Abidjan — Who is young and who is not? At what age does youth come to an end? In Ivory Coast, the concept of youth has become more than a matter of birthday. Instead, it's being marked by various socio-professional traits - some of them defined by prejudices fuelled by the media and politicians.
Ivory Coast's ministry of youth considers anyone between ages 15 and 35 to be a "youth". But on Ivorian radio and TV, one often hears phrases like: "a young man of 38" or a "40-year-old youth". That's because in popular understanding, the notion of youth goes beyond numbers.
In some circles, youth is synonymous with - if not a euphemism for - people struggling to fit into society or those with almost no social responsibilities. Local media also often use the term 'youth' when referring to thugs or rioters, even when the people in question are adults.
As Arnaud Essoh, a computer engineer, observes, this attitude changes if the person described shows signs of social success. "For example, once you start working or get married - irrespective of age, whether you are 22 or 23 - your friends and family stop seeing you as a young person," he says. "They will show you the same kind of respect shown to elders. Ultimately, adulthood here is no longer based on age; it's about a person's financial and social status."
Irresponsible = young?
Luc Hien, 27, points out that defining 'youth' is a challenging exercise. "If we stick to a definition by the United Nations Development Programme, the term 'youth' refers to those between 15 and 24 years old," he says.
According to Stéphane Essoh, who is four years Hien's junior, politicians usually conflate the youth age bracket with the period during which one is irresponsible.
"They see us as children incapable of making any good decisions," he explains. "One only needs to look at the age of youth leaders in political parties or even the age of youth ministers to realise that. They are well above 40 and that has almost always been the case within the PDCI, the RPR and the UDPCI."
Meanwhile, Jeanne Tab notes the general consensus that "a young person is someone who is 35 years old at most". But, the 29-year-old student adds: "In reality, a youth is usually an unemployed person who is still under the care of a parent or a tutor."
If commercial slogans and ad campaigns are any indication, immaturity, irresponsibility, unemployment and carelessness are often associated with youth.
Communications expert Jean-Baptiste Appia points out how ad agencies are part of the problem. In their images and videos, they promote the negative social connotations associated with youth.
"One only needs to look at ads by Prudence on HIV/AIDS and Job Assist on unemployment to see how the youth are portrayed. On the one hand. they are presented as sexually loose, frivolous and irresponsible," he says. "On the other hand, they are jobless, careless and incapable of looking after themselves on the other."
Eric Kouadio is a 28 year old who stands against such labels. According to the communications engineer and volunteer web manager for a local NGO, it is "inappropriate" to associate "humiliating concepts" with the term 'youth'.
"Such definitions of youth hide the fact that many young people are invested in voluntary projects and therefore contribute to public life through their social actions," he says. "Why does one need to have a paid job in order to be considered a responsible and contributing adult in society?"