Conceptualisations of Youth and Implications for Policy: A Study of Four Cases in Aotearoa/New Zealand
What we claim to know and understand about youth has roots in history and culture, and is informed by disciplines within both the natural and the social sciences. Policy and legislation that concern youth draw on all these understandings in their efforts to manage, develop, control and protect young people. Yet there has not been a serious consideration of the fixing of age limits in either historical or current legislation, which means the potential limiting of young people’s rights as citizens and their exposure to learning experiences has not been challenged. Taking a critical approach to contemporary views of youth, this study examined the conceptualisations of youth that have influenced the development of policies and legislation that concern young people in New Zealand/Aotearoa. It reviewed a range of legislation and policies and found that age limits existed in a broad scope of legislation and were applied in an arbitrary fashion. Four case studies were investigated: three cases concerned legislation that set age limits for young people, and one case study where an age limit has not been applied, that of medical consent. I analysed the submissions to Select Committees and the associated Hansard debates and other related documents for the legislation cases, and the relevant legislation and other documents that were associated with the case of medical consent. This exploration of the development of these policies and the critical explication of the constructions of youth that informed them found that views of youth were contradictory and equivocal, and that the justifications for the age limits in these cases were inconsistent. Evidence for the development of principles that might guide policy or legislation concerning age-setting was not available. Instead, it was found that a predominant view of ‘youth as risk’ overwhelmed any rational, evidence-based assessments of young people at various ages and in a range of policy contexts. The explanation for this view of ‘youth as risk’ is found in Ulrich Beck’s ‘Risk Society’ theorising, although he did not specifically refer to or single out young people. This study therefore builds on his work since I argue that because of their life stage and their position in contemporary western societies, young people are particularly exposed to the risks of the ‘risk society’. The study concludes that given that much of the ‘risk’ associated with young people lies in the social context over which they have little control, youth policy should consider more seriously the impact on young people of policy developments across all sectors. It should also take into account the diversity of young people, not just in such differences as gender, ethnicity and disability, but also in their very different roles and activities in families and communities. A focus on ‘inclusion’ rather than ‘participation’ of young people in society would better encourage consideration of young people in policies across all sectors, and would also help promote more positive views of young people. If it is established that an age limit is necessary, then a youth ministry should examine more closely the impact on young people of an age change and provide a more sophisticated analysis of evidence and principles, as well as the competencies required for the activity under discussion. It should also consider whether the motive for an age limit might be the perceived vulnerability or riskiness of young people when in fact the problem the policy is endeavouring to solve is a wider societal one.