Saturday, 18 April 2009

A (boring old fart) Baby Boomer asks Does youthculture still exist?

Some thoughts and questions from Ted Polhemus

As a member of the infamous baby boom generation, when I was a teenager in the ‘60s, age – youth, magical youth – determined whether you were one of ‘Us’ or one of ‘Them’, the sad, pathetic squares like your parents who were past it. As Hippies in the later ‘60s we warned ‘Never Trust Anyone Over 35’ – ignoring the fact that so many of our Beat and Rock heroes were themselves approaching if not past that point of no return. Then – the horror, the horror – there came a time in the early ‘80s when we boomers ourselves were middle aged. But we weren’t having any of it: we had always seen ourselves as ‘youth’ and we weren’t about to change now. So we became the first generation in human history which simply refused to grow up.

What I’m wondering is whether today’s adolescents – the ‘young people’ we hear so much about but rarely seem to understand – have more sense than we Boomers did. Could it be that today’s youth define themselves more broadly and more meaningfully then did my generation which fell head over heels for the Mad Men’s dream target ghetto of ‘teenagers’?

The baby boom was a demographic tsunami which swept through each and every decade from the late ‘40s onwards and shaped the world around it into its own ageist worldview. It was simply that there were so many of us and a significant proportion of us had the money to spend on records, clothes, soft drinks, fast food and, eventually, cars. The result was that America (and then all other developed countries) underwent a top to bottom youthification which, from the ‘60s onwards, established an inviolate equation between being young on the one hand and, on the other, being hip, cutting edge, avant-garde and in the know.
Even today, despite the fact that youth is now a much less significant demographic than it was in the ‘60s, the presumption persists – and is rarely if ever challenged in marketing, the media, the music and fashion industries, etc. – that if you want to know where it is at, what’s happening and so forth then you had best look to youthculture which, ipso facto, determines what the rest of us will be buying, wearing, listening to, watching, eating, drinking and lusting after in the future.

But is this still true? Is it always youthculture which sets the pace and the direction for tomorrow’s world? And do those who are adolescents and young people today see themselves and the rest of the world fundamentally in terms of age as we Boomers did in the ‘60s? Or is this preoccupation with age – with ‘youth’ and ‘youthculture’ – just a hangover, a misleading preconception which we boring old fart Boomers still cling to? I have a nagging suspicion that today’s teenagers see lifestyle choices (what styles, sports, ethical concerns you opt for) as infinitely more important than what year you were born in. What do you think?

For example: let’s say that you are 17 and into skateboarding. Some guy who is in his 30s comes along and he’s actually very skilled at skateboarding. Do you exclude this guy from your inner circle because he is too old or include him on the grounds that he is good on a skateboard and a true exponent of your chosen lifestyle?

Another example: my nephew Nate has just turned 18 and is into jazz. Does that mean that jazz is 'youth culture' or does it mean that, whatever his age, Nate is a person who can be into whatever he is into?

For the last 30+ years I’ve been writing books which explore how changes in popular culture – streetstyle, music, fashion, film, TV, etc. – give a unique insight into the really fundamental, underlying changes in attitude, beliefs and values which have shaped history since WWII. For the last year I’ve been writing a new book which at the moment is called My Generation: a biography of the baby boomers. I’m looking for a publisher but I’m also looking for some feedback and opinions on questions such as the following . . .

- To what extent and in what ways did the demographic tsunami of the post war baby boom change history and the world we live in today?

- The notion of ‘youth’ and the boundaries of age were a central feature of how we baby boomers defined ourselves. Is this true of young people today?

- Did the baby boomers really change the world in the ‘60s given that (to my mind) the most significant changes (modern jazz, Beats, Bikers, Hipsters, Rock ‘N’ Roll, the origins of the ‘sexual revolution’ and the ‘counterculture’) took place in the ‘50s when we boomers were just children?

- My parents were fairly conventional with appearance styles which, while distinctive, were fairly normal for their times. So my ‘60s ‘counterculture’ rebellion had an obvious direction in opposition to this norm. But if you’re a young person today and your parents were, say, Punks or Goths, is rebellion possible and what course might it take? Back to the conventional?

- My baby boomer generation was the first to grow up with television. Today’s youth is the first Internet generation. Will it make a difference?

- My baby boom generation was focused on creating a brave new world and by and large we were not interested in what had come before in history. Today’s youth, however, no doubt more sensibly, typically take a great interest in what happened in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Indeed, from Mad Men to new/old style packaging and retro fashion, the present sometimes seems stuck in mythological, idealistic vision of the past. Can today’s youth get out from under the shadow of my generation’s ‘golden age’ in order to find their own future?

In the future those in employment will have to financially support all of us aging baby boomers. And they will have to save the world economy and the planet from the mess we Boomers made. Will they accept this less than desirable state of affairs or will the next world war be between the young and the old?

Does youth culture still exist? Yes, of course it does – once the genie of youth was out of the bottle there was surely no way of putting it back. Indeed, even the middle aged now perceive themselves as ‘youth’ – going out raving well past their bed time.

But I’m equally convinced that it is a big mistake to see youth and youthculture today in terms of how youth and youthculture were perceived in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Surely a great deal has changed and, in particular, I suspect that the power of age alone to distinguish between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ has – sensibly – diminished. But what do you think?

Ted Polhemus

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Writing about
Ted Polhemus


1) Baby Boom
2) Coming Home
3) Suburban Life
4) Modern Times
5) Sex
6) Drugs
7) Rock N Roll
8) & Protest
9) Swinging London
10) Boring Old Farts V Punks
11) Grey Power

>>> I'm currently looking for a publisher - so editors don't be shy and contact me at to arrange to see a copy.

Already published works by Ted Polhemus:

Fashion & Anti-fashion


The Customized Body


Style Surfing

Hot Bodies Cool Styles

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