Unfolding Lives: Youth, Gender and Change

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Rachel Thomson
The Policy Press, distributed by International Specialized Book Services
202 pages. $89.95.

In 1996, the 10-year “Inventing Adulthoods” longitudinal study began following 100 young people ages 11 to 16 in the U.K. to discover how different environments and opportunities affected their transition to adulthood. This generation was shaped by enhanced communications technologies, as well as the expansion of higher education, but also faced extended dependency on parents into their 20s.

Less “socially mobile” than previous generations, they struggle with “old forms of inequalities remade in new ways,” says Rachel Thomson, professor of social research at the U.K.’s Open University, dedicated to distance learning. She helped to conduct the study, which has appeared in other publications.

In this book, Thomson concentrates on four of these youths’ lives that represent the variety of “situations that young people find and make.” Extensive quotes from two males and two females, interviewed three to five times each between 1998 and 2003, reveal “problems faced” and “legacies realized and escaped.”

Using contemporary social theory, Thomson addresses how gender identities – “what it means to be a man or a woman” – are affected by “social class, ethnicity, locality and sexuality.” She also looks at the relationships of personal choice, family history and social structure.

Translating British culture can be a challenge for American readers. What are A levels and GCSE exams? College and university are not synonymous. Social class is highly politicized. Thomson’s formal language contrasts with her young subjects’ unfamiliar slang. We miss some meaning in Karin’s colorful depictions of her peer groups – freaks, Kappa kids, Majellas and Skaters – but we get the atmosphere. None of these cultural differences dilutes the strong similarities in youth’s experiences in our shrinking world.

Even without grasping sociological jargon, those who care about youth culture will be intrigued by how these young people’s self-awareness unfolds as their lives progress, and how they construct their gender and place in a shifting society. (800) 944-6190, http://www.isbs.com.