The youth in today’s intercultural world

Diego Mesa[1]

Sociology has taken an interest in youth because it represents a phenomenon which, though part of the biological and psychological structure of human beings, can be fully defined only within a given social and cultural context. The fact that age represents a fundamental factor in the regulation of human expectations and behaviours is by no means a recent discovery.

Historical and social sciences have shown how the perception of age differs depending on the context, thereby revealing its intimate connection with the material living conditions, the symbolic and relational structures of each specific community. In this sense, it can be said that scientific inquiry has contributed to revealing the constitutively social and cultural nature of age and its stages or phases (childhood, preadolescence, adolescence, youth, adulthood, third and fourth ages …).

Although “adolescence” and “youth” are often used as synonyms, historically the former term has been used in psychology (Hall 1904) to describe the process of physical, emotional, sexual and intellectual growth and maturation of individuals, whereas the latter has been used in historical-sociological studies to indicate the process whereby individuals acquire adult status within a given context and in a given period.

While adolescence usually refers to the time period between puberty (roughly from ages 12 to 18), the duration of youth’s social apprenticeship can vary significantly, and in modern societies it tends to last longer (Furlong, Cartmel 1997: p. 42).

Because the changes that have occurred in these recent years are so radical, we have to adjust the analytic tools with which we approach the study of young people.

We must not only reconsider the terms of the matter – that is update the map of the risks and issues associated with the condition of young people in the wake of a long recession induced by the

international economic-financial crisis – but also the way in which youth is regarded in relation to the other stages of life within globalised societies.

Young people in the world: demographics

According to United Nations data, in 2015 the number of young people aged between 15 and 24 was 1,194,500, accounting for 16% of the global population, which is estimated to be of 7,383,000 people. Six young people out of ten live in Asia, the most densely populated continent, and almost two out of ten live in Africa, the youngest continent (Fig.1).

Just less than one young person out of ten is in Latin America. The young people of North America, Europe and Oceania combined account for just over one tenth of the total.


Fig.1 – Population aged 15-24 by continent  – year 2015 – percentage values

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, DVD Edition.

In North America, Oceania and Europe, young people are not only fewer in absolute value as compared to the other continents, but also in relation to the other age groups (Tab.1). The population over 24 years of age in these areas is well above 60%, with peaks of 73% in Europe (77% in Italy). In these areas, young people represent a precious albeit scarce resource, but also a minority with little voice and influence in decision-making processes. While in Asia and Latin America more than 50% of the population is over 24, in Africa only 4 people out of ten are over 24 years of age, 2 out of ten are aged between 15 and 24, and 4 out of ten are under 14. In these areas, young people represent a large reservoir of energy and vitality which, if not adequately steered towards participation in the social, economic and cultural life, can become a disruptive force.

Tab.1 – Age groups by continent – year 2015 – percentage values


age 0-14


age 15-24


25 and over

WORLD7 383 00926%16%58%100%
AFRICA1 194 37041%19%40%100%
ASIA4 419 89825%16%59%100%
OCEANIA39 54324%15%61%100%
NORTHERN AMERICA356 00419%14%67%100%
EUROPE740 81416%11%73%100%
Italy59 50414%10%77%100%

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, DVD Edition.

In the short period of time between 2000 and 2015 (Tab.2) the world population was grown by 20%. The demographic dynamics, however, differ significantly. In Europe the increase in the older population, due to an improvement in life expectancy, has been offset by a drastic decline in the number of children (-9%) and young people (-19%), so much so that demographers are speaking of a ‘de-youthing’ phenomenon which proceeds alongside that of aging. In the Americas and in Asia, the population increase has involved especially adults, to a lesser extent young people, while the 0-14 age group has registered a zero or even negative growth. This trend points to the slowing down of demographic expansion processes. Instead, in Oceania, and in Africa especially, growth rates are high also among the 0-14 age group, indicating that these areas are still registering a population boom.

Tab.2 – Population changes between 2000 and 2015 – percentage values

 % var  0-14% var 15-24% var over 24Total % var

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, DVD Edition.

One final demographic aspect to be considered is that it is especially young people who migrate from their country of origin in search of a better future, and this phenomenon has grown in recent years. While the population has increased by 20% in the period 2000-2015, according to the estimates of the International Organization for Migration[2], the number of regular international migrants has risen by 29% (from 172,700,000 to 243,700,000), more than the population growth registered in the same period. As we will see, this figure has a direct impact on the pluralisation and segmentation of the profiles and experiences of the new generations of young people and on their strong intercultural identity.

The social conditions and challenges of young people in the areas of the world

The demographic situation stems from specific social, economic, cultural and political contexts which entail, in the various parts of the world, constraints, opportunities and challenges that are partly different for young people. Without pretending to be exhaustive, I will mention a few differences in condition in five areas of the world: Africa, Asia, Latin America, North America and Europe.

Africa is the youngest continent in the world. According to UN studies, the socioeconomic conditions of young Africans have improved in recent years, though not consistently[3]. In the past 20 years, there has been an improvement in the levels of basic education and the gender gap in education has shrunk; nevertheless, young Africans are still struggling when it comes to higher education, employment, health and participation in decision-making processes. The global financial crisis, poverty, low levels of participation in decision making at the national and local levels, poor infrastructures and conflict have driven thousands of young people to migrate from the rural areas to the cities. Many have crossed borders in Africa, while others have left the continent in search of better opportunities in education and employment. The dissatisfied young people who stay behind in their home country are often more inclined than the older generations to actively challenge their situation, to become a socially destabilizing force, as the growing demands for change across the continent show.

Young people in Asia have benefited from strong economic and social dynamism. The youth unemployment rate is relatively modest, even though working conditions and wage levels often pose major problems[4]. In the course of the past decades, a significant increase in secondary and higher education has been registered. The transition from education to employment is one of the main obstacles young people face.  Access to healthcare is hampered by economic, social and, at times, legal barriers.  What is more, young Asians are often on the margin when it comes to participating in decision-making processes and drafting development policies.

In Latin America, in spite of the fact that young people today enjoy higher levels of education than did the generations that came before them, they are nevertheless faced with higher levels of unemployment and receive lower salaries on account of the economic and political crises that have struck the different countries. Skills development, access to opportunities and risk exposure among young people differ significantly depending on income level, gender, ethnic group, and living context (rural/urban). In these areas too, national and international migrations represent a challenge, since young migrants are vulnerable to human rights violations and human trafficking, and are often engaged in highly precarious work.

Europe and North America are the areas that offer the best living standards and opportunities for young people. A growing number of young people have had access to secondary and higher education. However, in the past decade, the socio-economic crisis has led to a rise in youth unemployment levels (especially in southern Europe) and to an increase in job precariousness, to phenomena of under-employment that have resulted in longer school-work transition processes, a tendency to procrastinate life choices like creating a stable couple and having children. Studies on the processes of transition to adulthood have emphasised this tendency towards de-standardizing life courses, speaking of a ‘yo-yo transition’, that is describing a non-linear process whereby the family career as well as the school-work career are characterised by advancements and regressions, phases of greater autonomy alternated with moments of dependency and precariousness. In spite of their objectively better living conditions, young people from Western countries always tend to be more pessimistic about the future[5] and more pragmatic and down-to-earth.

Youth as a transcultural phenomenon

The category of youth, understood as an intermediate phase between childhood and adulthood, presenting particular and distinctive traits that cut across social classes and gender, was introduced and developed in the course of the previous century by Western scholars, intellectuals and media (Mesa 2014). The interpretation of the transformations that have accompanied the different generations of young people is centred on historical events that revolve around Western societies: from the war generations, to the boom generation, to the 1968 generation, to the de-ideologised generation that has withdrawn into the private sphere (the X generation), to the generation of the crisis and acute phase of globalisation (the net generation, neet generation, Erasmus generation …). The generalising reflections on young people and the proposed interventions targeted to them (political, educational, pastoral …) risk being reductive or revealing an ethnocentric point of view, which is ever less suited for an understanding of the current transformations.

If it is true that youth – as a cultural upshot rather than a mere matter of age – is first of all a by-product of Western modernity, it is likewise true that the processes of economic and cultural globalisation that marked the latter half of the 20th century have contributed to spreading throughout the world Western models of transition to adulthood (extended investment in education, peer culture, leisure, value of authenticity, gender equality), cultural consumption and lifestyles associated with youth aesthetics (fashion, music, sports …).

On the other hand, “cultural contamination” was not endured passively nor was it a one-way process, as many scholars of globalisation phenomena have observed. Western cultural models have been filtered and reinterpreted throughout the world, generating new “scenes”, subcultures, styles and outputs which, in turn, have contributed to enriching the mainstream youth culture.

The advent of the new media, and of social networks in particular, has further contributed to turning users from passive consumers into active producers, blurring the boundaries between their private sphere and public profile.  Young people use technologies to search, use, produce and share contents all at the same time; as a rather widespread definition would have it, they are pro-sumers (Toffler 1987)[6].

As a result of the increased mobility of young people (for studies, tourism) and migration flows (to find work, to be reunited with one’s family, but also to flee from conflict and misery), as well as of the development of technologies via the web, contacts with people of different cultures and ethnic groups have grown significantly, especially among the younger generations.

The presence also in countries of recent immigration – like Italy – of large cohorts of young people born in these countries from foreign parents (the so-called “second generation” of foreigners) represents yet another aspect of an ever more differentiated and internally articulated youth condition.

The many young asylum seekers who leave their home and country in search of opportunities and protection, exposing themselves to a great many risks, are also part of the varied youth scenario. Because of their stigmatizing condition as “refugees” or “illegal immigrants” they are not regarded or recognized as young people who are searching for their place in the world.

And yet, also in the unique and marginal circumstances of these young people, one can find analogies with the condition, experience and aspirations of more “ordinary” young people, as it were.

In this regard, I would like to share a small personal anecdote.

Last year, during a formation meeting on the topic of persons requesting humanitarian protection, promoted by the diocesan Caritas I work for, it was some young volunteers who somehow identified with the situation described: they too feel a bit as if they were waiting to receive a visa for entry into the adult society. With few certainties for the future, they are connected with the world, but experience the risk of immobility. Like human protection seekers, who are relatively sheltered in reception structures until a sentence is pronounced, after which they are abandoned in a society they do not know, they too have felt protected under the bell jar of school and then thrown into a society with no compass and few firm points.  

Young people who have given up on the idea of leaving, young people journeying on the long exodus towards the acquisition of full social citizenship, young people trapped in a middle land, young people who have crossed the border, young people who were rejected, who have fallen, who made it. These are just some useful elements to remind us that today more than ever, if we want to help young people find their way of living life in fullness, we must, following the example of Jesus with the disciples at Emmaus, meet them personally where they are, set aside our biases and our quick fixes, set out from their contingent condition and share with them a part of the journey, searching together for the traces, the weave and the sense of their experience.



Furlong A., Cartmel F. (1997), Young people and social change: individualization and risk in late modernity, Open University Press, Buckingham Philadelphia.

International Youth Foundation (2017), Global Youth Wellbeing Index,

Mesa D. (2014), La giovinezza nelle società in transizione, un approccio morfogenetico, Franco Angeli, Milano.

Toffler A. (1980), The third way, William Morrow, New York.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2017), Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, DVD Edition.

United Nations, Economic Commission for Africa and United Nations Programme on Youth Regional (2011), Overview: Youth in Africa,

United Nations, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) (2012), Regional overview: Latin america and the Caribbean,

United Nations, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) (2012), Regional overview: youth in Asia and the Pacific,


[1] Visiting Professor of Family and Childhood Sociology at the Education Science Department – Brescia Catholic University. Head of the Youth Volunteer Office of the Brescia Diocesan Caritas.

[2] IOM (2017) ‘Migration and migrants: A global overview’, in IOM (2017) World Migration Report 2018, IOM: Geneva.

[3] United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and United Nations Programme on Youth Regional (2011).

[4] United Nations, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) (2012).

[5] International Youth Foundation (2017).

[6] Prosumer comes from the combination of two English words, producer and consumer, and stands for the situation in which a consumer is also the producer or, in the process of consuming, contributes to production.