Childhood and Youth

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Both childhood and youth can be referred to psychologically as developmental phases and sociologically as constructed phases in the life course. While psychology conceptualises childhood by physical, social and cognitive developmental tasks, sociology relates it to societal expectations and institutions. In fact, even psychological classifications of early and middle childhood and of adolescence only partly refer to observable learning processes but partly to institutional age marks, e.g. regarding school entry. With regard to youth or adolescence developmental tasks refer to puberty and identity but also to social roles such as work. The sociological perspective refers to the institutionalisation of life phases by discourses and social forces connected to historical processes of industrialisation, urbanisation, enlightenment and the emergence of public education systems in the context of nation state building. While in modern societies childhood means freedom from social responsibility, youth means a transitory phase of preparation for adulthood, especially with regard to work, family and citizenship. Social constructions like youth become social reality through institutionalisation but also through individual agency, especially in youth cultures. Childhood and youth are also structured by divisions and inequalities. Historically boys from higher social classes were the first to enjoy a distinct youth phase followed by girls and lower classes later while in contemporary societies young people’s life conditions and life chances are structured by gender, class and ethnicity.

As social constructions childhood and youth are results of and undergo social change. In the course of the de-standardisation of life courses and the shift towards lifelong learning youth is less directly linked to adulthood but a life condition in its own right characterised by uncertain transitions. In contrast, based on findings of neurosciences on the learning capacities of small children, childhood is being increasingly instrumentalised for human capital building.


Ariès, Philippe (1962) Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Cunningham, Hugh (2006) The invention of Childhood, London: BBC Books.

Furlong, Andy and Cartmel, Fred (1997) Young people and social change: new perspectives, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Jones, Gill (2009) Youth, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Postman, Neil Paul (1994) The Disappearance of Childhood, New York: Vintage.