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What is youth culture? Describe the various features of youth culture.

Before understanding youth culture, let us know what do we mean by culture. Culture refers to the shared practices, values and beliefs. It gives a sense of belongingness. The youth can be said to have a culture of its own as it is marked by distinctive ways of dressing, using language, music preferences, engaging in sports and interests, typical behavior and life style. This collective expression of the social experiences of the youth characterizes it as having a culture of its own. For example, we have the college culture, the hippies generation, the motorbike gangs, working class youth culture etc. There are also subcultures within the youth culture. Researchers have debated about the existence of one uniform youth culture. As we have studied in the earlier Unit 3, youth identity is affected by gender, class, caste, ethnicity etc.; and these aspects also create different youth cultures. For instance, girls have a different way of socializing than boys. Slum youths have a different way of social interaction and functioning than their counterparts in urban or rural setting. Thus, to understand the youth culture, one needs to take into account the social context also.

Age also plays an important role in the development of the youth culture. The youth marks a transition from childhood, adolescence to adulthood. As children and adolescents, being a part of the schooling process, they develop a shared meaning and experience. At this stage, they are still dependent on their parents and significant other adult members. But at the same time, they are also expected and required to be independent like adults. So, the youth relies on the peers in this transition phase and tries to make sense of his self by being part of a youth culture. According to Erikson, the adolescents are faced with a major psychological conflict of identity versus role confusion. The youth culture can facilitate the identity development in the adolescents.


Features of Youth Culture

i) Generational consciousness – Youth cultures are marked by a sense of generational consciousness. It is a subjective awareness of having lived through certain sociopolitical events. For example, ‘The children of liberalization’ is a generation of Indian children born soon after the economic reforms of liberalization in 1991. They were born in an India which was to witness rapid economic, technological and social changes due to opening up of its economy to the world. These ‘Liberalization Children’ are different from those before them because they have not experienced the ideology of self restraint and policies of protectionism of socialism; the violence of Partition and political oppression of Emergency are alien realities for them. Instead they have come of age at a time when their nation entered the era of market economy, coalition politics, technology boom, hedonist consumerism in a globally interconnected world. Living in times of a vibrant, growing and free economy and a global culture of innovation and initiative, they have seen Indians script success stories all over the world. These historical opportunities create a sense of generation, a sense of belonging to a cohort.

ii) Relationship of youth lifestyles with class, ethnicity and gender – Youth cultures are often expressions of resistance stemming from one’ class, ethnicity and gender location. Example of a class based youth culture is Larrikinism in 19th century Australia. Larrikanism refers to the culture of the working class youth much complained about by the Sydney Press and Police for their attacks on ‘respectable citizenry’ in the form of insults, assaults, loitering, riots, and resisting arrest. Larrikan culture was described by its contemporaries as culture of overt sexuality and high costume, drinking, dancing, gambling, violent sports and a quasi gang organization.

Smith (2005) pointed out that larrikins were not agitating for better wages and conditions and ameliorating the working experience in general. Rather they were rejecting the capitalist work ethic in itself.

Example of an ethnic based youth culture is Hip-Hop. It is a poetic-musical movement of the African diaspora and an articulation of afro-descendent youth against racism and discrimination. Youth cultures are also spaces of expression of gender based roles and values. For example, motorcycle gangs is an instance of how the use of motorbikes expresses a particular form of masculinity. There is very less work available on feminine presence in political-cultural youth groupings. Critics of subcultural studies have noted that the idea of “subculture” has become loaded with masculine connotations. Feminine participation in the subcultural practices requires one to broaden one’s lens to include fans/audience. For example, most rock and roll band members in the 1950’s were boys but girl participants in this culture became either fans or record collectors and readers of the ‘teenagehero’ magazines and love-comics (McRobbie and Garber, 1976.


iii) Counter culture – Often, youth culture is portrayed as a resistance against hegemonic (dominant) culture. It is seen as counter “establishment” and anti parental culture. Youth members of a particular subculture are seen as constantly striving for mechanisms to create a space for their own ways of being which are in conflict with the adult world. The hippies counter culture of the 1960’s in America is one of the most iconic examples of youth culture. The hippies felt alienated from middle class society which they saw as dominated by materialism and repression. They were opposed to the Vietnam war and they took part in antiwar protests and marches. They developed their own lifestyle of which elements of dress and drug use stood out. The hippie men and women usually wore flowing, casual dresses with beads and sandals. Many males grew long beards. They had communal or cooperative living arrangements. Often, they tended to be dropouts from society, foregoing regular jobs and careers. Their expressed values were nonviolence and love. Their plea was “Make love not war”. They promoted openness and tolerance as alternatives to the restrictions and regimentations they saw in middle class society. The hippies promoted the recreational use of hallucinogenic drugs as a way of expanding consciousness.

In the post-Second World War America, the medium of rock music also allowed youths to express their sense of solidarity which was often in opposition to adult society. Deadheads have been described as cult like members of a nomadic subcultural community consisting of supporters of the music of the Grateful Dead, a rock and roll band that formed in the early 1960s in America. Deadhead subculture does incorporate many of the lifestyle values associated with the bohemian youth movements of the 1950s and 1960s. These values include: passive resistance, particularly in the political arena; physical, psychical or existential movement; dissociation with the material comforts of their middle class origins; expressivity and subjectivity, as opposed to conformity and deferred gratification; individualism, in the sense of a freedom to “do your own thing”; and exploration, particularly in spiritual quests for meaning (Miller, 1991). At the heart of this value system is a set of values that has spiritual connotations.

iv) Lifestyle – The particular objects of consumption, like denim jeans or leather jackets or motorbikes are the central elements of the subcultural style of the youth cultures. These elements express a range of meanings and values of a particular youth culture. For example, motorbike represents male centered experiential sensibilities such as quest for freedom, recklessness, outlaw which are sought after by the members of motorbike gangs. The mechanical features of the motorbike also correspond to the features of the motorbike gangs themselves. Motorbike’s strength, roughness, fierce acceleration, the aggressive thumping of its exhaust matches and symbolize the assertive masculinity and the rough camaraderie of the gang members (Willis, 1978). v) Impact of mass media, technology and consumerism – Youth cultures are affected by the objects and ideas churned out by cultural industries like media, music and fashion. Communities which are cut off from the kinds of technology which can disseminate ideas and information widely will have less diverse youth cultures. The diffusion of cultural images (music, fashion, language, cultural practices) through technology has led to youth cultures becoming more heterogeneous and less static world over. There are exchanges amongst different styles, and coexistence of many different kinds of cultural practices. Young people do not generally identify with one style only. They may rather get influences from many and they often make up a style of their own. Youth are not just passive receivers of mass media images. Rather there is productive reception. They take the concepts, images and ideas from media and mix and match them in the way they want to construct an identity.

vi) Help in evolving the dominant culture – The youth cultural practices, fads, language inevitably filter into the culture at large and influence the fashion and the life style in the general culture. What starts out as experimentation with new identities at smaller scale gradually become more common. Steve Mizrach (2006) pointed out that the cyber age is helping to create new identities for people, ie. the cyborg, slacker, virtual, mutant and mediant. Many of today’s subcultures (cyberpunks, ravers, modern primitives, zippies) are experimenting with these new kinds of identities already, as a sort of rehearsal or practice for when they will be more common. As always, these subcultures are showing in microcosm where large sectors of society will be heading in the future. Thus, youth cultures don’t constitute only a rejection of the larger culture but a challenge for the larger culture to adapt to. They lead the society into new areas of growth.

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