Youth has always been under the microscope and of central concern to adults and the state. A range of fears and anxieties has consistently shaped the 'youth question' and influenced 'what is to be done about young people'. This is not just a modernist fascination. It has a long and complex history covering a number of centuries (Griffths 1996). Neither does the youth question have a single simple universal definition (Cohen 1997): it can change, dependent upon wider contextualised developments taking place in society, although, as we shall see in the discussions that follow, historical continuities in how it is shaped do exist (Pearson 1983). What is not always understood are the processes and influences that construct and restructure the youth question over time.
This book is concerned with investigating these issues in detail through an analysis of developments in Britain. While the book starts its journey in pre-modernity and then travels into the establishment of modernity in the twentieth century, its central focus will be on the developments taking place in the last twenty years, in what has been called 'late' or 'high' modernity (Giddens 1991). To achieve a full understanding of the processes underpinning the construction of the youth question, the discussion that follows will concentrate on what I believe to be two of the major influences: that of the role of government and the way that politics and policy have constructed and responded to the youth question; and that of youth research and theories of youth from within a number of core disciplines of the social sciences.
Politics has always had a major influence in shaping and reflecting core values and assumptions about the social landscape around us. Yet it also has the power to influence and shape our understandings. Through examining the political interests, the beliefs, the ideologies and the core assumptions about youth in political discourse and public policy, we can start to understand how the youth question has been understood, constructed and responded to at different historical moments. Politics and policy-making are continually concerned with driving particular political projects, usually in relation to political ideologies and utopias, and instigating social change. But it also has to manage the tensions that arise from the external forces that create new environments and challenges. Policy-making, then, needs to be responsive to these new social contexts. How youth is perceived and conceptualised in these processes can then have major consequences in shaping the youth question, and how agencies respond to the 'conditions of youth' at . . .