The term ‘youth-culture’ or ‘teenage culture’ was first coined in the 1950s in America and was later exported to Britain in 1959. Many writers at the time believed rightly or wrongly that a ‘a society within a society’ was slowly evolving and that it posed a threat to mainstream values and norms. In other words, ‘a generation gap’ had opened up in both countries.
The notion of a Youth Culture or sub-culture suggested that the young aged 14 to 25 were being socialised into and committed to a special set of values, attitudes and behaviour patterns separate from those of adult society.
The market researcher, Mark Abrams, suggested that this new phenomenon was a product of affluence and rising living standards. More teenagers had more cash to spend and were no longer restricted by strict parental controls. A new commercial industry revolving around clothes, music and milk bars was emerging to meet the demands and aspirations of young people. It appealed to all social classes.
As Berger noted way back in the late ‘50s ‘Youth culture cuts across class lines. It created symbols and patterns of behaviour that are capable of giving status upon individuals coming from quite different class background’, whereas other sociologists noted that adolescence was a period and preparation for adulthood. Personal problems were commonplace, and arguably still are (witness the growth of mental health issues among the young) as they negotiate their ‘rite of passage’ via adolescence into adulthood. And furthermore compulsory National Service for 17 to 21 year olds came to end in 1963 releasing young people from the constraints of military life.
‘Group rebellion’ against adult society was predicable amongst the young noted American social analyst, Eisenstadt. Put simply, youth culture was best understood as being a reaction to being young. In the USA teenage culture was reflected in popular culture such as novels and films such as ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, featuring the enigmatic James Dean and rock & roll by Bill Haley and the Comets and legendary Elvis Presley which appealed to hundreds of thousands of teenage boys and girls in the States and UK.
But it wasn’t until the mid-fifties that ‘Teddy Boys’ appeared on the British social landscape to the alarm of the Establishment characterised by their drainpipe trousers, Edward VII long coats and slicked back hair tarnished with ‘Brycreem’. Many Teds gained the reputation of being tough by tearing up cinema seats with flick knives and beating up West Indians in music halls.
By the 1960s Mods and Rockers emerged mostly from working-class backgrounds and was nicely captured in the classic re-released film, Quadraphenia. The Mods with their handmade Italian suits and green parkas took R &B and soul to their ‘purple hearts’ and sped to all-night clubs on Lambrettas or Vespa scooters. Rockers , in contrast, clad in heavy leather and chains had beefier motor bikes and were hostile to the comparatively effete mods. Street battles took place at Clacton, Brighton and Margate and triggered national popular press hysteria generating a ‘moral panic’ amongst respectable society. Yet according to top sociologist Stan Cohen in his famous book, ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’, the violence was greatly over-exaggerated and there were few police arrests.
During the 1970s parents were getting concerned about ’hippies’ morally corrupting their daughters with a reliance on ‘dope’ and free love. In Newcastle the main spot for hanging about was the old, now demolished Handyside Arcade marked by specialist record and clothes shop punctuated by the distinct aroma of patchouli oil and marijuana resin.
In the working class neighbourhoods of Deptford, London and Scotswood, Newcastle, the emergence of skinheads caused fear with their menacing image of short cropped hair, Doc Martin bovver boots, crombies and rolled up denims: some of whom who were racist belonging to the fascist National front and British Movement and following bands by the names of ‘screwdriver’ and Sham69’. Skinhead culture reappeared in some inner-city neighbourhoods later on in the decade partly as a response to the demise of traditional industry, community change and immigration.
‘Punks’ took the mainstream by surprise in 1976 with their colourful spikey hair, pieced noses and commitment to groups such as the notorious Sex Pistols, the Clash and The Damned, and confirmed people’s fears of degeneracy and anarchy amongst some sections of Britain’s youth. By 1981 Punk rock gave way to the ‘New Wave’ and ‘New Romantic Movement’ with notable Bands such as Blondie, New Order, Duran Duran, Visage and Soft Sell, whilst in the recession hit Midlands Cities of Birmingham and Coventry ‘Two-Tone Ska Groups’ such as Selector, Madness and The Specials gained ascendancy as a response to urban decay and rocketing youth unemployment.
The development of these spectacular youth cultures didn’t escape the attention of academia. Radical, left-wing sociologists such as Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson in their book, ‘’Resistance Through Ritual’’, rejected the old sociological concept of a classless youth culture. Real youth culture, they argued, with its own style and music, was a working class symbolic protest against dominant business class power in post-war capitalist society.
Yet style commentators such as Peter York dismissed this view as being naïve. Vandalising community bus shelters and assaulting minority ethnic groups hardly fitted their thesis that youth culture was a shared response to their social position as the underdog in British society.
Since the late 1990s we’ve see a multiplicity of conflicting groups and styles ranging from youngsters involved in acid house parties with its repetitive beat and new drugs such as blues and ecstasy to middle class Goths dressed in black and white makeup and into art drawn predominantly from middle-class backgrounds. Recently ‘Rap’, ‘Emos’, ‘Geeks’, Skaters and the much maligned ‘Chavs’ have appeared on the social scene
But we mustn’t get carried away with all these accounts of youth tribes .Most Post-war youth culture revolved around music, language, clothes, fashion, dance and soft drugs, and is perhaps best understood as simply being about style. Some have argued that the vast majority of youngsters from the sixties onwards were unaffected by youth tribes or teenage culture.
The idea that there exists a ‘generation gap’ has been challenged by others. It’s misleading to see Britain’s youth as being rebellious or revolutionary. For Paul Corrigan many youngsters hung out at youth clubs or spent a boring day at the seaside with their mams and dads.
Young adults today, dubbed ‘’Millennials’’, share the same values, beliefs and norms as their parents. In the 1983 general election 75% of 18-24-year olds voted. And a staggering 4 out ten voted Conservative with Labour coming a distant second. Although Labour did well amongst the young in the 2015 big election, polling data now suggests that Labour is doing badly with this demographic despite the housing crisis, job insecurity and soaring university fees!
Many young people have become individualistic, seeking out an identity through conspicuous consumption in our post-modern times without the need to join groups. Very few young people belong to trade unions. As Robin Simmons points out, what most ordinary young people want today in 2016 is a meaningful job, no student debt, an affordable home and to start a family just like their dads and mums.
It’s up to Labour now to formulate a meaningful and relevant policy package that can win the hearts and minds of Britain’s young.