Language is a powerful tool that shapes how we speak about the world and helps us to better understand it. The words we use should be chosen carefully. With this in mind, Oxfam has recently published an Inclusive Language Guide. In the guide, it encourages writing about younger and older people in a way that affords dignity, while avoiding homogenizing and patronizing words. Instead of speaking of “youth,” they advise to speak of “young people.”
Youth is a broad concept that loosely defines the transition period from childhood to adulthood. In 1981, the United Nations first used the age range of 15 to 24 years to define the period of youth. Since then, this range has served as the basis for global statistics on youth. However, different societies and countries use different age ranges; the African Union, for example, defines youth as up to the age of 35 years.
We asked young people from around the world what they think about the terms being used to describe them.
Context is key
The members of the CIVICUS Youth Action Team all agree that they do not see any negative connotation to the term “youth.” The team is a group of 11 individuals from 11 countries (Australia, Germany, Kenya, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Serbia, Uganda, Venezuela, Zambia, Zimbabwe) that represent youth in CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations.
- “The term ‘elder’ in my community is a widely respected term, particularly for people who have lived in the community for a while. But I definitely think language and its definitions fluctuates depending on what audience you speak to. Everyone comes from different cultural contexts and language is not homogenous. Definitions can be very reflective of different contexts.”
- “I personally don't perceive a difference between ‘young people’ and ‘youth,’ or ‘the elderly’ and ‘older people.’ It really depends on the audience and the way something is communicated. After all, these are just synonyms, not even euphemisms.”
- “Connotations already vary from person to person, let alone among communities where certain words have very special meanings, like ‘the elders.’ It really depends on cultural perceptions of age, wisdom or capabilities. But whatever we opt for, we risk being misunderstood anyway...”
- “I don't think elders and seniors are bad adjectives. Some populations even call themselves proudly as such. It really is more about the bad connotation and understanding we give to the word.”
Should marriage decide whether you are a youth?
“There is a prevailing norm in Sri Lankan society in reference to the term ‘youth,’” explains Asanka Prasad Fernando, Project Officer for the Crossing Boundaries Youth Project implemented by Helvetas Sri Lanka. “It is said that only unmarried people fall into the category of youth. Once married, you are no longer a youth. If you remain a bachelor, even though you perform your duties well with the same strength and stamina as an adult, you are still called a youth.
In various parts of Sri Lanka’s traditional Hindu society, girls’ spouses are often decided at their birth. Even Muslim girls from traditional families enter into marriage as early as possible. This raises the question: Is it logical to let marriage decide whether you are a youth or not? Most village-level youth groups keep their members until they get married, at which point they nullify their membership. This practice is so common that it is accepted without question by the majority of youth.
It is therefore not surprising that most young people I asked showed a preference for the term ‘young person’ rather than ‘youth.’”
These are some of the explanations given:
- “A ‘young person’ sounds like someone with more responsibility.”
- “Speaking of ‘young people’ sounds like we are part of the society.”
- “Marriage should not be the end of being seen as a ‘young person.’”
- “The term gives us more respect and dignity.”
- “I hope that we can be called ‘young people’ until we are at least 35.”
A different perception in English
“I believe that the term ‘youths’ is more often used with a negative connotation than the term ‘youth’ in the English language,” said a 28-year-old employee of HELP Montenegro, an NGO that provides support to displaced persons and refugees. HELP is a partner of Helvetas’ RECONOMY program, which aims to provide economic opportunities to youth.
“Whatever the case may be, it is very difficult for non-native English speakers to answer this question. If 28 years old still falls under ‘omladina’ (youth in the Montenegrin language), then the term ‘omladina’ does not carry any negative connotations for me. I think that whether the term ‘youth’ carries a negative connotation depends on the language.
But, to be honest, I believe that the term originally did not have a negative connotation and that the media and public discourse have made it into what it represents today. So I would follow the guidelines in my professional career, but I would not care for them personally.”
“I agree that the suggested words carry more respect and esteem,” said a young adult employee of the SEMOS Education Academy in Serbia. The academy provides online IT training and job matching services to young people and is a RECONOMY partner. “It gives a new, broader perspective and different view of young people. Calling my friends and me 'youth' can make us feel like we are not serious people. But at some point, this became a normality, so we don’t pay attention to it. I like the term ‘young people.’ It doesn’t make a difference between older people and us, except the age.”
Youth are a symbol of change
“The word ‘youth’ is well known and accepted in Bangladesh,” said Md. Shariar Mannan, Governance & Rights Coordinator at Helvetas Bangladesh. “In Bangla, our national language, youth refers to ‘jubo’ or ‘torun.’ However, the term ‘youth’ is established and used in official contexts like the National Youth Policy and the title of celebrations like the National Youth Day.
Youth are often seen as a symbol of change, energy, colorfulness and enthusiasm. So, if we call anyone a youth, they feel proud. However, the use of the word also depends on the context, and if it is being used respectfully or not. It can also have negative connotations used for labelling youth as drug addicts, extremists or radicals. But these are stereotypes that do not reflect the lived realities of youth.”
The intention behind word choice
“I am a youth and have been working with youth groups for several years,” said Raonak Barman, who is from Bangladesh. “I believe that the use of the term ‘youth’ depends on the context and intention behind it. While the world commonly uses the term to describe individuals between the ages of 18 to 35, it can also carry negative connotations, such as immature or lack of experience. However, during my project engagements, we have always highlighted youth as energetic and spontaneous individuals, and the community never felt any negative vibe with that.
Personally, I do not feel offended if someone refers to me and my colleagues as ‘youth,’ as long as the intention is not to belittle or disrespect us. Youth groups are valued in our social and cultural context for their dynamism and ability to work as change agents.
For those in the youth age range, it helps to create an enjoyable and inclusive environment when we use language that is respectful and empowering. Terms like ‘youthful’ (তারুণ্য) or ‘emerging leaders’ put the spotlight on young people's abilities and potential, which can encourage and inspire them to assume leadership roles and bring about positive changes in their communities.”
An uplifting label
“I generally feel good about being called or calling someone youth,” said Aagya Pokharel, Project Coordinator at Helvetas Nepal for the Promotion of Youth Engagement in Local Governance Process. "Youth means energy, passion and hope. Youth are creative and quickly adapt to changes without hierarchical concerns. They are quite advanced in optimizing digital transformation. Helvetas Nepal is working with youth panels and youth sounding board members. This helps us to get new inspiration and find positive energy to act unitedly to fight against harmful social norms and practices.”
A period to make mistakes and learn from them
“Personally, I don’t have an issue with using the term ‘youth.’ From what I understand, youth is just a term describing an age category of transitioning from childhood to adulthood. In Tanzania, this falls between the ages of 15-35,” says Fausta Salema, the Project Officer of a biodiversity and conservation project implemented by Helvetas in Tanzania. “Where I live, being called youth means someone who is energetic and can be relied on by his or her community to bring positive changes. If someone calls me or my friends ‘youth,’ I don’t find it offensive because it is just the age category that I am currently in.
I have been living among communities where categorizing people based on their age group goes along with respect and responsibilities. Being youth is a point in life where we experiment with different things and find ourselves making mistakes, rectifying them, and learning from it.”
Helvetas' staff Shariar Mannan, Aagya Pokharel, Fausta Salema, Asanka Prasad Fernando and Valon Xoxa contributed reporting for this article.