities and space due to varying socio-cultural, economic and political processes that youth are involved in. I thus argue that young people can indeed fail to achieve adulthood as recent research such as that by Langevang (2008), Ansell (2004) and Punch (2002), illustrate the difficulty for particular youth in different places to successfully cross such boundaries.

The UN definition of youth are those aged between 15-24 (, 2019). ‘Youth’ as a concept has grown longer throughout the 20th century as the gap between childhood and child rearing has expanded (Punch, 2002) and gained in significance in many societies.

I use popular conceptions of youth as ‘transition’ in relational terms that are complex and fluid which focuse on the individual’s progression of ‘becoming’ an adult through a series of identifiable and predictable processes (Uprichard, 2008). As already mentioned with regards to boundaries, this transition itself is universal but the nature of this transition is what differs from society to society and culture to culture. This conceptualisation of youth however is problematic as Skelton (cited in Punch. 2002) argues against the tendency to reduce youth to a transitory state of becoming, ‘rather than a recognized stage in its own right with distinctive experiences and issues’ (Gillies, 2000, cited in Punch 2002). This is because, as Punch argues, it imply’s an individualistic transition which does not allow for greater recognition of the blurred boundaries that exist in the Western sense via binaries of dependence and independence and the dividual and individual. There is therefore no singular point at which a young person becomes an adult for these vary across time and space as the series of boundaries that are crossed are sometimes recrossed via notions of ‘negotiated interdependence’ and ‘bounded agency’ (Punch, 2002, Valentine 2003) which I expand upon further throughout this essay. It is hence via this transitional conceptualising of youth where failure to achieve adulthood occurs. Nonetheless, the concept of ‘transition’ still provides a useful framework for exploring this question.

In normative terms, failure can occur as not all young people acquire what they need to become an adult and therefore enter adulthood. These failures can be viewed from the emic perspective of young people themselves and the etic perspective from adults and their views of youth transitions. Both works that I draw from Langevang (2008) and Ansell (2004) emphasise the primary role of the economy and economic hardship where the notion of education is also heavily embedded and the structural constraints that these have on particular youth i.e. young males and females on their transitions to adulthood. Whilst wider socio-cultural, economic and political factors such as class, ethnicity and rural/urban migrations also play a key role in youth transitions, I will be focusing on these economic and educational factors in addressing youth failures to adulthood.

Langevang’s work (2008) exemplifies that adulthood in Ghana is achieved on the basis of socially appropriate timing of different transitions: first one should finish their education, then acquire financial independence, then get married and establish an independent household, then have children. Only then is a person is considered a ‘full’ and ‘respectable’ human being. i.e. an adult that is ‘somebody’, a notion that is highly significant in Ghana in socio-cultural terms. This requires the following of this predetermined route which involves the gradual accumulation of social and material resources. Although, these transitions differ in gendered terms. For example, for a man to marry, he must provide a room, a fridge, some furniture, a suitcase of items and some money for the bride and her family. Many can’t even afford to rent a room as exemplified by the stories of Ibrahim and Abdul where the present situation of unemployment has made it difficult for them to accumulate the resources they need to enter into and sustain a marriage. So already, it could be viewed that these young Ghanaian males have failed to achieve adulthood as they are structurally constrained by their economic situation.

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Aisha, a young Ghanaian female, Langevang writes, is an adult in relation to her child, but in relation to her patrons she is positioned as ‘a small girl’. Aisha is but one example of the large number of young people who give birth before marriage and before they are economically self-sufficient. She thus goes on to occupy an ambiguous position in society for her status as an unmarried single mother has great socio-cultural significance. This is because marriage is a key socio-cultural marker of adulthood for both men and women but perhaps more socio-economically significant for women such as Aisha for it is through this socio-cultural institution that they can achieve young female personhood and hence adulthood.

However, all three stories reveal the non-linearity of the ‘boundary crossings’ associated with becoming an adult (Valentine, 2003) which not only move between different positions over their life courses but also between youth and adult positions in their everyday lives suggesting an approach to youth as a position in movement that varies over time and space (Langevang, 2007).

Furthermore, similar to what Ansell (2004) finds in Lesotho and Zimbabwe, young people in Ghana often enter secondary school with the aspiration of future formal wage employment. However, the market value of a certificate has decreased significantly, implying that today an education is no guarantee of anything, as Abdul’s story proved. The emerging picture is that there is no straightforward route to adulthood in present-day Accra. Likewise to Punch’s arguments I made earlier regarding the problematic conceptions of ‘youth as transition’, Langevang similarly writes ‘adulthood is not an end point at which people arrive, but rather encompasses composite positions that are achieved, a process of becoming that is continuous’.

Whilst these young Ghanaians may have failed to achieve adulthood, it could be viewed that they have only done so from the etic perspective as what they said for themselves in regard to their situations from the emic perspective, in relation to Langevang’s title, ‘we are managing’. Hence, challenging notions of failure.

Ansell’s work (2004) in Lesotho and Zimbabwe examines the gendered impacts of schooling on young people’s transitions to adulthood. She finds that young people attending school leave home sooner as they take on individual responsibility for their daily survival whilst other conventional pathways to adulthood such as marriage and childrearing are delayed. Here, once again marriage and childrearing are significant socio-cultural markers of adulthood for both men and women. However, an alternative version of adulthood is promoted through schools which centralises formal-sector employment. Yet only a minority of young people are able to obtain paid employment upon leaving school. Girls, especially, fail to obtain formal-sector employment despite their qualifications and hence are somewhat channelled into gender-stereotyped occupations. Ansell writes that this is because employers continue to favour men, and school does not greatly challenge notions of what is suitable work for women. Thus, in Lesotho, despite relative academic success, women still have greater difficulty finding employment, because they continue, to a large extent, to compete in separate labour markets from men.

Most students in Lesotho drop out of secondary school before they reach Form E; in Zimbabwe, the vast majority fail to obtain five O Levels, and many are awarded a U (ungraded) in each subject. Those who fail to get academic certificates in school feel they have failed in their transitions “It seems as if I lost the whole of my parents’ money”. Those young people who continue to attend secondary school are expected, and pressured, to struggle toward this new, desirable version of adulthood in which paid work is central, whereas the more conventional lifestyle is cast as failure. Yet, however young people might work to achieve the former, the inability of Southern African economies to generate formal-sector employment opportunities due to economic changes globally conspiring with local conditions means that most will fail. Here, the role of education embedded in the economic context structurally constrains young males and females in achieving the said notions of adulthood. However, Ansell also argues using Beck (1994) and Giddens (1991) individualisation thesis, that young people in late modernity determine their own life courses to a much greater extent than in the past due to their abilities to choose their options although this choice Ansell argues is illusionary as the discourse of choice is not available to all. Here, one must take into account not only the failures from the emic perspective of the young South Africans but also analyse the wider situational contexts in which structural constraints determine youth transitions which young people are interconnected to and hence negotiate with (Punch, 2002) via notions of ‘bounded agency’ (Punch, 2002).    

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