What’s the Problem? Precarious Youth: Marginalisation, Criminalisation and Racialisation.


  • John Clarke The Open University


Since the nineteenth century invention of adolescence, young people have been consistently identified as social problems in western societies. Their contemporary status as a focus of fear and anxiety is, in that sense, nothing new. In this paper, I try to combine this sense of historical recurrence about the youth problem with some questions about what is different about the present – asking what is distinctive about the shape of the youth problem now? This is a difficult balance to strike, and what I have to say will probably lean more towards an emphasis on the historical conditions and routes of the youth problem. That balance reflects my own orientations and knowledge (I am not expert on the contemporary conditions of being young). But it also arises from my belief that much contemporary social science is profoundly forgetful. An enthusiasm for stressing the newness, or novelty, of the present connects many varieties of contemporary scholarship. One result is the construction of what Janet Fink and I have referred to as ‘sociological time’ in which

“distinctions between past and present persistently offer over-unified accounts of a stable and settled past against which can be set a view of the present as dynamic, mobile, and fluid. Instead, we think there may be some merit in ‘historicising the present’. Rather than stressing the difference of the present, we might look for continuities in the conditions, relations and processes that underlie the construction, destabilisation and reconstruction of [social political and cultural] formations” (Clarke and Fink 2008: 228).

In that vein, this paper begins by recovering some aspects of the history of the youth problem as it has been defined in western industrial-urban capitalist settings since the middle of the nineteenth century.






Special Issue: "Marginalized Youth"