Édition #5

Is using age to identify young peopleas customers an outdated variable?

Laurence MOISY Lecturer in Geography, ESO Laboratory - Espaces et Société - UMR CNRS 6590 Director of the ESTHUA Tourism Department, Faculty of Tourism, Culture and Hospitality, University of Angers
According to the OECD, young people represent a quarter of the world’s population (25.5%). However, for this organisation, this category is limited to under-15s. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development divides the human population into three main groups: young people (population aged under 15), the working-age population (15 to 64) and the elderly population (65 and over). While this segmentation is open to discussion, it nevertheless has the advantage of allowing international comparisons.


Young people make up 15% of the population of the EU-27, but around 17% in France and the UK, compared with 11.8% in Japan, 13.9% in Germany, 14% in Greece, 15.5% in the Netherlands, 15.7% in Canada and 17.7% in China. Conversely, other countries, currently further from France as a destination, are experiencing a major demographic surge, with a youth population that accounts for a quarter of the country’s total population: India (25.6%), Indonesia (24.2%) and Mexico (25.4%). These figures give us an understanding of the potential market that young people represent in some countries.

Having set this framework, we can now consider the way we approach and understand young people. While there is no absolute consensus on the precise boundaries of the major stages of human life, the sequencing proposed by the OECD is little used in the social sciences. It is based on an approach to societies through the prism of work, whereas in other disciplines more is made of the relationships that individuals have with other members of their group (dependence/autonomy). These relationships may be economic or emotional.


An age-based approach to youth is still common, as it is highly operational. In its social portrait of 40 years of demographic change in France (2019), INSEE (the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies) uses the term “young people” to refer to 18- 29 year olds. In France, the under-15s mentioned above are referred to as “children”, a category that is sometimes refined (child, pre-teen, teenager).

Dividing the population into stages of life in this way is based on a rather crude conception of youth. “Youth is a social reality: it does not exist in itself, in a stable and timeless way. It is produced by society in specific historical, sociological, economic or legal contexts” wrote Bernard Roudet¹ in 2012. What we can retain is that youth refers to the early part of life and that it is a social construct. Olivier Galland² (2022) highlights the changes in this category. In the 16th century, for example, six ages were distinguished: the first age (up to 7 years, childhood), the second age (up to 14 years, pueritia), the third age (up to 20 or 30 years, adolescence), youth (from around 20 to 45-50 years old), senecté (which is defined as being between youth and old age) and, lastly, old age.

“Youth is a social reality: it does not exist in itself, in a stable and timeless way. It is produced by society in specific historical, sociological, economic or legal contexts.”

This is quite a long way from the current approach; this late and particularly extended period of youth may come as a surprise to our contemporaries. However, it is understandable if we consider that youth is defined as a period of waiting.
We do not become adults until our parents, often our fathers, have died. While this waiting dimension is still relevant today, it is no longer their father’s death that young people are waiting for, in a vision of the succession of life’s sequences. Entering adulthood is marked by other social and family milestones: financial autonomy through their own means or the founding of their own family.

If we consider that it is the stages of life, rather than age, that define youth, then we have to accept a “desynchronisation of the ‘thresholds’ of the passage to adulthood” (Amsellem-Mainguy³, 2016). At 22, you
might have a job and be a parent and no longer be in this category, or you could be studying for a degree, still sharing a flat and have no stable emotional life at 30. The representation of youth as a period when you are a student, extremely mobile and festive, is largely erroneous. At 21, only 44% of young people are still in education. Between the ages of 25 and 29, this percentage falls to 6% of young people still studying (INSEE, 2019).


The heterogeneity of this category explains why certain values, thought to be common to it, are far from being shared by all young people. When they are already in work and economically established, individuals, even those who are young in age, are less socially committed and feel less concerned by humanist or environmental values than students, who, although they are not yet economically established, are socially involved and in touch with collective values. Therefore, the homogeneity of young people is an illusion and communicating with young people, if we define them in terms of age, is a challenge.

Although status may seem more relevant than age, it is not enough on its own to account for values and practices. Here is an example to illustrate this. Before summer 2023, INSEE published a flash survey on young working people aged 21 to 35 living in the Touraine conurbation who had moved out of the family home4. The population seems small (working people, young people, average urban area in the region) and it might be supposed that they would behave consistently.

However, the results are varied, both in terms of age and region of residence. For example, young people living alone make up 32% of the young people who have moved out of the family home in the urban area, but only 12% of the young people in the Touraine Vallée de l’Indre communauté de communes. At a regional level (Centre-Val de Loire), they represent 21% of the young people. 60% of young people in the Touraine Vallée de l’Indre Communauté de Communes are couples with children, compared to 30% in Tours Métropole Val de Loire and 46% at a regional level.

“The homogeneity of young people is an illusion and communicating with young people, if we define them in terms of age, is a real challenge.”

This geographical variable has been less explored than the socio-economic variables. However, living areas play a part in structuring behaviour, at least as much as practices shape spaces. Accessibility or inaccessibility to information (not just digital information!), to assistance and to the entire transport chain are only a few examples of spatial variables that can help or hinder mobility practices, even among the so-called “young” populations. In business models that are often conceived on a hub & spoke basis, the approach to the human groups that economic players wish to reach would benefit from paying more detailed attention to the spaces concerned.


Taking such a detailed approach to young people may seem like a waste of time, even though there are highly operational studies available to the tourism players, such as the “International image and attractiveness of France for 18-35 year olds” survey published by Atout France in 2019. However, these studies show us that not all 18-30 or 18-35 year olds are young people and that variables other than age or level of education can be used to understand social groups. Without elaborating on the subject in these few pages, we can mention two sets of surveys that were carried out, one at the end of the 2010s, the other in autumn 2021 with the help of students from ESTHUA (Angers University), which highlight a difference in familiarity with tourism, depending on the location of the family home (large urban area, city centre, small town, isolated dwelling). Of course this variable is sometimes correlated with an economic variable, but this interpretation is not systematic. For example, age on the first holiday (and therefore opportunities for learning about tourism) and place of residence appeared to be linked, even though the action of group structures (school trips, for example) could reduce the correlation.



Faced with increasingly complex, heterogeneous and competitive markets, tourism players need to be able to target their chosen audience(s) in an appropriate manner. Simple demographic variables are certainly useful – you do not have the same body at 60 as you do at 20 and you will not be able to do the same activities – but these are not sufficient. Whilst the size of the family group and social status also need to be explored, so do variables that are less usual, such as place of residence (in all its dimensions) and familiarity with tourism or the tourist area concerned. These are all dimensions that will shed light on the ways in which individuals in the same age group construct their positions, their acceptance or rejection of a practice, beyond any global vision, and which will allow mountain players to propose the appropriate communication and service offer.

1 Youth sociologist
2 Sociologist, director of research at the CNRS
3 Yaëlle Amsellem-Mainguy is a sociologist in charge of studies and research at the Institut National de la Jeunesse et de l’Education Populaire (INJEP).
4 Over 18s no longer living at their parents

Amsellem-Mainguy Yaëlle, 2016, « L’accès à l’âge adulte pour les jeunes en France », in Informations sociales magazine 2016/4 (n° 195)
INSEE, 2019, France, portrait social, Insee Référence
INSEE, 2023, « Les jeunes actifs vivent moins chez leurs parents dans l’agglomération tourangelle que dans le reste de la région », in Insee Flash Centre-Val de Loire, n°69, June 2023
Galland Olivier, 2022, Sociologie de la jeunesse, Armand Colin, Collection U, 288 p
Roudet Bernard, 2012, « Qu’est-ce que la jeunesse », in Après-demain n°24

Laurence MOISY
Laurence MOISY
Laurence is a geographer. She works on questions of access to popular tourist activities and areas. She has run training courses on tourism organisation management and regional development. She is currently co-directing the Masters course Innovation et création d’entreprise dans le tourisme with Thomas Yung and the Deust-2 Accueil d’excellence en tourisme with Frédéric Cackowski, two apprenticeship programmes at the University of Angers.