Kenneth Keniston

Kenneth Keniston

In 1971 Kenneth Keniston’s developed the idea of Youth. He highlighted some of the various themes and transformations he viewed as crucial in defining “youth” as a stage of life. In his book Youth and Dissent: A Rise in a New Opposition, he discusses the underlying differences between what is referred to as adolescence and young adulthood. He claims that adolescence is typically reflective of an incline in immaturity and a reflection in youthful behavior. On the other hand young adulthood is a phase suggesting full maturity and perhaps a settled place in society with established marriages or even children. Keniston proposes the question of what classifies the marginal population of post-adolescence. These post-adolescence are yet to find their own relationship to society and are encountered with vocational questions (Keniston, 1971, p.6). Therefore he proposes the term youth as a way of classifying this post-adolescence stage.

He proposed this term during a time in American society, as well as some European societies, when youth movements became common. For example, the visible protests of the United State’s involvement in the Vietnam War. As a result of these youth movements Keniston’s description of this developmental period was classified as a time of “tension between society and the self.” Similar to Hall’s own idea of adolescence being a time of “storm and stress.” Therefore, there appears to be a type of disconnect between ones own identity as a youth and the continual demands of the society one is a part of.  Specifically, Keniston claims that human development is not solely determined by biological causes, but rather a variety of factors in culture (i.e., educational, social, familiar, economic, political circumstances) (Keniston, 1971, p. 6-7). This classification shows a reflection of the historical movements of the time and not the specific enduring characteristics of the group of people, which is something Hall and Erikson focused on.

Keniston’s term youth was the period between adolescence and young adult, conceptualized by the idea of change, movement, freedom and ambivalence towards society as a whole.  This period was a time of experimentation and a time to wrestle with the questions of vocation, social role and lifestyle (Arnett 2000; Keniston, 1971, p. 7). Keniston highlighted the various “themes” or “issues” dominating this period of youth. They include:

  • Tension between self and society
  • Pervasive ambivalence
  • Wary probe
  • Estrangement
  • Omnipotentiality
  • Refusal of socialization
  • Youth-specific identities
  • Movement
  • Abhorrence of Stasis
  • Be moved/move through
  • Valuation of development
  • The fear of death
  • View of adulthood
  • Youthful Conuntercultures

(Keniston, 1971, p. 8-12)

In examining the various themes Keniston identifies as being unique to this post-adolescence stage of youth, there are a few of these themes which reflect the very same components Erikson’s psychosocial moratorium as well as the characteristics of emerging adulthood proposed by Jensen Jeffrey Arnett. These themes are: Tension between self and society, Omnipotentiality, Movement and Abhorrence of stasis

Tension between Self and Society

During youth there is a conflict in which there is a lack of correspondence between one’s identity as an individual, including values, identity or beliefs and societal demands. Youth is a time when individuals begin to get a clearer picture of who they are as a person. This too, relates to Erikson’s stage of Identity vs. Confusion, and identity exploration, which is a part of emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2004; Erikson, 1968, p. 135-136; Keniston, 1970, p. 8).  


Omnipotentiality is the idea that as an individual we are living in complete freedom. Therefore, youth feel as if they are living among a world of infinite possibilities and they have the ability to transform another’s life or perhaps even the society. This relates to emerging adulthood in the sense that, emerging adults feel as if they are experiencing a time in their lives full of endless possibilities (Arnett, 2004, Keniston, 1970, p. 9).

Movement and Abhorrence of stasis

This theme revolves around the idea that there is a continuous focus on change during youth. Therefore, youth seek to possess inner development and outer motion. Youth want to maintain vitality. However, when this change is inhibited, they experience a sense of “going nowhere” or “not moving” (Keniston, 1970, p. 10). This is similar to the characteristic of instability that Arnett (2004) discusses when he characterizes emerging adulthood.

In examining the various themes that Keniston proposed it is important to note that the term “youth” was never popularized. This is due to its ambiguous nature. However, it reviewing Keniston’s characteristics and themes proposed during the 1960’s, there appears to be a similarity between Keniston’s youth and what Jeffery Jensen Arnett now includes in his theory of “emerging adulthood” (Arnett 2000).

Created by: Lisa Feeley, Amanda Halliburton and Bethany Mastrorilli



Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens     through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469-480. doi:10.1037/0003-           066X.55.5.469

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Keniston, K. (1971). Youth and dissent: The rise of a new opposition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

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  15. Marshall Getz says:

    Dear Dr. Keniston – I am writing a dissertation on the life and work of Dr. Henry A. Murray, and I would be very interested in interviewing you. Thank you for your consideration.

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  17. John Steiner says:

    I teach a course called Adults in Transition at St. Joseph’s College, and I find that some of the assumptions Arnett, based on a sample of 550 youths to be highly sterotypical and not founded in truth. To conclude that “Emerging Adulthood” is a life stage is to neglect the concept of the personal uniqueness of each individual.

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