Overview of Adolescent Life
The largest generation of adolescents in history—1.2 billion strong—is preparing to enter adulthood in a rapidly changing world. Their educational and health status, their readiness to take on adult roles and responsibilities, and the support they receive from their families, communities and governments will determine their own future and the future of their countries.
Nearly half of all people are under the age of 25—the largest youth generation in history. The State of World Population 2003 report examines the challenges and risks faced by this generation that impact directly on their physical, emotional and mental well-being. Today millions of adolescents and young people are faced with the prospects of early marriage and childbearing, incomplete education, and the threat of HIV/AIDS. Half of all new HIV infections occur in people aged 15 to 24. The report stresses that increasing the knowledge, opportunities, choices and participation of young people will enable them to lead healthy and productive lives so that they can contribute fully to their communities and to a more stable and prosperous world.
Today’s adolescents and young people have diverse experiences given the different political, economic, social and cultural realities they face in their communities. Yet there is a common thread running through all of their lives and that is the hope for a better future. This hope is bolstered by the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by world leaders in 2000 to reduce extreme poverty and hunger, slow the spread of HIV/AIDS, reduce maternal and child mortality, ensure universal primary education and improve sustainable development by 2015.
Within the framework of human rights established and accepted by the global community, certain rights are particularly relevant to adolescents and youth and the opportunities and risks they face. These include gender equality and the rights to education and health, including reproductive and sexual health information and services appropriate to their age, capacities and circumstances. Actions to ensure these rights can have tremendous practical benefits: empowering individuals, ensuring well-being, stemming the HIV/AIDS pandemic, reducing poverty and improving prospects for social and economic progress. Addressing these challenges is an urgent development priority.
Investing in young people will yield large returns for generations to come. Failing to act, on the other hand, will incur tremendous costs to individuals, societies and the world at large.
In every region, there is a need for positive dialogue and greater understanding among parents, families, communities and governments about the complex and sensitive situations facing adolescents and young people. The report examines such factors as changing family structures and living conditions, rapidly changing norms and social behaviours, the growth in orphans and street children, the impact of urbanization and migration, armed conflict, the lack of education and employment, and the continuing toll of gender discrimination and violence.
Just as they need guidance, young women and men need supportive relationships and institutions that respond to their hopes and concerns. By taking concerted and comprehensive action to address the challenges faced by adolescents and young people, governments can meet their commitments and international development goals, and give greater hope to the world’s largest youth generation.
UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, is working with a wide range of partners and with young people themselves to address the needs of adolescents and young people in a way that is culturally sensitive, locally driven and in line with international human rights standards.
DEFINING THE YOUNG
The terms “adolescents”,
“youth” and “young people” are used differently in
various societies. These categories are associated—where
they are recognized at all—with different roles, responsibilities
and ages that depend on the local context.
As this report details, key life events—marriage, sexual debut (first sexual intercourse), employment, childbearing,
acceptance into adult organizations, political participation — occur at differing times between and within societies.
This report uses definitions that are commonly used in
different demographic, policy and social contexts:
- Adolescents: 10-19 years of age (early adolescence,
10-14; late adolescence, 15-19).
- Youth: 15-24 years of age.
- Young people: 10-24 years of age.
National programmes and policies often make different
distinctions. In India, for example, the Youth Policy includes
people up to the age of 35. In Jamaica, reproductive health
programmes for adolescents have different goals and strategies
for differing ages (recognizing that the interests, skills and
needs of younger adolescents are not the same as those of
the older). In many countries, health education materials are
tailored to different grade levels.
Adolescence is a growth process. Guiding children as they grow to adulthood is not and never has been a job for parents alone. In traditional rural communities, the extended family and established systems of hierarchy and respect govern the transition. But in all developing countries, the certainties of rural tradition are giving way to urban life, with its opportunities and risks, its individual freedoms and its more complex social demands and frameworks of support.
In the rapidly changing urban environment, young people derive most of their information about the world, what to expect and how to behave, from their peers, and increasingly from mass media. The tension between parents, who tend to see them as children in need of protection, and the outside world, which makes demands on them as adults, reflects the central dilemma of modern adolescents.
The ages from 10-19 are rich in life transitions. How and when young people experience these vary greatly depending on their circumstances. At age 10, the expectation in most societies is that children live at home, go to school, have not yet gone through puberty, are unmarried and have never worked. By their 20th birthday, many adolescents have left school and home. They have become sexually active, married and entered the labour force.(1)
While there is little comparative research, differences within and between societies are more pronounced with regard to adolescents, and generalizations may be less useful than with other age groups—some societies barely recognize a prolonged transition to adulthood; in others, adolescence seems to extend from late childhood into the 20s.
Moreover, we know far less in a systematic way about adolescents than about other age groups and even less about early adolescence, from 10 to 14, than about the later years, 15-19.
While information on young people is starting to improve (2) there is little reliable data on the strongest influences on their lives: their peers, their families, and their communities.
Policy makers, communities and families need to create policies, programmes and guidance to give the largest number of the young the resources they need to contribute to their societies.