Youth Culture   /   Spring 2009   /    Bibliographic Review

A Bibliographic Essay on Youth Culture

What is “youth”?

Emily O. Gravett

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo Project (1969).

Youth, large, lusty, loving—youth, full of grace, force, fascination.
—Walt Whitman11xWalt Whitman, “Youth, Day, Old Age and Night,” Leaves of Grass (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1905) 180.

One of the initial difficulties in mapping out a bibliographic terrain on youth culture is simply ascertaining what that terrain might be, beyond the impression that a line from a Whitman poem leaves. What is “youth”? Are such individuals children? Do they represent innocence, curiosity, naivete, or gullibility? Do youths qualify as adolescents or teenagers, on the cusp of adulthood, experimenting and experiencing, forging new identities for themselves? Or are they actually young adults, feet firmly planted in the world of responsibility and maturity?

First, it is important to remember that “youth” is a social construction, largely shaped by social and economic factors, and that, as Shirley Steinberg notes in the preface to Contemporary Youth Culture, the “notion of youth as we know it has not existed very long in historical time.” Indeed, for much of recorded history, adulthood began at the point we now think of as the years of adolescence, puberty, and “teenagehood”; younger members of society were simply viewed as miniature adults or “adults in training,” to borrow Stephen Mintz’s phrase from Huck’s Raft. Cultural issues that may have been pertinent only to young people or that may have required special treatment when studying this sector of society would have previously remained unaddressed. For this reason (and because the field, and its current data, changes so quickly), most of the texts listed below are quite recent.

While Picasso once said that “youth has no age,” modern institutions are prepared to offer firmer interpretations of this ambiguous term. For instance, while the United Nations defines this period as the years between 15 and 24 and the World Bank describes the category as that “time in a person’s life between childhood and adulthood” (also between 15 and 25), other institutions locate the term a bit earlier.22xFor the UN definition, see; for the World Bank definition, see See the U.S. Department of Transportation’s definition, which designates “youth” as a person under 21 years of age: injury/research/FewerYoungDrivers/ii_ _data.htm. This bibliography also focuses on an earlier age range, situating the subject of study in the adolescent years.

Because youth is a constructed category that intersects with so many other aspects of life, the selection of topics to include in this bibliographic essay proved to be a challenge. Age always acts as a sort of horizontal cross-section of society, providing ranges to which many different subcategories could easily be applied. Everyone spends time in youth, and inevitably passes through it, whether they want to or not. Because of how comprehensive the subject of “youth” is, therefore, the sections below (and the texts included therein) are necessarily partial and selective. They focus on some of the most salient issues in contemporary youth culture studies, while acknowledging that many other directions were not chosen.

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