An examination of the driving forces behind the apathy of today's youth.
Our world is fast becoming a village. We’ve advanced from radio to television to satellite TV. We now have the World Wide Web; everyone knows what everyone else is up to. The pressure is on to keep up! No one group is more vulnerable to pressure than our youth. No other demographic sheds its skin more frequently. No wonder the topic of youth culture is in the news again, and again, and again.
It might be crime, obesity, the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, the way they talk, whatever, they just keep us talking about them. We’ve actually been doing so since the Jimmy Dean, ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ generation of the 1950s. But it is the intensity with which we now discuss them that has made youth culture a more prominent phenomenon than it has ever been.
So what is youth culture? It could be defined as a particular character unique to a generation on the cusp of adulthood and beyond: beyond to a point where you are not viewed as part of the generation that has gone before you. It’s a time when one can engage in exploits confined to adulthood, whilst excusing and being forgiven for any misdemeanors on the grounds of ignorance or misguidedness. Even if reluctantly, one’s independence is beginning to be acknowledged. Bodily changes, changes in view points, changes in boundaries: though a challenging time, it is incredibly exciting. You can begin to become who it is you’ve been aspiring to be, and no one can tell you nuffink!
There was a time when the pattern of growing up was quite ordered and uniformed. Boy meets girl. You may have grown your hair for a while, but you soon headed for the barber shop and got that trim in time for the wedding. Then came the babies who were christened or blessed. They were nurtured around the dinner table, over a freshly cooked meal, in churches, parks, at school gates and around board games in lounges. As the babies grew, they felt attended to and strong. They left school and anticipated the job, the vote, the graduation, the car, the marriage, the first home, and all those sights and sounds that only ‘big people’ could see and hear. This youth knew what it was to straighten up and present themselves correctly as their elders walked by. They knew they had to wait, and essentially, they did; any impatience was secretly pursued.
Things are different now. The age-old convention of rites of passage seems to have lost its appeal. Structures that were the same, or similar, for decades are breaking down. Mummies and daddies still have babies, but Mummy lives here and Daddy lives there. The last time baby saw a church, was at his or her own christening. Dinners are often out of the freezer, and eaten in whichever room you choose. It’s Breakfast Club before 8am, and After School Club ‘til 6pm. Mums and dads have been on the treadmill all week and have had no time to themselves.
They’re sitting in a café: a dad and his son. The boy has a smoothie, and Dad a latte. The boy is completely absorbed as his thumbs punch away at his Game Boy, madly. Dad is engrossed in his copy of The Times. This is where we’re at: every man for himself.
In an article entitled “Youth Culture – formation, communication and justification,” Ross Farrelly asserts: “…youth culture shows itself to be pre-eminent in trumpeting the supremacy of the individual…bonds to family are not formed as closely as they once were. Families now sit side by side watching T.V rather than face to face at the dinner table discussing the events of the day. Children and adults alike retreat to the solitary world of the personal computer, iPod or the Game Boy rather than engaging in social intercourse with friends or family.”
No wonder our children are missing opportunities for life skills learning within a meaningful context; her T.V is in her bedroom, or she’s on MSN or the Net. He’s on the PS2, texting, or chatting on his mobile, or listening to his iPod. Modern parents seem almost grateful for these sedentary gadgets; they’re too tired to talk anyway! Is it the guilt that we feel about spending so little time with them that makes us shower them with materialism and over-indulge them so?
So what have we created? What do we have here in this age of excess? As we are reminded by the essayist Logan Pearsall Smith: “Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations. He is only trying on one face after another, to find a face of his own.” So with fifty years of faces to choose from (since youth culture first became a phenomenon), what have the youth of today come up with?
Music, fashion and attitude have long been established as the medium through which the youth expressed their distinction. Long haired, pot smoking hippies, and shubin-loving, inter-racial, cavorting couplings of the 60s. The brash, gaudy colours, the blocked platform heels, men with painted faces of the glamrock generation. Black kids abandoning Christian ideologies and converting to Rastafarianism. Black Power demonstrations, peace marches. Punks and piercings. Jesus! More drink and drugs: herbal and psychedelic. That was the 70s.
By the 80s, the youth seemed pretty much stuck for ideas and delved into the treasure chest of those who had gone before them. They regurgitated the 60s drainpipes, mini skirts, wide belts and stilettos. Past musical sounds merged to make reggae, hip hop and indie pop. Alternative fashion borrowed from mods and punks and became a phenomenon. We started using the term “retro.” It was a time when the youth were quite politicized; every street corner had some young rebel selling the Socialist Worker. College students fought the cause of the miners and campaigned against apartheid.
But the arrival of the 90s brought with it a new complacency. The world began to look very comfortable in its affluence, and the youth exuded that same confidence. Modeling themselves on MTV idols, they looked good. Yuppies and buppies. Margaret Thatcher’s generation began to trash the barriers between the classes. It was the youth who played out multi-cultural blends with the onslaught of boy bands and girl bands on the music scene.
Politics? What politics? Political leaders are conspicuous by their absence in the ratings. The voting age in the Isle of Man has been lowered to from 18 to 16. In their recent elections, only one third of sixteen-year-olds turned out to vote. No one’s impressed! Politics is not their preoccupation. All the talk of growing crime, ASBOs, Acceptable Behaviour Contracts, super nannies, and parenting classes seems to have left them feeling victimized, misunderstood, politically disenchanted and alienated.
Conservative leader David Cameron has twigged; the youth need someone to speak up on their behalf. An action by the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent last year epitomized the way many young people are treated today. They banned hooded tops from their premises, on the grounds that hoods were being used to hide criminal faces from CCTV cameras. Mr. Cameron seized the opportunity to pipe up and defy Tony Blair’s ‘Respect’ campaign: “We – the people in suits – often see hoodies as aggressive, the uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters…” As a solution, he suggested our youth need to be shown “a lot more love.”
Who was he trying to kid? How many hooded friends does he have? Little does he know that it’s not politics that drives them! Here in the new millennium there is more excess than ever before. Technology is at its peak. Gadgetry literacy soars above academic literacy. It’s gangsters, bling-flaunting, gyrating music stars, and football icons who they adore. These are their leaders! They don’t relate to him or his policies at all! That’s not the way to draw them into the Conservative Party. That’s the way to drive out the majority of his constituency!
Another new aspect of modern youth culture that is said to be enduring is something that language experts are calling a “linguistic phenomenon.” The talk is that London’s teenagers “are forging a separate multi-ethnic youth–speak based on common culture rather than ethnic or social background.” In an on-going study entitled “Linguistic Innovators: The Language of Adolescents in London,” researchers are not only intrigued by the fact that our youth look the same, regardless of their colour or ethnic background. More fascinating is that they are sounding the same, so much so that this linguistic progression has been given a name: MLE – Multicultural London English. And the most interesting factor that has been noted is that this is the first time that young people have used language to mark their distinction, and so widely!
Terms and expressions like “boyed,” “bubblin,” “chops,” “choong,” and “I’m repping my endz blud,” are being used by whites, blacks, Asians and bi-racials; this speak knows no boundaries. Migration and garage and grime artists, sounding out over the UK’s urban radio stations are helping to propagate this speak. And it is said to be becoming more and more mainstream. And its forecast for survival seems good. Though some will climb the social ladder and change their mode of speaking and others will modify it to an extent, many will hang on to it. This, they say, will lead to lasting changes in spoken English. That is some legacy. And to be acknowledged for it – well!
So there we have it; this is the youth of today. As the proverb says, “youth and age will never agree.” But we still have the hands that guide them. The insignia associated with youth has now even filtered down to those who haven’t yet reached their teenage years; ten year olds have mobiles and MP3 players and the same rap-star idols, singer idols, football idols, the same speak, and the same sexualized ideals. But think of all the young deaths they’ve seen, so few of them because of illness. Is this what makes our youth so bold and seemingly brash? Is this why they’re in such a hurry to do it all now? ‘Tis a muddle, becoming quite topsy-turvy! So when we consider their “needs” we must mind what we are exposing them to, and think of their vulnerabilities. As we indulge them, we must consider whether we’re leaving them with anything to look forward to. As we endow them with privileges, we must wonder if we’ve reminded them of their responsibilities. And as we burden them with responsibilities, may we think about the demands we are giving them license to make. We’ve all been there, and many of us are aware of how similar to our parents we actually have become. Are you someone who you want your children to become? This may well be the question.
1st December 2006