Generations of Youth

Kaisa Vehkalahti & Leena Suurpää (eds.)

What has youth meant for young people who have lived at different times and in different social environments in Finland? How do people born in the early 20th century, whose childhood and youth were marked by depression and war, remember and write about their youth? And what about the post-war baby-boom generation, which in Finland is often regarded as the first real youth generation – or the young people whose youth falls within the economic uncertainty of the 2010s? Is there also something permanent in the experiences of youth, something common to each passing generation?

This collection of articles, Generations of Youth, combines the perspectives of contemporary youth research in the social sciences and history research to create a dialogue that yields a rich picture of the changes that have taken place in the definition of youth, youth experiences, and in the social and cultural conditions of youth. The multidisciplinary team of scientists contributing to the publication opens up the past and present of Finnish youth by means of common oral history material. This collection is based on a writing competition arranged in 2010 by the Finnish Youth Research Society, the association Nuoren Voiman Liitto, and the Finnish Literature Society to collect autobiographical writings about the childhood and youth of Finns of all ages. Organized under the title Oi nuoruus (meaning Oh, youth), the competition attracted the writings of 376 respondents, born between the years 1917 and 1998.

The long time span of the autobiographical texts makes it possible both to outline the major trends of Finnish youth and to devise structures for historical comparison. Oral history narration provides a nuanced perspective on how Finnish society evolved within a few generations from a poor agrarian society to a wealthy industrial and information society. At the same time, it opens up perspectives at variance with history’s main trends.

The position of this collection of articles in the field of research can best be described with the word ‘crossroads’. This book project is located at the intersection of at least three research traditions: firstly, multidisciplinary youth and generation research; secondly, research into the history of youth; and thirdly, the Finnish tradition of life story and oral history research. The collection focuses on youth as a biographical structure and narrative, as a concept defining one’s personal course of life and memory – but also as a historical and cultural phenomenon, as a key to history. Youth is examined both in the environment of daily practices and human relations and against the backdrop of social circumstances and institutional frameworks. Scientific discussions on youth culture blend naturally with institutional analyses. Also when writing about youth, writers of varying ages can comfortably cross the border between institutions and youth culture perspectives. For instance, the autobiographies include many narratives about schools, and the writers of different ages comment in an interesting manner on how various institutions, such as confirmation classes, eligibility to vote, the army, or getting married, have defined the youth of their generation. At the same time, institutional definitions are challenged by emerging interpretations and points of contestation. In the timeline of personal life, youth is not always positioned where it should be according to cultural expectations. The various stages and contents of youth are often – but not inevitably – written in ways other than from the viewpoint of the writers’ personal lives and identity building or from the perspective of youth groups and cultures.

In the spirit of the material submitted to the writing competition, the multidisciplinary team of authors for this publication also represents various age brackets and researcher generations: from postgraduate and doctoral students to established experts in their fields.