(c) Alexandre Dulaunoy

Youth is not just a biological category; it’s also a societal invention. This may sound like socio-babble but as we have changed from an agricultural to post-industrial society our definition of youth has evolved. Young people used to be parental property; nurtured by domestic folk practices then forced into work and afforded no legal rights. Youth today is a public institution; objectified by the state, preserved in law, commodified by business and studied and monitored by rational, scientific expertise. I will show that youth have been transformed from disempowered mini-adults to today’s objects of expertise.

Pre-industrial European societies made no clear distinction between childhood and other pre-adult phases of life. There was no concept of adolescence nor of any physiological boundary at puberty (Griffin, 1993, p12).

The notion of childhood or adolescence as a distinct stage of life or a social category that afforded political and social rights is a recent invention (Zelizer, 1994). The aristocracy aside, previous generations and their social institutions have regarded children primarily as a source of cheap labour (Cunningham, 2009). In 1821, approximately half of the workforce was under 20 (The National Archives, 2012). During the nineteenth century, the increased concentration and visibility of child labour in towns and cities and a growing middle class, some of whom were preoccupied by social reform, helped construct models of childhood and society‘s obligations to them. After 1867, no factory or workshop could legally employ any child under the age of 8 and employees aged between 8 and 13 were to receive at least 10 hours of education per week (The National Archives, 2012).

Two trends emerged during this time; the sentimentalisation of childhood and the construction of a new category to describe the transition from childhood to adulthood: adolescence. Younger people began a transformation from a domestic economic resource to objects which embodied the public institution of pure childhood to be protected and nurtured.  Adolescents, beyond school, were given over to apprenticeships to learn the roles and responsibilities of adulthood. Ideal types were created and used to protect and civilise urban working class groups (Griffin, 1993). For the wealthy, public schools became engines of moral improvement that turned out ideal leaders equipped for the duties of empire (Griffin, 1993). How youth developed, learnt, behaved; what they represented and believed became an issue of state and public concern. As a result, youth departed from being intrinsic to the state of being young (Scott, 1999) to become a moral classification (Qvortrup, 1994).

In this context a laissez faire approach to youth, abandoning them to fate, was seen as a recipe for “moral anarchy” (Lesko, 2012, p75). In the late 1800s, therefore, the line between youth and adulthood became sharper and more intensely watched (Lesko, 2012, p74).  Lesko and Talburt refer to this period as the era of “pastoral power” characterised by a  “distributed discipline among adult authorities and youthful subjects who internalised regulations to monitor the self” (Lesko & Talburt, 2012, p13). By the early twentieth century, youth was “under the administrative gaze of teachers, parents, psychologists, play reformers, scout leaders, juvenile justice workers” (Lesko, 2012, p75). Under this gaze, anyone with power and privilege could influence the properties of youth created in discourse. In modern societies this increasingly became the domain of experts – which I will illustrate in my next blog post – Huw Davies.


Cunningham, H. (2009). The invention of childhood (p. 320). BBC Books.

Griffin, C. (1993). Representations of youth (p. 253). Polity Press.

Lesko, N. (2012). Act your age! The cultural construction of adolescence. (Second Edi., p. 232). Oxford: Routledge.

Lesko, N., & Talburt, S. (2012). A history of the present youth studies. In N. Lesko & S. Talburt (Eds.), Key words in youth studies (pp. 11–24). Routledge.

Scott, S. J. and S. (1999). Risk anxiety and the social construction of childhood. In Deborah Lupton (Ed.), Risk and sociocultural theory (pp. 86–108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The National Archives, T. N. (2012). The National Archives. Retrieved from        http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/childlabour.htm

Zelizer, V. A. (1994). Pricing the priceless child: The changing social value of children (p. 296). Princeton University Press.

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