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Youth and Their Voices - Wendy Yee Mei Tien


Youth are commonly defined as individuals between the ages of 15 and 24 years. Nevertheless, the functional definition varies from country to country. The youth represent a significant portion of the world’s population. It is therefore necessary to understand the voices of the youth and to take youth issues seriously. In addition, it is essential to understand that young people are not a homogeneous group, for they have a diverse range of needs and interests. As youth go through the transition stage from childhood to adulthood, they face many new psycho-social experiences as well as emotional turbulence. They are often confused about their identity, and they long for a sense of belonging and acceptance. Many feel very unsure and undecided about their future. At the other end of the spectrum, the youth have a tremendous potential for growth. They are often highly motivated in developing and seeking opportunities to explore new ideas and relationships, within the context of the society as a whole. Therefore, positive development is not only determined by the youth themselves but also by the environment. The approach to youth development should also encompass opportunities and experiences for young people to contribute in a meaningful way to their communities and to believe that their contributions are respected and valued.

Keywords: Youth, Youth Identity, Positive Youth Development, Voices of the Youth


Who are the Youth?

The United Nations defines ‘youth’, as those persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years. This working definition was adopted for practical statistical reasons, making it possible to compare data across time and countries. However, the operational definition of the term ‘youth’ often varies from country to country, depending on specific socio-cultural, institutional, economic and political factors. For example, even among the 10 ASEAN member countries, youth are defined differently (Table 1).


Table 1: Definition of the Youth Population in ASEAN Member Countries



Definition (years)


15 – 40

Brunei Darussalam

15 – 40

Viet Nam

15 – 35


                          15 – 30        


15 – 30


15 – 30


15 – 29


15 – 29


15 - 24


15 - 24




Youth represent a significant portion of the world’s population. There are approximately one billion youth living in the world today; which means approximately one person in five is between the age of 15 and 24 years, or 18 per cent of the world’s populations are “youth” (Table 2).


Table 2: Global Youth Population



Youth Population

Percentage of Total Global Population



941 million



1.019 billion



1.222 billion







Almost 85 per cent of the world’s youth, live in developing countries, with approximately 60 per cent in Asia alone. A remaining 23 per cent live in the developing regions of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. It is estimated that by 2025, the number of youth living in developing countries will grow to 89.5 per cent.2 With such significant youth representation in the population, it is necessary for society to understand the voices of the youth and to take youth issues into consideration in developing programs or agenda for them.


Understanding Youth in the Real Sense

Youth is a very important phase in the human life cycle, as distinguished from other phases such as childhood, adulthood and old age. While it is possible to define “youth” based on the categories of age, stake holders working with the youth should also be aware of the tremendous difficulties in defining “youth” qualitatively as the sociological, psychological and health problems they face may differ. There has to be awareness that young people are not a homogeneous group; they have a diverse range of needs and interests. Hence, different scholars have provided definitions of youth. Curtain (2002), defines it as a phase when a person moves from a time of dependence (childhood) to independence (adulthood). Dr. Daisaku Ikeda (2004) (who recently received an honorary doctorate from the University of Malaya for his contributions to peace, culture and education) defines youth as a time of rapid change, from day to day and moment to moment. It can also be a time of confusion. Ikeda further elaborated that youth may sometimes think that they can’t trust anyone, that no one loves them and there is no reason to live. In addition, youth have a lot to worry about: grades at school, problems at home, problems with money or health, with how they feel about their looks, with members of the opposite sex or with friends. Their feelings are like a roller coaster: they can go from feeling confident and upbeat one moment and to becoming overwhelmed with insecurity, frustration or apathy the next. Youth often have fundamental questions about themselves and their identity: Who am I? What should I do with my life? They feel very unsure about the best way to proceed and are often undecided on their future course.


In trying to define youth, Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory (1964) explains about the different stages of youth development. According to him, at this stage (12 to 18 years old), youth are usually disturbed and confused by new social conflicts and demands. He believes that their primary task is establishing a new sense of ego identity. Their identity became a social matter and is overwhelmed by the countless options and alternatives. They are so uncertain about whom they are; so they anxiously tend to identify with the ‘in groups.’ They can ‘become remarkably clannish, intolerant and cruel in their exclusion of others who are different’ (Erikson, 1959, p. 92). In their hurry to find some identity, they stereotype ‘themselves, their ideals, and their enemies’ (Erikson, 1959, p. 92). Therefore, unless the youth has developed their competencies, they will end up having problems identifying with themselves as well as with other people in the society. In a nutshell, mostly, youth is the stage of personality formation and self-realisation.


Despite the turmoil they undergo in their youth in searching for their identity and independence youth is also a time filled with energy, passion, hope: a whole life lies ahead brimming with infinite possibilities. Young people have a tremendous potential for development. Humans, especially children and youth are highly motivated to develop. They have natural dispositions to learn and to grow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). The youth often seek opportunities to explore new ideas, relationships with others, and meaning within the context of the society as a whole. They seek to develop their knowledge, skills and competence in preparing for life. The youth also need opportunities to fail, a framework for development that will provide challenges of increasing complexity as well as support. In summary, youth require opportunities that enable them to progressively develop their abilities so as to function successfully in society. Edginton and Jiang (2000, p. 143) has stated that youth are “… capable of learning, growing and perfecting themselves.” Therefore, the reason people in youth development sometimes add the word “positive” to development is to emphasize the goal of mobilizing these natural processes in youth (Larson, 2000). The concept of positive youth development is one that suggests that attention should be paid to the broader developmental needs of youth rather than focusing on youth at risk, or what is defined as a deficit-based model. However, this growth needs to be moderated. The positive influence of parents in the life of the young Thomas Edison is a good example. As a child, Thomas was curious about everything. Before he had fully grasped the scientific principles learnt at school, he wanted to create a human balloon. So, he asked one of his friends to drink a liquid mixture of tartaric acid and bicarbonate of soda, thinking that his body would be filled with gas and he would float off like a balloon. Instead, of course, his friend got sick and Thomas’s usually patient parents scolded him severely for testing his experiments on a human being. Later, Thomas said it was his parent’s disappointment at that time that made him decide to invent only things that would be genuinely useful to humanity. Thomas’ mother later bought him a science book so he could learn how to experiment safely. He was dismissed for being a slow learner after only three months at school, but his mother did not scold him; she taught him every day at home and soon people were calling him a genius. His brilliant inventiveness was nurtured by his parent’s deep love (Ikeda, 2004). What is important is not to give up on youth for in every youth lies enormous potential; how this potential can be realised really depends on all the responsible adults in the life of the youth, whether it is, family members, his community and society at large.


Voices of the Youth

Youth is a time in life when most people go through dramatic changes as they move from childhood into adulthood. At this age, they require social, economic and political support to realise their full potential. Integrated views of youth suggest that there is a reciprocal influence between the social environment and the individual. Not only do individuals shape their own development, but they are also influenced by the social environment within which they exist. In war-torn countries for example, youth are often a targeted group. According to the World Youth Report, 2003, during a war, as the situation in the war torn country turns catastrophic, civilians are left to fend for themselves without sufficient state or international assistance. This places the youth population in a very vulnerable position, as they become the target group for recruitment and abductions. The lack of opportunities in their communities, often leads them to turn to black markets for survival and to use armed conflict as a way to give vent to their anger, thus further gravitating towards violent conflict and acts of terrorism. The increased stress and feelings of hopelessness and humiliation that are indirectly linked to poverty, unemployment, low educational attainment and poor governance constitute part of a global pattern in areas of armed conflict. As victims and witnesses, youth cannot help but be affected by the grim realities surrounding them. Hence, many are successfully mobilised through the ideologies of war because for them survival takes precedence over education, environmental protection and other developmental issues.


The World Youth Report 2003 also reported,

“Historically, those who have become rebel leaders felt victimized and humiliated during an earlier period of their lives. They may have experienced repression, human rights violations, deprivation of needed resources and/or alienation. Their aggression appears to be a form of retaliation deriving from past feelings of indignity and degradation. A theory that closely examines the notion of humiliation underlying structural violence contends that one contributing factor is the absence of recognition and respect, which creates divisions between “masters” and “underlings” and feelings of humiliation. As the “underlings” rise to power, they engage in extreme acts, inflicting tremendous indignities and perpetuating the cycle of humiliation.”

Studies have also indicated that uneducated youth and school dropouts are more likely to engage in violence and other behaviors that are detrimental to their emotional health. This is perhaps because they feel insecure, inferior or less capable than their educated peers or other members of the community. These social realities are a good indication of the often silent voices of the youth. Unless these “negative behaviors” are taken as markers of the silenced voices, youth will always be labeled ‘problematic.’


To understand the youth, one needs to understand them both emotionally and psychologically. The youth respond to recognition of their needs. They want to be respected and to be treated as individuals. They want to be given opportunities, to be heard, to be involved (to fulfill their sense of belonging) and to be recognised. Failing to understand and address these fundamental needs of the youth may drive them towards ‘negative influences’ and they may be successfully instrumentalised with notions of avenging humiliation, where there may simply be only frustration.


To support this, four successful youth interventions were listed in a recent World Bank Review. These interventions also reflect the unvoiced needs of the youth.


Firstly, it is of paramount importance to have a responsible adult or a role model in a young person’s life. Having a relationship with a positive role is remarkably effective in reducing the presence of risky behavior in young people. Studies have shown that in Latin America and West Africa, young perpetrators of violent acts look up to gunfighters as their role models and mimic the latter’s behavior because they can relate to their convictions and the portrayed emotions of an outcast (World Youth Report, 2003). Young people are therefore, especially vulnerable because they lack the necessary experience to differentiate right from wrong and are more susceptible to ideological messages placed within emotional, religious, cultural and political contexts. 


Secondly, the youth has more in common with adults than with children. Many of the challenges the youth face such as unemployment and risky sexual behavior are more closely related to adults than children. The youth want to be respected and to be treated as adults, but they are often marginalised in decision-making processes.  They have little say in the formulation and implementation of policies that are meant to protect their interests and well-being. To respect the youth and treat them like adults means to involve the youth in the planning process so that the youth’s needs will remain at the core of the policy formulation processes.


Thirdly, it was identified that a problem-based approach is less effective than a comprehensive approach. Youth development approaches should aim to promote and prevent, not to treat or remediate. Youth development that aims to help young people develop their inner resources and skills will help them to cope better with the pressure they may face that might lead them into unhealthy and antisocial behaviors (Politz, 1996). Hence, it is necessary to address youth issues in a more holistic manner; such as positive youth development which addresses the broader developmental needs of the youth. Such approaches see the youth as assets and not liabilities (Aubrun and Grady, 2000).


Lastly, a sophisticated understanding of the heterogeneity of youth is important. While the youth are their own ‘group’, they are comprised of many subgroups, each requiring sophisticated understanding. In essence, a youth is an individual with a distinct personality and therefore, he or she want to be understood and be heard individually.



To surmise, youth is a period of transition between childhood and adulthood. For most, the period represents the merger of a number of developmental milestones and challenges directly connected to adult life. There is no rigid boundary line that denotes the end of childhood and the beginning of youth; it is a period that varies from culture to culture, and is a time when individuals learn to be socially responsible for themselves and for their actions. It also comprises of a set of transitions which touch upon many aspects of the individual’s behavior, development and relationships. These transitions are biological, cognitive, social and emotional. Hence it is essential to hear the voices of the youth and to understand them. 


Ikeda (2004) once said, “I firmly believe every young person has the power within him or her to change the world. It is the role of those who teach to believe in that power, to encourage and release it.” Therefore while youth are often considered one of the most vulnerable groups in society, they are also regarded as the greatest source of hope for the future. The development of the youth is not only shaped by themselves but by their environments too, and the youth in turn influence their environments. The approach to youth development also encompasses opportunities and experiences for young people to contribute in a meaningful way to their communities and to believe that their contributions are respected and valued. This suggests that it is important to view and respect young people as subjects and not objects in every respect, both at the personal level, and in society as a whole. Lastly, as Gambone and Arbreton (1997) once said, “When supports and opportunities are plentiful, young people can and do thrive; when their environments are deficient or depleted, youth tend not to grow and progress.”




Aubrun, A. and J. Grady. (2000). Reframing Youth: Models, Metaphors, Messages. Commissioned by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the Frame Works Institute.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: New Harper & Row.


Curtain, R. (2002, December). Generating Youth Employment through Information and Communication Technologies: Best Practice Examples and Strategies. Youth Employment Summit.


Edginton, C. R. and J. Jiang. (2000). Outsourcing: A Strategy for Improving the Quality of Leisure Services. Journal Physical Education, Recreation, & Dance, 71(4), pp. 46-49.


Erikson E. H. (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. Psychological Issues 1(1). New York: International Universities Press.


Erikson E. H. (1964). Insight and Responsibility. New York: W. W. Norton.


Gambone, M. and A. Arberton, (1997). Safe Havens: The Contributions of Youth Organisations to Healthy Adolescent Development. Philadelphia:Public/Private Ventures.


Ikeda. (2004). A Piece of Mirror and Other Essays. Kuala Lumpur: Soka Gakkai Malaysia.


Larson, R. (2000). Toward a Psychology of Positive Youth Development. American Psychologist, Vol. 55, pp. 170-183.


Politz, B. (1996). Making the Case: Community Foundations and Youth Development. Washington, DC: Academy for Educational Development, Center for Youth Development and Policy Research.


The World Bank Group (2011). Children and Youth. Available at


United Nations. (2003). World Youth Report 2003. Available at




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