A by-product of the modern, prosperous societies that evolved out of the post-war era, youth culture is now a major phenomenon with the power to shape music, fashion, social attitudes and even politics.
There have always been youths and they have always had a tendency towards sullenness and defiance, but before the onset of the modern, secularised societies of the West, younger people broadly speaking had to adapt to the ruling norms and mores. This began to change significantly in the immediate post-war period, when pop(ular) culture took root in the fertile soil of 1950s American prosperity.
The origins of Youth Culture
Youth culture can first be traced back to the time when American adolescents started driving cars and their ‘pocket money’ was sufficient to allow them to escape the bonds of the parental home for extended periods of time.
Before long they started hanging out with each other, creating the specific youth slang, fashions, social behaviours, attitudes and musical preferences that have since become the main tenets of youth culture.
In 1950s America this meant jeans, bowling jackets and Brylcreem quiffs for the boys and wide skirts, cardigans and rather more demure hairstyles for the girls. Not surprisingly, the boys were the first to manifest their newfound liberty and identity, not only having greater freedom to dress and behave ‘badly’, but also developing a sub culture that eventually involved the kind of dramatic drag racing scenes captured in Beach Boys songs and movies like Grease.
As kids no longer had to concentrate on contributing to the family finances and had more leisure time on their hands, the focus shifted to romance and rebellion, as exemplified by icons such as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
The sense of disaffection in the face of privilege that the film portrays has become another central theme of youth culture, as it turns against the very society that nurtures it. This development took another leap in the 1960s, as 1950s rockers evolved into more highly politicised hippies complete with a utopian ideology and world vision of their own.
By the late 1960s this had progressed into a mass movement that mobilised opposition to the Vietnam War and President Nixon, and like most things it spread outwards from the USA, finding its expression in the Mods versus Rockers beach battle of Brighton, the resident hippie campers in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark and the student riots that rocked Paris in 1968.
By now the phenomenon had gained political momentum and become a real force in society, influencing everything from fashion to television, language and music. Carnaby Street fashion showed how the youthful dissent had become part of the mainstream, emboldened by the likes of the Stones, the Beatles and the Kinks, all of whom were ‘Dedicated Followers of Fashion’.
A regenerating phenomenon
For many, the long-haired, drug-filled, flower power days of the sixties and seventies represent the highpoint of youth culture, but of course such an attitude defies the very concept of a social current that is forever evolving, renewing and reinventing itself with every successive generation.
After the initial pioneering work of the Baby Boomers through Generation X and the Millennials to the Centennials, every decade brings a new development of the genre. Sideburns and braided plaits have long since gone, replaced first by the yuppie generation, then by retro-seventies computer hipsters and now a new technocentric culture that has a very cynical relationship with the established order – other than the desire to consume its goodies.
Today, youth culture remains connected to ghetto ‘hoods’ that many of its members have little or no personal experience with, and with this and the proliferation of computer games comes a glorification of gangster culture that is a further development of a process started in the 1950s.
For all this, the younger generations lack the freedom that earlier teenage rebels enjoyed, having been unable to significantly shape society to their youthful vision in that short spell before they ultimately succumbed and became part of the machine they once raged against.
In spite of this continuity between youth culture then and now, today’s youngsters have a stronger voice that is increasingly linked across the globe. This, more than anything, provides hope for a future with a world that is unified by shared humanistic values.
Words Michel Cruz