The Changing Role of Children & Young People in Society

Different cultures and eras treated young people differently, especially in regards to what age they should be taking on adult-like responsibilities.  Like most things, it is subject to the pendulum effect, where we started at one extreme and then tried to fix it by going to another extreme, and hopefully eventually settling somewhere in the middle.

We will begin with the time period before modern society, and then discuss modern society, and then discuss trends for the future.

Contents include:

  1. Children as Labor and an Asset (Agricultural Age)
  2. Industrial Age and Exploitation
  3. Children as Students and as Liabilities (Modern Age)
  4. Backlash and Child Prodigies (Information Age)
  5. Future Trends

For the purposes of this discussion, a child is between the age of 0 and puberty, an adolescent is between the age of puberty and 18, and a young adult is between the age of 18 and 24.  The term “young people” will be used to refer to all three groups, ages 0 to 24.

It also should be noted that this piece is more of an observation rather than a statement saying what is better.  We can only learn from the past if we know the past.  But there is a definite trend here we should be aware of.

Children as Labor and an Asset

Before modern society, young people were given responsibilities at a young age, often as children, out of necessity or convenience.  Children helped out on the farm or family business, and children were primarily educated at home.  This was considered so normal, that society deemed it desirable to encourage large families so there were more children to help out, and the family could become more wealthy through labor.

Once a child reached puberty, it was considered normal and acceptable for the adolescent to express their new-found sexuality and find a mate within a few years.  Without effective birth control, this typically meant pregnancy and marriage during adolescence.

This is why many cultures have a coming of age ceremony during the adolescent years.  Sweet 16, Quinceañera (15 years old), and others are examples of celebrations where a female transitioned from being a girl into being a woman.  These ceremonies often were meant to advertise the fact that the female was available for courting and marriage.

It was normal and acceptable for adolescents to marry and have children.  Some communities would even consider a female as an “old maid” and an undesirable mate if they were not married before the age of 18.

Large families were encourages anyway because children were used as labor on the family farm or family business, and a parent’s retirement plan was having enough children that at least one of their offspring would take care of them in their old age.  There was no such thing as Social Security or government assistance back then.  Your children were your retirement plan.

Industrial Age and Exploitation

Then the industrial age came, and that changed everything.  Children and adolescents still were expected to work, but now that there were factories and public schools, the parents were no longer overseeing the work and the education.

Working conditions of the era were horrible, for adults and young people.  A lot of abuse during this era lead to important laws concerning worker safety, workers rights and child labor.

Formal education for most people was typically only to the 6th grade, which conveniently ended at about 11 or 12 years old, around the time of puberty.  High school was available in many places, but it was not required, and it was like going to college today.  For example, for my grandfather born in just after 1900, getting a high school diploma was a big thing and his diploma was as big as a Doctor’s Degree is today.

Depending on the community, it was still normal for women to get married sometime between puberty and young adulthood.  In rural communities you might still have the notion where a woman is considered an old maid if she wasn’t married by 18, while in the cities, people tended to marry in their early adulthood (between 18 and 24). Rural marriages were often common law marriages, with no official record, while urban marriages were often registered.

Children as Students and as Liabilities

When laws were passed prohibiting child labor, and public schooling was extended until the 12th grade, an economic shift happened where young people were no longer assets, but liabilities.   Instead of a young person helping make the family wealthier, the young person drained the family economically because they couldn’t work, and the parents had to pay for their schooling through taxes and tuition.

This, combined with effective birth control, reduced the number of children per family to about 2.4 in many societies, which happens to be about the number of children you statistically need to maintain a country’s population at the same size.  Below 2.1 and a country’s population shrinks, and above 2.5 and the population grows (exact figures need to be adjusted for infant mortality rate, and other factors by country).

Then add the trend for young people to need higher and higher education levels to compete with each other, you get more and more people going to college and more people postponing marriage and children so they can get an education.

As a result, we have young people as old as 30 years old being supported by their parents (sometimes even living with them), with some young people enjoying childhood all the way into young adulthood, with few responsibilities other than to get an education.

Backlash and Child Prodigies

Now, in the information age, we are starting to see some backlash against the idea that a young person should spend their entire youth learning and not working.

Thanks to expensive college degrees that do not necessarily result in higher paying positions, some young people are starting to doubt the value of a general college degree, instead preferring more practical skills.  They still value education, just not necessarily a general education.  For example, even today, someone without a college education who has certain IT certifications can make more money out of high school than students with popular four year college degrees.

Thanks to entrepreneurship, young people are also seeing that they do not need to depend on a big corporation for income, and can actually build their own business, even at an early age.

Access to the internet has expanded young people’s knowledge about the world where they see examples of other young people doing great things, and they want to do great things too.  We are seeing 10 year olds starting businesses and charities and video shows and creating great things we would expect from someone much older.

The Pendulum Swings

Young people used to be a resource a culture depended upon, an asset to the community, sometimes protected, and sometimes exploited.  Then we shifted to young people being a liability, from an economic standpoint, and we became overprotective of our children and young people.  And now we are starting to see a shift towards young people being the contributors to society again, but this time on their own terms.

We are still at the early stages of this shift, but I expect to see more empowered young people contributing to society at younger and younger ages.  It should be interesting to see how this changes things.


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Scott M. Stolz

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