Monday, May 16, 2022

Is youth an obsolete concept?

While Botswana reverberates to the rallying cry : “Youth are the future”, local social scientists are not so sure.

Most of Botswana’s social scientists have come to a common and sobering conclusion : Not only are many of the country’s youths lost in space, so is the concept of youth itself.

To put it in their own words, Gaborone Clinical psychologist, Dr Sophie Moagi says, “The path to adulthood has become much more tangled and uncertain especially in these times.”

University of Botswana senior Social Work lecturer Dr Poloko Ntshwarang on the other hand points out that “today, more and more young people’s lives do not fit the contours of adolescence, and the institutions of the 20th century have become worn and dated.”

For most of Botswana’s history,  the transition to “adulthood” was a collection of markers – getting a job, moving away from your parents, getting married, and having kids.

These days with university graduates struggling to find jobs, their lives up in the air and having to stay home and live off their parents, its understandable why most are postponing their “adulthood.” Botswana’s adolescents are no longer young adults. Adolescence is no longer the transition stage to adulthood. It is at best a mere extension of teenage years and at worst a throwaway period of groping in the dark

Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says “Adolescence was a term that fit the times. As a prescribed norm, it influenced the majority of youth between the ages of 13 and 19, whose lived experience was nurtured by a high-school culture that reproduced a teenage experience. Today, more and more young people’s lives do not fit the contours of adolescence, and the institutions of the 20th century have become worn and dated. Parents are left without the intellectual resources to understand how their teenagers and 20-somethings will manage in a future that seems ever more unlike their own. Without clear boundaries and a solid content, adolescence as a meaningful experience onto adulthood has all but disappeared.”

While most political leaders are wont to make a song and dance about the youth being the future

While the older generation is wont to make a song and dance about, many Batswana young adults still feel like kids trying on their parents’ shoes. Adulthood is a social construct,  for that matter, so is childhood. Like all social constructs, they have real consequences. They determine who is legally responsible for their actions and who is not, what roles people are allowed to assume in society, how people view each other, and how they view themselves. However, even in the realms where it should be easiest to define the difference – law, physical development, adulthood defies simplicity. 

In Botswana, the common belief is that people should be held responsible when they are able to give informed consent. You can’t drink until you are 21, but legal adulthood, along with voting and the ability to join the military, comes at age 18. Presently, some of the lines between childhood and adulthood have switched, so the voting age is now prior to the drinking age. The problem extends beyond informed consent. It is really about who society trusts and under what circumstances. Graduation, once the final step for most Batswana on the road to work and steady relationships leading to marriage, no longer marks a significant end point on the way to maturity. It provides neither an effective transition to adulthood nor a valuable commodity for aspiring youth, and is an impediment to those who drop out. Going to University was a necessary part of middle-class identity, and this complicated the completion of adolescence for everyone. Now that college was held up as essential to economic success, the failure to go to University means an inadequate adulthood.

Active sexuality was once held at bay by a high-school life defined by dating, now it intrudes earlier and earlier into the lives of the young, while marriage becomes increasingly delayed. Adolescence is no longer an adequate description of this long postponement of adulthood. Over the years, the age of sexual maturity for girls has steadily declined. These days, many girls experience it even younger. A publicly sexualised culture is the reason parents of children as young as eight worry about their children’s early exposure to highly provocative clothing styles, music videos and video games. Although we still use the terms such as ‘adolescence’ and “ youth”, their cultural signals are mostly irrelevant. They no longer describes the period of training required to function as an adult in the 21st century, nor does it distinguish the boundary between the knowledge of children from those who have reached puberty. For parents, adolescence is an untrustworthy way to understand how their teenage children mature: they cannot clearly connect the sexual practices of their young to stable mating in marriage, nor can parents see how schooling during adolescence will lead their offspring to satisfactory adult work.

Clinical psychologist in Gaborone, Dr Sophie Moagi says, “Some societies have a concept of ‘youth’, which is applied to young people who are no longer considered to be children, but have not attained yet the status of adults. This often coincides with a period of ‘adolescence’, which describes the physical changes associated with the onset of puberty, and the transformations in young people’s social roles as they move towards adulthood. The perceptions of youth and adolescence often view it as a time of ‘storm and stress’ when young people are seen as deviant, problematic, or threatening. Some have blamed helicopter parenting for the long delay in maturity, but regardless of its specific role, the path to adulthood has become much more tangled and uncertain especially in these times. There used to be a time when parents dwelled on the fantasyland of childhood as a magical kingdom of talking animals and cartoons. Now, children’s minds can be filled with fantasies of sex and violence.”

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