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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Stephanie Olsen and Heidi Morrison about their anthology, A Cultural History of Youth

Our members, Stephanie Olsen (Tampere University, Finland) and Heidi Morrison (University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, US), talk about their 6-volume anthology, A Cultural History of Youth (Bloomsbury, 2023).


Q: What is this 6-volume anthology about?

A Cultural History of Youth reflects multiple visions of youth as they exist and have existed over a long expanse of time, from antiquity to present. Youth is a window into historical change, at the level of society and of individual experience. Over its 6 volumes covering 2,500 years from antiquity to the modern age, this series explores not only how people thought about youth but how youth was lived as well.

This age category has, however, no fixed definition, nor did we want to impose one. Each volume has its own range of possibilities for the age limits of this term, and what it means as it intersects with other analytical categories like race, gender, sexuality, class and region. This series affirms the need to separate children and youth into distinct research categories, yet recognizes that age boundaries are porous. The difference between how adults conceive of youth and how youth conceive of themselves often reflects larger concerns within a society and through time. 

Our following chapter titles, repeated throughout the 6 volumes, integrate these categories and themes, showcase cutting-edge historical research from leading scholars, and push new research agendas forward: “Concepts of Youth”; “Spaces and Places”; “Education and Work”; “Leisure and Play”; “Emotions”; “Gender, Sexuality and The Body”; “Belief and Ideology”; “Authority and Agency”; “War and Conflict”; and “Towards a Global History.”

Q: What made you initiate this anthology?

From the start, we intended to build a truly global history of youth, the first of its kind. As general editors we had the enviable task of inviting leading scholars from around the world to lend their expertise to these volumes, creating an innovative resource for specialists and non-specialists alike.

While this series does not cover every region of the world, we have put into dialogue different regions and different historiographies on youth. This dialogue not only demonstrates diversity but, countering a singular view from centre to periphery, also strongly signals the multi-directional impacts various regions have on one another. Authors have been attentive to language choice, trying hard not to homogenize vast areas. The last chapter of each volume highlights the global reach of and intersections between preceding chapters, constructing new intellectual and conceptual bridges between them, and reflecting on the gaps that remain. While we recognize that conforming to Bloomsbury’s standard European/Settler-colonial periodization across these volumes remains an impediment to a true global history of youth, we are keen to amplify alternative ways of framing history as much as possible.

We hope that readers will explore the contents of volumes outside of their particular periods of specialization and will also read thematically across volumes. One benefit of a series such as this, which covers vast periods of human history, is to juxtapose change over time with surprising continuities, and to challenge ideas that the experience of youth is a long, progressive march “forward” to the present day.

An excerpt from Adriana Benzaquén's introductory chapter to Volume 4 (pages 2–4):

Even if fraught with difficulties, the task of unravelling the connections between youth and Enlightenment should command the attention of historians because there is a fundamental conceptual affinity between the two. In this volume, youth will be understood as the stage of life between childhood and adulthood. More than any other stage in the life cycle, youth is not natural or necessary but “a social and cultural construct” (Levi and Schmitt 1997b: 1)—slippery, shifting, and wholly conventional. What marks the beginning and end of youth, how long youth lasts, and even whether there is a separate stage of youth rather than a straightforward move from childhood to adulthood are all culturally based and variable questions. Taking as a common starting point the idea of youth as a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, the chapters in this volume examine concepts and representations of youth, the lives and experiences of young people, and youth as an individual or collective identity. Is the “age of Enlightenment” a relevant chronological category in the history of youth? What effect did the changes associated with Enlightenment have on young people? And how did definitions and lived experiences of youth vary across regions and cultures? In other words, to what extent were the experiences of young people shaped by their age as opposed to other markers of identity (gender, social status or class, race and ethnicity, religion)? Did youth matter as such—or where and how, in what contexts or situations did youth matter as such in the eighteenth century?

Like youth, Enlightenment is a contested concept. It denotes both a historical era—the long eighteenth century, roughly between 1650 and 1800—and a cultural and intellectual movement tied to a set of broader social, economic, and political developments (Outram 2013). Just as youth has been defined as the transition between childhood and adulthood, the Enlightenment is often conceptualized as the transition from the premodern or preindustrial to the modern or industrial world. In both cases, the transitional time or stage is more uncertain and “fuzzy,” harder to grasp and delineate, than the other two (which is not to say that childhood/adulthood and premodernity/modernity are simple, easy, or uncontested categories). The eighteenth century was an age of contrasts, of considerable population and urban growth—even though the vast majority of the population everywhere continued to live in rural areas; of commercial expansion, increasing consumption, and a certain improvement in living standards—even though mortality rates continued to be very high and many people were extremely poor if not destitute; of new educational opportunities and a thriving print culture—even though most people were illiterate or non-literate. Many of the ideas and values of the Enlightenment philosophers heralded a new era of optimism, reason, progress, peace, and prosperity, while protoindustrialization and early industrialization presaged the end of an economy of scarcity—yet wars became more deadly, revolutions and rebellions more frequent, the Atlantic slave trade reached its highest point, and toward the end of the century the factory system ushered in new forms of capitalist exploitation. Moreover, while the Enlightenment has long been seen as the origin of Western modernity, recent scholars have emphasized the movement’s global reach and challenged us to see the eighteenth century as a truly global era, during which the different regions of the world were integrated into a single (yet profoundly unequal) economy, as the struggle for colonial empires intensified and exchange and communication networks, international mobility, and cross-cultural interactions multiplied (Nussbaum 2003; Conrad 2012; Aksan and Goffman 2007; Hamadeh 2008).

The growing interest in the global Enlightenment has barely begun to be felt in the history of youth. Despite the important conceptual affinity between youth and Enlightenment as transitional times or stages, the global history of youth in the age of Enlightenment is still in its infancy. For this reason, what this volume offers is not a comprehensive survey or “map” of youth in the eighteenth century but an agenda for future research. … Both youth and Enlightenment can be perceived as indicators of change, looking forward to a future state to be achieved (adulthood, modernity) while retaining elements of an earlier state. They are times of possibility and danger, as the transition from one state to another may be eagerly anticipated (as maturation, progress, development) or feared (as loss of or fall from a more innocent, natural, and pure state). Cultural anxieties about youth in the Enlightenment were therefore inseparable from anxieties about, and complex responses to, wider global transformations, as more people, not just in the West but throughout the world, began to see time as moving inexorably forward and realized that the trend for societies to become more heterogeneous and less cohesive could not be stopped.


  • Aksan, Virginia H. and Daniel Goffman (2007), “Introduction: Situating the Early Modern Ottoman World,” In Virginia H. Aksan and Daniel Goffman (eds.), The Early Modern Ottomans: Remapping the Empire, 1-12, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Conrad, Sebastian (2012), “Enlightenment in Global History: A Historiographical Critique,” American Historical Review 117 (4): 999-1027.
  • Hamadeh, Shirine (2008), The City’s Pleasures: Istanbul in the Eighteenth Century, Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Levi, Giovanni and Jean-Claude Schmitt, eds. (1997b), “Introduction,” in Giovanni Levi and Jean-Claude Schmitt (eds.), A History of Young People in the West, vol. 1: Ancient and Medieval Rites of Passage, trans. Camille Naish, 1-11, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Nussbaum, Felicity A. (2003), “Introduction,” in Felicity A. Nussbaum (ed.), The Global Eighteenth Century, 1-18, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Outram, Dorinda (2013), The Enlightenment, 3rd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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