Youth rebels against authority. We have always known that. Way back in history it was the young apprentices, renowned for their drunkenness, sexual exploits and brawling, who did not conform to the standards of the day.
In the ‘modern’ era we had the advent of ‘Youth Culture’.
In the early fifties it was the Jazz-laden bohemianism of the Beat culture where Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and others set out a vision of wild excitement, sex, marijuana, crazy journeys and Zen that was an anathema to the apple pie and ice-cream of the suburban American Dream.
In the later fifties it was the visceral beat of Rock ‘n’ Roll that tapped into the hormone stew of the young, full of sexual energy and running on hot-rods and danger and a real threat to the staid older generation who did their best to shut it down as primitive and a bad influence on the young.
Then in the sixties it was the Hippies who took the Beat philosophy and acidified it into psychedelic protest against war and the capitalist establishment; who preached hedonism and a simpler way of life based on spirituality, friendship and nature.
In the seventies it was Punk that harnessed the anger of Youth at the future that society had mapped out for them. Theirs was a fury aimed at the failed Hippie dream as much as a society that had thrown them on the scrapheap. Bored and destructive, anarchic and out to shock, Punk set out to oppose.
After that we had many cultures that have come and gone – the neoromantics, grunge, heavy-metal, goth and the like – all with their dress-code and attitudes.
It was all labelled Youth Culture. But was it? What typified these cultures was nonconformity with the aims of the mainstream establishment, a desire to break away from the prescribed path set out for you by society and an alternative lifestyle.
In Britain in the 1950s there was a history of conformity. Life had a pattern. For a boy you wore shorts up until fourteen and then there was a rite of passage as you went into long trousers and adopted the same appearance as your father. Likewise girls took on the same appearance, hairstyle, make-up and clothing as their mothers. Looking at film in the fifties it is remarkable to see everyone so stereotyped. The pattern was laid down not only in appearance but also in attitudes. For men it was work and the pub and for women it was housework and babies.
Following the Second World War there was a move by young people to break away from the strictures of society. They wanted colour, meaning, excitement and more. Their music reflected it.
It was certainly a youth rebellion but was it really youth at all?
Now as the rebels reach old age many still cling to that same rebellion and the values that went with it. It has matured. There is a distrust of the establishment and the easy trap of quiet, comfortable suburban living. Many hanker after a lifestyle that is more meaningful, creative and exciting than that of the generations that preceded them.
Was it ever really a Youth Culture at all or more general than that? Was it more of a rejection of the empty consumerism, the hypocrisy and defunct values of the society we are trapped in?
Are the Beats, Hippies, Punks and Goths, now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, still making a valid statement of disaffection? Do these alternative lifestyles highlight the failings of a staid, exploitative way of life? Or are they merely stereotyped markets for society to fleece as adults desperately cling to the outmoded excitement of their youth?
Is ‘Youth Culture’ a disparaging term to enable the hoi polloi to write off dissatisfaction with this empty consumerist lifestyle of runaway capitalism?