Young-adults or Adult waithood?

H., a 28-year-old man, has not been able to find a steady job since he left secondary education at 18 years old.

Young people in square in Alger. Photo: Jose Sánchez García (April 2015)

He survives precariously employed in small establishments, informal jobs in construction, home repairs, carrying boxes of fruit or plucking chickens on the local market. He is not married and it will be difficult for him to find a wife. Due to his working situation, he’s not a good match for the young girls of the neighbourhood. The perception is that he has not acquired sufficient “responsibility” to belong to adulthood because he is unable to support his family regularly and even himself. In the eyes of the neighbourhood, he is still a young man. By contrast, S., a 24-year-old man, is the owner of a photography and video business. He is perceived as potentially a real man who is able to support himself and potentially able to deal with the responsibilities of adult life. He has a girlfriend, and is saving money to get married and buy everything needed for his new home. He is waiting to reach the horizon of his youth.  However, the two are still waiting to be categorised or classified as adults.


From the self-perception of their position in social space, young people are trapped in a world in which they are required to become adults to be married. Whatever their class, gender, ethnic or religious origin, many young people cannot afford to start families and homes and cannot be fully independent and participate in the privileges and responsibilities of social adulthood. This is a difference from their counterparts in Western countries in general, where youth is a condition to preserve into adulthood. H. and S. crave the hegemonic responsibilities of adulthood (independence, establishing their own family and becoming taxpayers...), but some of their Western counterparts are trying – and are sometimes able − to live in a state of prolonged youth defined as “a life without responsibilities”.


The delay in accessing social adulthood – meaning they are marginalised in the social sphere − suffered by young Arabs, consigns them to a liminal space in which they are neither children nor independent autonomous adults. They are waiting to be adults.  What name can we give to this prolonged transitional situation: “young adult”? “emerging adulthood”? It appears more appropriate to use the concept of “adult waithood” which means to be placed in a state of expectance of becoming a full person. Waithood was first used by Dianne Singerman (2007) in her work on youth social relations in Cairo neighbourhoods, noting the delay in the formation of families and the increase in youth unemployment. Thus, the idea of waithood refers to a long process of negotiation of personal identity and financial independence and becomes an appropriate manner for capturing the juvenile perception of being caught in a state of prolonged or virtually permanent youth.


However, the concept of waithood established by Singerman suggests a sense of passivity (Honwana), but the research that is being carried out suggests that young people are not just waiting. On the contrary, young people appear to be proactively involved in serious efforts to create new ways of being and interacting with society. Thus, following intersectionality theorists as Yulal Davis, among others, the impact of waithood in the lives of young Arabs depends on personal skills, but also their family cultural capital, level of education and access to resources. As Young Tunisians say they are “making do”, using the French word débrouillage. Thus the waithood is located in the field of improvisation. The young people are taking advantage of the circumstances in which they are located to face their marginalised condition, which can also be seen as a source of opportunities and strategies to escape this process, as Bayat remarks. During the period of waithood, the boys and girls are reclaiming their “youthfulness” and developing their own ways to face the precarious, improvised nature of their lives. Finding a way to migrate to other latitudes, initiating informal business, making music, becoming visible on the street or belonging to a club of football fans, young people are creating their own spaces and times to become an agent for social change in Arab societies.


Furthermore, the concept also shows the multifaceted realities of young Arabs that go beyond job security, an issue that many young people equate with that in southern Europe, as it extends to other aspects of social and political life. Adult waithood as a concept that is arrayed in Arab contemporary social structures can be applied to a large number of young people in southern Europe who are taking advantage of their “marginalised” situation to propose new manners of understanding and practising politics, proposing different forms of economic and labour relations or recovering forgotten values in contemporary capitalist societies. In consequence, adult waithood as a concept is just one example of the importance of research in locations outside Western realities to improve our understanding of the belongings of youth nowadays. 


It is clear that youth studies in general cannot survive with “ethnocentric” conceptual frameworks. As the Sahwa Project shows, it is necessary to produce enriched conceptual frameworks from a dialogue between decolonial theories and concepts (such as adult waithood), youth studies and empirical data. This dialectic perspective offers a significant contribution to our understanding of emerging forms of identity, subjectivity and ways of "being in the world" at a time of social and cultural change that is also taking place in Western societies. These theoretical and methodological frameworks can place us beyond the reductive paradigms about young people in different social spaces. Furthermore, this theoretical, methodological and empirical dialogue allows us to conceptualise the young people’s responses to changing defining processes as a dispersed set of narratives produced through a multiplicity of power relations and allows us to understand these narratives as young people’s strategies to reclaim a way of belonging in the contemporary world.

A group of youngster in Bab el Louq (Cairo). Photo: José Sánchez García, 2012

A group of youngster in Bab el Louq (Cairo). Photo: José Sánchez García, 2012

*Sahwa Ethnographic Fieldwork Coordinator

Post doctoral Researcher JOVIS-UdL

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