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Youthhood - A Period of Personal and Social Development


Defining Youth

All the diversity in the world you find reflected in youth1. The focus on youth in development calls for a deeper understanding of the diversity of youth. Youth is far from a homogeneous group; it is characterised by a number of interlinked and context-specific factors. It is therefore important when planning any development initiative with or by youth to understand the complexity and diversity of youth, their particular characteristics and the challenges they face. The following sections provide an introduction to understanding the diversity of youth.

The physical age of youth is usually categorised to be between 15 to 35 years, sometimes younger and/or older. Different donor agencies operate with different age spans for youth: the UN categorises youth as ranging from 15 to 24, but different UN agencies often operate with slightly different age ranges; for USAID it is 10-29 and for DFID it is 10-24.

Contrary to many other donor agencies, Danida does not operate with a fixed age range definition for youth, but aligns to the national or regional definitions applied by partner institutions in specific countries. The age range of youth will thus differ from country to country. Should the country definition be considered inappropriate (e.g. due to a very broad age range including youth above the age of 35), the regional definition can be followed.

Furthermore, it may often be necessary to sub-divide the officially applied youth age span to better understand the specific characteristics and challenges faced by a very young person or a person at the end of the youthhood age span. 

The age categories provided below are indicative of the different age spans youth can be divided into. The exact categorisation varies in different socioeconomic and cultural contexts, including urban/rural and gender factors. Each age span is characterised by different developmental capabilities, in particular related to cognitive thinking capacity, personal responsibilities and other social factors such as traditions for age of marriage, which are seen differently in the different contexts.

The following age model is adopted from USAID's Youth Policy (2012):

Early adolescence (10-14 years) is a transition from childhood and involves the onset of puberty. Adolescence (15-19 years) is often a critical age in terms of finalising education and entering the labour market. Emerging adulthood (20-24 years) is when youth typically establish themselves independently from parents, which makes livelihood and self-reliance increasingly important. The transition into adulthood (25-29 years) is characterised by forming families and raising children, and adulthood (30+ years), is the phase when also increased civic engagement and extended access to land, property and income opportunities are important parameters.  Consequently, youth is a life stage, one that is not finite or linear.

To further add to the complexity, youth within the same physical age segments is a heterogenic group characterised by a number of socioeconomic dichotomies urban/rural, educated/non-educated, employed/not employed all factors that influence the young person’s ability to engage in and benefit from development initiatives and take part in decision-making processes.

In many countries, youth is often constrained by traditions or socio-cultural barriers. It is important to understand the complex medley of different factors that influence what can be designated as the social age of a person. Geographical and ethnic belonging, gender and family situation, level of education and access to social and health services, knowledge of rights, financial independence as well as complex social hierarchies and family structures play a determining role in terms of defining whether a person is young or not.Youth is therefore often not only a question of physical age, but is also defined by the level of independence/dependence, of being productive and having financial or family responsibility (marriage and children) or not, as well as the individual’s place within the family hierarchical structure and lineage.


Physical or social age

Preventive health care initiatives targeted to youth in Uganda define the target group according to the official age segment of youth, i.e. 15-35 years. However, girls as young as 10-12 years may have begun menstruating and are therefore an important part of the primary target group for SRHR information programmes.

In Mali and other societies where large, polygamous families are common, the individual’s place in the family hierarchy may count more than the physical age. This means that one’s own children may be older than one’s youngest siblings or in other words, the niece or nephew may be older (physical age) than the aunt or uncle. But when it comes to family status, heritage and authority, the social age often overrules the physical age.


Defining a Target Group of Youth

An important first step in including youth as a priority when designing and formulating a country/thematic programme and development engagement (DE) is to define the targeted youth population based on a contextual understanding.

The issues below support the identification and description of key demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of youth. This information will allow for a sharper and more precise targeting of youth in the engagements.

Key issues of demographic and socioeconomic features:

  • Age range (determined on the basis of country context and/or scope of the specific programme or development engagement)
  • Gender (male/female/sexual minorities)
  • Geographical location (urban/peri-urban/rural)
  • Educational status; in school or out of school, including literacy level (high, medium, low)
  • Employment status; employed full-time or part-time, in petty trade, unemployed or inactive
  • Health status; any specific health-related issues such as young people living with HIV/AIDS, disabilities etc.
  • Dependents; either own children or younger siblings (if head of a household)
  • Victims of violence or abuse, conflict or recent natural disaster (e.g. flood, draught, earthquake)
  • Other (e.g. ethnic, sociocultural traditions, religion)
  • Volunteer engagement and participation in youth groups and/or community.


EXAMPLE: FACEJ, promotion of young entrepreneurs

FACEJ is a development engagement under the Private Sector Development Programme in Mali (2019-2022) that targets the creation of small and medium-sized enterprises run by young men and women. In addition to the physical age of the FACEJ target group, an important challenge was to determine the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the FACEJ target group. Considerations included the extent to which FACEJ should: focus on rural, agro-based enterprises vs. urban enterprises with stronger focus on ICT and technology, target entrepreneurs with a minimum literacy and educational level and focus on a particular geographic area.



Youth - A Learning and Transformative Period of Life

Youth is a period of maturation and gradual transition from childhood to adulthood, characterised by a particular disposition for certain areas of learning, comprising stages of maturation that cannot take place earlier in childhood, nor later in adulthood. A certain cognitive brain development makes youth particularly sensitive to developing their analytic thinking and understanding more complex and multi-facetted aspects of life. This period is particularly effective in developing insights into citizenship issues and for deepening the sense of community, society and personal responsibility related to the social context at large. Provided that the context allows for it, youthhood is the foundation for a sound, informed and prosperous adulthood. Consequently, youth represent an interim but important period in a young person’s life.

The emphasis on working with and by youth rather than only for youth is an imperative in the sense that youthand humans in generallearn better when they are active and engaged instead of being passive listeners and observers. Unfortunately, the latter tends to be the case in much programming targeting youth.

When examining what it takes for youth in terms of building the knowledge and skills that allow them to take leadership, the issue of life skills and soft skills is instrumental. Equipping young people with technical skills and vocational education and training is often not sufficient. Technical skills are concrete capabilities linked to an area of work, such as the formal competence to steer an excavator, whereas soft skills and life skills are personal, psychological and social merits that guide a young person’s agency and his/her ability to navigate smartly and position themselves, including capitalising on their technical skills. Thus, life and soft skills are instrumental in youth development and should always be considered when designing youth programmes in order to support young people’s transformative learning and maturation. Teaching of life/soft skills aims to strengthen young people’s resilience and attitude to cope with and respond to changing life conditions with increased capacity and confidence thereby facilitating a sound transition from childhood to adulthood.

The five specific areas of youth learning and youth maturationshown in the matrix below represent soft and life skills relevant for young people to be able to handle changes, challenges and opportunities in everyday life. These areas form the basis for young people to engage actively in development initiatives as beneficiaries as well as youth leaders. These areas may serve as inspiration for design of programmes in which youth capacity building is an important element.

The matrix below is a checklist and can inspire programmes to set targets for young peoples’ competence development, capacity building and empowerment and likewise give inputs to developing output indicators. (Examples of Youth Indicators, Programme Management Tool).


Area of learning and development


Intended youth outcomes

Understanding the context and oneself as a social being


  • Ability to analyse and think critically to understand circumstances
  • Rational problem-solving and ability to envision solutions                
  • Logical reasoning based on ability to determine one’s own skills, weaknesses and strengths

  • Ability to learn from adverse situations and avoid them in the future

Protecting oneself and handling everyday tasks and challenges


  • Knowledge and practice of good nutrition and hygiene
  • Ability to independently assess situations and environments
  • Capacity to identify and avoid risky conditions and activities at all costs
  • Ability to learn from adverse situations and avoid them in the future
  • Confidence and sense of self-worth in relation to own physical and mental status

Connecting and becoming a social being


  • Ability to empathise with others
  • Interpersonal skills such as ability to build trust, handle conflict, value differences, listen actively and communicate effectively
  • Sense of belonging and membership, i.e. valuing and being valued by others, being a part of a group or a greater whole
  • Ability to network to develop personal and professional relationships

Empowered to drive and lead change processes


  • Awareness of how one’s personal actions impact the larger communities
  • Sense of responsibility to self and others
  • Awareness of cultural differences among peers and the larger community
  • Sense of purpose and ability to follow the lead of others when appropriate
  • Ability to engage and motivate others                              


Empowered to manage and optimise work


  • Realistic awareness of options for future employment, careers and/or              

    professional development

  • Culmination of professional vocation and opportunity for career advancement

  • Testing and adapting one’s ability to engage in working in a particular industry

1 Statement made by the UN Youth Envoy at the international seminar on Youth Developmentfrom Policy to Practice in Copenhagen in December 2018


In case of questions, please contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Global Youth Advisor at [email protected]