Youth Culture

views updated May 08 2018

Youth Culture

Culture is among the most complicated words in the English language. It refers to the processes by which the symbolic systems (e.g., common sense, "usual way of doing things"; traditions and rituals, frameworks for understanding experience, etc.) characteristically shared by a group of people are maintained and transformed across time. Despite the appearance of stability, culture is a dynamic, historical process. Youth culture refers to those processes and symbolic systems that young people share that are, to some degree, distinctive from those of their parents and the other adults in their community.

Youth cultures have not been part of all societies throughout history; they appear most frequently where significant realms of social autonomy for young people become regularized and expected features of the socialization process. Most scholars would agree that the conditions necessary for the mass youth cultures recognizable today appeared after the formation of modern nation-states and the routinization of the human life course in the industrializing nations of the nineteenth century. The mass institutions of the nation-state, which separate young people from adults and gather them in large numbers for education, religious instruction, training, work, or punishment have been consistent locations in which youth cultures have developed. There is some evidence suggesting that youth cultures may have existed in certain circumstances during the medieval period. Also, it is important to recognize that there are significant gaps in our historical understanding, particularly for populations outside of Europe and the United States. Youth cultures have been clearly evident in the twentieth century, particularly since the end of World War II. The history of this period is notably marked by significant social and cultural influences of youth cultures on society at large, a trend that continues in the contemporary period.

Research into youth cultures has been most prolific in the disciplines of sociology, psychology, and anthropology; it is readily apparent in criminology of juveniles, demographic analyses, studies of the family and adolescent social development, and the study of ritual. The analytic frameworks and debates about youth cultures that have emerged from the three major disciplines have been taken up in other areas of study, including history. Like most fields in the humanities and social sciences, youth studies is marked less by the certainty of its knowledge than by a series of long-running debates. To what extent are youth cultures functional for a liberal capitalist society? To what extent is the formation of youth cultures an unintended disruption in social systems? How is the range between contributory and resistive youth cultures socially negotiated and contained? To what extent are youth cultures separate and different from the cultures of their parents? What role do other social identities (race, ethnicity, and social class) play in the formation of youth cultures? Are the youth cultures of young men different from those of young women? To what extent are young people willing agents of social, cultural, and political change? What are the effects of consumer goods and the consumer marketplace on youth cultures? How do the major institutions of socialization (e.g., family, religion, and schools) shape and reflect youth cultures? Although there are numerous earlier studies, these questions are the products of research from the late twentieth century; the discipline of history has entered these debates most significantly during years since then. There is some question, therefore, about whether descriptions and theories of contemporary youth cultures are adequate for historical studies that reach back as far as five hundred years.

Youth Culture before the Modern Period

Evidence of youth cultures before the early modern period is piecemeal and suggestive at best, and it is usually found in the public records describing young men's misbehaviors. There are innumerable complaints of rowdy young men disturbing the peace at night in villages and towns throughout the medieval period. Young men having conflicts with adult authorities is no clear indication that a distinctive male youth culture was in place, of course. Many premodern societies regularly allowed young people who were nearing the age of marriage to congregate separately after the workday or during community celebrations and festivals. Local youth peer groups formed, and in some circumstances, some aspects of a youth culture emerged. On the other hand, these accounts often include mention of roguish adults, and the incidents and offenses may be nothing more than youthful boisterousness, overindulgence, impatience with social strictures, or the cultural disorientation caused by the progressive loss of established outlets for young men's energies (for instance, knighthood).

Most societies of this period integrated young people into the labors of everyday family and community life on a more or less continuous basis, including community-sanctioned events and associations for young people. Still, the repeated complaints over long periods during the medieval period in Europe suggest that young men were "claiming the night" as a realm of their own in a new way, and their elders were deeply concerned about it. During this period, young men replaced women (of all ages) as the audiences that the clergy perceived to be most in need of moral and religious instruction. Scholars of medieval Italy have argued that self-initiated elite youth associations, with their own rituals and cultural rules, did form and sustain themselves for a significant time in some Italian cities. Young men in some areas

were given the task of organizing festivals, which again allowed a significant realm of freedom both in planning and in presentation. European charivariesinformal, rowdy evening parades in which cuckolded husbands, scolding wives, or other offenders of community standards were mocked or sanctioned (sometimes physically)were initiated and lead by village youths with the tacit approval of (and sometimes participation from) local adults. There is also some evidence that youth cultures may have formed in institutions such as monasteries and academies, where large numbers of young people were separated from most other adults for purposes of extended training and instruction. For instance, aspects of a youth culture are evident in the reports

of academy students collectively tossing unpopular teachers and professors from classroom windows.

Youth Cultures in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

As the institutions and practices of civil life within modern capitalist nation-states began to take their characteristic shape in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, several cultural, social, and economic trends emerged that formed the material basis for modern notions of mass youth culture. Protestantism came to understand the period in the life course that would later be categorized as adolescence as a particularly vulnerable time in moral development and thus open to collective supervision by trusted adult authorities. Sunday schools served this purpose. As industrialization proceeded and expanded, rural populations migrated and concentrated in urban areas. No longer connected to longstanding, stable communities in which the responsibilities for the socialization and oversight of the young were collectively shared, the youth peer group often became a substitute,

particularly for orphans, youths of marrying age, and runaways. Cities offered employment for wages for young people and a more or less open marketplace in necessities and leisure to people of any age. What many criminologists now recognize as youth gangs had appeared in major European cities as early as the Middle Ages; they appeared in New York City before the mid-nineteenth century, along with non-violent working-class youth cultures centered around volunteer fire departments. As these examples indicate, a distinction between a cultural realm created for youth and monitored by adults on the one hand (an "approved" youth culture), and a cultural realm sustained primarily by young people themselves on the other (a "rogue" youth culture) is useful, although it must be recognized that the boundary separating the two is fluid and permeable.

The emerging social stratum of middle-class professionals (e.g., doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers) whose legitimacy was dependent upon formal education grew and expanded as the scientific and industrial revolutions placed secular experts alongside those from religious institutions. Reflecting the professional classes' power base in education, their children were sent to school rather than to apprenticeships in the trades. In the schools, large numbers of young people were segmented by age and placed under the supervision of adults that exercised very different relationships with these youths than those of their parents and community elders. The professional middle classes increasingly became the cultural and social standard bearers in many of the leading democratic capitalist countries during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As this group moved to assume responsibility for the unintended and unattended consequences of urbanization and industrialization, it took up an advocacy role for those young people who had been socially and economically displaced by the transition from agriculture to industrialization. In taking this advocacy role (through charitable and religious organizations and later through governmental agencies), their views of children and adolescence became the dominant and institutionalized view.

These developments began to coalesce to form a new understanding of the "place" of young people in leading industrial societies after the mid-nineteenth century. A period of public education was made mandatory for young people in many parts of Europe and the United States; increasingly, schooling became an expected and routine part of the life course. At roughly the same time, the field of medicine and the emerging discipline of psychology began to differentiate the stages of the human life course more precisely, determining a "normal" standard for biological and social development based on chronological age. The influx of migrants and immigrants to industrializing cities relieved some of the demand for the labor of young people, pushing young people to assume new roles outside the workplace. As concerns for the integration of immigrant children became a public issue, the schools took up this task as well. In 1904 American psychologist G. Stanley Hall attempted to synthesize and codify the contradictory biological, psychological, and social understandings of youth that had emerged during the nineteenth century in a two-volume work entitled Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education. This work laid a "scientific" basis for the collective socialization of the young in large institutions, justifying the social segregation of young people by age. With progressive shift in the identity of young people from workers to students in the late nineteenth century, the process for the creation of mass youth cultures was in place.

The uneven rate and extent of this shift both within and across national boundaries is important to bear in mind. Slaves, indigenous peoples, and colonial subjects did not proceed along this timeline. For instance, young African-American slaves were chattel property in the United States until emancipation in 1865, a clear divergence from the experiences of even the most destitute of white youths. Despite these limits, however, elements of a youth culture in the form of games, rituals, and stories did develop among young slaves, particularly during the period of their lives (sometimes as late as fifteen years old) before they entered the regulated agricultural work of adulthood. Indigenous Inuit youth in north-central Canada did not pass through a period of adolescence before contact with Europeans, instead experiencing a swift transition between childhood and adulthood. Parents arranged marriages for their children, sometimes at birth, leaving scant space for a youth culture to emerge. Even the homogeneity of the shifts within Europe and the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can be overemphasized. As many contemporary scholars note, there have been many "pathways" from childhood to adulthood.

The institutional structures and practices of mass socialization in place at the end of the nineteenth century created a new place (both figuratively and literally) for young people to emphasize their common bonds over other mediating differences. Identities connected to parent communitiesclass, ethnicity, gender, religion, and later, sexuality and race were often partially (but rarely completely) subsumed under the common experiences of youth and the rituals of the new mass socialization. The autonomous realms in which youth cultures developed in these institutions were not always intentionally granted to them by adults. Adults have only limited abilities to constrain the activities of their youthful subordinates, and young people across history have demonstrated great resourcefulness in collectively exploiting those limitations to gain some self-directed social space. Drawing on that shared experience, the peer group became an (unintended) mass social institution in its own right, at times creating alternatives that were visibly opposed to adult cultural and social norms. Schools took young people away from the daily activities of most adults, opening the possibility for a youth social system, even if that social system was limited and constrained.

Youth Cultures, 19001940

New distinctions are needed to understand the development of youth cultures in the twentieth century. First, while the conditions for mass youth cultures to emerge were in place, young people did not become a homogenous social group; there has never been a singular youth culture in complex societies, but rather a wide variety of youth (sub) cultures. Second, a distinction needs to be made between the wide variety of commercial products (including forms of entertainment) marketed to youth and the unique ways in which young people took up the opportunities of these activities and products to produce a separate sphere of cultural processes and practices. It has become commonplace to refer to youth-marketed products as "youth culture," but this tells us little about the cultural lives of young people themselves. While the development of national markets did offer new connections between youth people across great distances, the youth market did not lead to a homogenization of youth cultures. Third, the definition of youth itself changes, as more young people extend their period of semi-dependence on family to attend colleges and universities.

Scholars have argued that the first authentically independent mass youth culture in the twentieth century emerged among these college students, who fashioned new rituals and customs that have since marked memories of that period in American history. While these new rituals and customs often were (and still are) seen as a more radical departure from the parent culture than they really were, the college youth of this period did set the example for other developments. Youth clubs and youth cultures appeared in high schools, as education beyond the elementary level became more common, and many of the new customs were borrowed from college youth and adapted to the high schools. With the loss of employment during the Great Depression of the 1930s, even more young people entered high school. Since its appearance in the late nineteenth century, commercial popular culture had accepted youths' money, but many of the new forms of urban popular culture, particularly film, explicitly catered to young people. The consumption of movies, novels, and music (and later, comic books and television) became an expected part of youth. While the majority of research has focused on the effects of commercial popular culture on youth, popular culture's role as a shared and identity-generated commodity among youth has been investigated to a much lesser degree. Youth cultures do not consume popular culture commodities in a vacuum; their consumption forms the basis of affiliations (e.g., fans and collectors), a wide variety of social rituals (e.g., friendship and dating), and the everyday stuff of common conversations.

Youth Cultures, 19401970

Although the commercialization of youth as a consumer market did not end with the 1920s, college youth's role as the avant-garde of consumerism diminished significantly during the Depression. That role was passed on to another group of consumers, high school students, during the early 1940s, when the word teenager came into common usage among marketers. This trend coincided with America's entrance into World War II. During the war, youth cultures in high schools became a national social problem, initiated through a series of moral panics about their sexual activities (especially between high school girls and GIs), delinquency, and the influence of mass popular culture, particularly comic books, films, and rock-androll music. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the existence of a mass youth culture itself was widely recognized, although mostly ridiculed. Youth cultures adopting unusual and spectacular clothing and hair styles appeared in the United States (the Beats) and Great Britain (the Teds). Fears of urban youth gangs and their potential influence on the less-threatening teenager initiated some of the first studies of youth culture. Besides the expansion of popular culture and the commonality of high school, the automobile had a dramatic effect on youth culture, particularly in the United States. The car not only provided a means for suburban and rural youth to travel to central cities, but it also created a kind of portable "private space" that enhanced other customs, including courtship, sex, drinking, and listening to the radio.

The number of youth cultures proliferated in the 1960s. College-age youth once again took the public (and world) stage as "hippies" and as organized radical groups, which often spread to the high schools. Spectacular subcultures continued to appear in Great Britain as well, notably mods, rockers, and near the end of the decade, skinheads. These subcultures, along with the participation of young people in mass protests and radical politics, signaled some realization of the cultural, social, and economic influence of young people. That this had been true for almost forty years is not a coincidence, since most young people had participated in those formations that seemed the least threatening to adults. The mass mobilization of youth against military service and restrictions on their speech, among other issues, signaled a mass refusal of the social terms accepted by their parents. This mobilization did not only apply to white middle-class youths, but also was apparent in a wide variety of social groups. For instance, young African Americans were key players in the dramatic civil rights demonstrations of this era; young central-city residents of all races and ethnicities took part in the urban riots that followed later in the decade.

While youthful drug use and sexual experimentation had been cause for hysteria among adults for at least fifty years, these practices became much more widespread during this period. Drug use was associated with rock music and visual culture (films, posters, and art of all sorts), both their consumption by youth and their production by popular musicians and artists. "Hippies" (including high-school students) took hallucinogenics and smoked marijuana in public. Drug use, like drinking rituals, became an expected part of youth, although the majority of young people did not participate. Sexual experimentation appears to have been rising steadily throughout the century, but the public emphasis on "free love" and recreational sex broke new boundaries, particularly after the development of oral contraceptives.

Youth Cultures since 1970

In the aftermath of the 1960s' youth rebellion, youth culture became a normalized feature of life in many developed nations, and the youth cultures in those countries often set the terms for emulation by other nations. Parents and adults continued to try to control their wards, but if they found a son or daughter dressed in strange clothing (often self-fashioned) or with a strange haircut, they no longer panicked. Recognizing that the most rebellious of youth cultures of the 1960s had been commodified by entrepreneurs and later by mundane retail outlets, some youth cultures searched for identities that could either not be quickly coopted or that embraced consumer culture for its own ends. Punk, with its trash-heap, "do-it-yourself" aesthetics and its claim that anyone could be a musician was an open attack on the hippie subculture of the previous generation. Despite its best efforts to resist mass marketing, punk too became a style available in shopping centers around the world. Glam rockers and disco dancers moved in the other direction, openly embracing some aspects of popular culture, particularly fashions borrowed from marginalized social groups. Most young people did not formally "join" a subculture, although they may have bought the records and adopted some of the clothing styles when they became available in stores.

Three trends developed in youth cultures formed after the 1970s. First, as marketers moved more definitively to segment pre-adolescents as a separate market, a mass "kid" culture has begun to emerge. Because of the limits on this group's mobility and autonomy, new analytical tools are needed for investigations. However, it is important to note that this group is segmented from adult and adolescent culture at an early age, often within the context of institutions such as day care and school, and the preconditions necessary for many aspects of youth culture to emerge are in place. At the very least, the shared experience of consumer goods (toys, foods, movies, radio stations, clothing), adult authority in socializing institutions, and common activities (skateboarding, scooters) strengthen the cultural connections between young people at an earlier age while further distancing them from the experiences of their parents and older siblings. Youth culture has gotten younger. At the same time, youth culture has taken on new meanings and gotten older: In particular, there is strong evidence that some people are continuing their youth culture affiliations into adulthood, so that youth cultures become "lifestyles." This raises some interesting questions. What are we to make of a forty-year-old punk? A sixty-year-old hippie? Finally, new communication and media technologies, particularly the Internet, create spaces for new youth cultures to emerge. Teenage computer hackers and phone "phreaks" had already appeared during the 1980s, but the Internet allows for a much more expanded notion of cyber-cultures detached from everyday off-line identities. The Internet, like "lovers' lane," is a more or less unpatrolled wilderness that has allowed new cultural affiliations (e.g., net Goths) to be formed.

See also: Adolescence and Youth; Bobby Soxers; Campus Revolts in the 1960s; Charivari; Drugs; Flappers; Teen Drinking; Teen Magazines; Victory Girls; Youth Activism.


Amit-Talai, Vered, and Helena Wulff, eds. 1995. Youth Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. London: Routledge.

Austin, Joe, and Michael Willard, eds. 1998. Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America. New York: New York University Press.

Brake, Michael. 1985. Comparative Youth Culture. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Fass, Paula S. 1977. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gelder, Ken, and Sarah Thornton, eds. 1997. The Subcultures Reader. London: Routledge.

Inness, Sherrie, ed. 1998. Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth Century American Girls' Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Kett, Joseph. 1977. Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present. New York: Basic Books.

Levi, Giovanni, and Jean-Claude Schmitt, eds. 1997. A History of Young People in the West, Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Joe Austin

Youth Culture

views updated May 09 2018

Youth Culture


The term youth culture is used generally in reference to the ways adolescents set themselves apart from the adult culture. Although age-based cultural differences have existed since the beginnings of recorded history, it was only in the 1950s, after the crystallization of teenagers as distinct social personae with their own music, lifestyles, fads, and characteristic slang, that the concept of a youth culture as separate from adult culture materialized in North American and European society. Before then anyone reaching the age of puberty was expected to conform to the norms of the larger adult culture.

The emergence of an autonomous youth culture was heralded in fictional form by the American novelist J. D. Salinger (1919) in his still popular and controversial novel The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. Salinger provided the first portrait of the new teenage personaa portrait that was shortly thereafter enshrined in all kinds of media (magazines, songs, television programs, and movies), taking on a social life of its own. Since the mid1950s youth culture has evolved independently and primarily through lifestyle designations associated primarily with youth-generated musical trends and styles (rock and roll, disco, punk, and rap). This is why cultural historians tend to characterize the evolving forms of youth culture with terms such as the hippie era, the disco era, the punk era, and the hip-hop era. Each era is in fact marked by its own pattern of symbolism, ritual, slang, and overall lifestyle (clothing and body decorations) derived from attendant musical styles.

The study of youth culture in the social and human sciences has become a major academic enterprise since the 1960s. Three major cultural theories have come forth relating specifically to youth, as separate from the psychology of adolescence. One of these posits that any youth trend is perceived initially by the adult culture as subversive or transgressive, constituting a sign of impending apocalyptic danger or threatening societal values, but which gradually dissipates and blends into the larger cultural mainstream. Known as moral panic theory, the concept was proposed by Stanley Cohen (1972) in his insightful study of mods and rockers in the mid-1960s. An early twenty-first century crystallization of moral panic surfaced as a result of the trend of many youths to network socially on the Internet at sites such as MySpace and Friendster.

Another main theory is that youth culture has become the default form of all North American and European culture, spreading throughout the social landscape independently of age. As the social critic Thomas Frank (1997) has skillfully argued, youth has become a social and economic commodity since the 1960s. Because youth sells, trends in the adolescent world quickly become the cultural norm, dictating look, taste in music, and fashion.

A third major theory of youth culture is that it constitutes a form of carnivalesque theater in which the sacred, perceived to be anything authoritative, rigid, or serious, is profaned or mocked simply for the sake of it. This theory has been inspired by the work of the social critic Mikhael Bakhtin (1986). It would explain why, for example, emerging youth forms of culture seem to fly in the face of the adult official sacred world while at the same time not posing any serious subversive political challenge to it.

SEE ALSO Culture; Street Culture


Bakhtin, Mikhael M. 1986. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Cohen, Stanley. 1972. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. London: MacGibbon and Kee.

Danesi, Marcel. 2003. My Son Is an Alien: A Cultural Portrait of Todays Youth. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Danesi, Marcel. 2006. Perspectives on Youth Culture. Boston: Pearson Education.

Frank, Thomas. 1997. The Conquest of Cool. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen.

Palladino, Grace. 1996. Teenagers: An American History. New York: Basic Books.

Marcel Danesi

youth culture

views updated May 29 2018

youth culture Strictly speaking a subculture, the subject of an influential debate between (mainly) functionalist writers and their critics. Youth cultures are explained either by factors in the experience of adolescence, or by the manipulation of young people's spending and leisure, through advertising and other mass media. The functional separation of home, school, and work supposedly makes teenagers increasingly distinct from adults, more self-aware, and subject to peer-group rather than parental and other adult influences. But the relative affluence of teenagers in the decades after the Second World War, especially if they were in work, also encouraged the growth of a large and profitable market for goods and services specifically directed at young consumers. This has promoted the growth of distinctive youth fashions and styles in clothes, music, and leisure, many of them originating in the United States.

For some writers the cultural clash across generations has displaced social class as the primary form of conflict in modern industrialism. Yet class itself figures importantly in shaping the content of different youth cultures. Research in the United States distinguished the so-called college cultures of (mainly) middle-class youth from the rough or corner cultures of their working-class counterparts. The former were thought to manage the gap between conformist attitudes to achievement and the otherness of adolescent school life—of which the school itself is often the centre. Corner cultures, in contrast, were viewed as a response to working-class academic failure; centred around the neighbourhood gang rather than the school; and as reflecting a search for alternative, even deviant, status, identity, or rewards. In Britain, however, youth culture was almost exclusively identified with male working-class youth and the moral panic about its style and aggressiveness. Neo-Marxist studies saw this as a symbolic protest against, for example, the dissolution of the traditional working-class neighbourhood community, and mass control over what were once predominantly working-class forms of leisure (such as soccer). Much of this literature is reviewed in Mike Brake , The Sociology of Youth Cultures and Youth Subcultures (1980)

Developments both in sociology and society itself, notably during the 1980s, greatly modified the terms of the debate. Feminist writers pointed to the invisibility of girls in the mainstream literature on youth and have researched gender variations in youth culture. The experiences of youth among ethnic minorities have also received more attention. But, above all, the period since the mid-1970s has seen the demise of the notion of the independent teenage consumer and rebel. The focus of research has switched instead to the youth labour-market, and the dependence of young people on the household, as a result of growing unemployment and the vulnerability of youth to flexible employment. See also Coleman, James S.