Youth in History

Here’s some thoughts on youth in history from my oral reading notes:

Stories of twentieth-century urban youth.
When compared to the scholarship on the history of childhood, it is striking that most of the writings on the history of youth deal exclusively with the twentieth century (with an important exception of John Gillis). As Hobsbawm calls it “the age of extremes,” youth are depicted as agents of extremist ideologies during the interwar period and of student radicalism in the 50s-70s. If the problem in representation within the history of childhood is class – often it is predominantly about children of middle-class families and raises the question of which class we should study –, it is the focus on “urban youth” that raises the representation issue in the history of youth. Urban youth, indeed, became “problematic” in many industrializing urban societies. Youth appeared too powerful and sometimes subversive. There grew massive under-class factory workers who were young migrants from the countryside. Many scholars pick ‘youth’ as the target of historical inquiry to show this phenomenon of urbanization and expansion of working class. As a result, both in the history and historiography, youth represent quite dynamic and often problematic agents.

Identity rather than Agency
Another point that is quite different from the history of childhood is that the issue of agency is not central to the historians – it is already assumed. Instead, scholars often highlight “youth identity” which developed within peer groups or youth movements. Commacchio points out that the peer group has a homogenizing effect across racial boundaries. The interwar years saw unprecedented attention to the pressures exerted by the peer group. Stanley Hall, the psychologist of the time, also observed that the supposedly inevitable loosening of the parent-child bond was also a hallmark of modern adolescence. The idea of specific “generations” is also important to the history of youth. There are many generations in their stories — the 1914 generation (France, Germany), the Civil War generation (Russia), the 1930s-born generation (Japan). This might be related to our experiences of “time” that changed a lot in the twentieth century.

Histories of Youth Mobilization
I have read histories of the British Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, the Hitler Jugend, the Soviet Komsomol, and French Communist and Catholic mobilization, and Japanese imperial Seinendan. Except for the Japanese Seinendan, the focus of of all these works are urban youth as these movements took place in the urban sphere. Each historiography has its own characteristics. For example, the histories of the Boy Scouts pay a lot of attention to socioeconomic and demographic changes that led to these movements, and it is still contended whether these groups are characterized as “militarist.” On the Hitler Jugend, or German youth groups in general, historians often discuss the war responsibility of these youth – Jaimey Fisher gives an eye-opening thesis that, in the immediate postwar Germany, intellectuals accused youth of deviating German modernity and victimizing the older. Scholars of the Komsomol are often concerned with the gap between the representation and reality under the totalitarian regime, and the Japanese Seinendan often focuses on how the traditional village societies were re-organized by state intervention. Although these scholars rarely give a direct reference to other youth mobilization, it is quite obvious that these youth shared similar experiences around the world, and there was a strong traveling trope of youth as the agents of “conservative modernity” (Proctor).

Category(s): History, My Grad School Life

2 Responses to Youth in History

  1. Hi. I liked Gillis’s Youth and History as well. Better than Jon Savage’s Teenage I thought. I suppose my problem with the study of youth is that– let’s face it– we’re dealing with an abstract noun. What is the student of youth to do? Offer a partial account by localizing the object of inquiry: working-class youth (which usually means white boys along the lines of the Birmingham school stuff that came out in the 70s); youth-as-consumer; youth gangs; etc.
    Is it even possible to speak of ‘youth’ as a generality?

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