The rise, from the 1950s, of the teenager and of various youth sub-cultures was one of the most distinctive changes in Western societies in the second half of the twentieth century. From Europe to America, a new reawakening challenging the established cultural structures was emerging. With the older members of the society perceiving it as a form of delinquency, the youths pursued change probably due to dissatisfaction from established cultural systems. This paper willdiscuss the youth induced change witnessed in the western society in the second half of the twentieth century.
The New Culture
A new culture seems to have emerged in the western world from around 1950s. The revolutionary culture may have resulted from the high number of teenagers who were born during the post war baby boom. Never before had youths been so economically empowered. From the United States to Europe youths started earning at an early age of fifteen owing to the high demand for semi and unskilled labor. With no commitments such as servicing mortgages since most were still living with their parents, the youths indulged into leisure, buying luxury items and cultural markers. This initiated a new era of a cultural shake up that left an indelible mark in the western cultural history. Ready to cash in on the emerging demand from the youths, the fashion industry, publishing, film production and cosmetics markets soared and infiltrated the society. The young consumers with their spendthrift nature led to a quick establishment of a new showbiz industry. Pop music, popularized by the American idol of the time Elvis Presley, gave a new impetus to the emerging sub culture. Teenagers purchased music players, records and posters of their favorite artists of the day converting their home environment into something their aged parents had never experienced (Donnelly, 2005).
Focus was on young and energetic working class that was rapidly taking over the society and spreading like the proverbial colossus. This group’s obsession with leisure was also linked the element of juvenile delinquency that aroused concern in the society. In Britain for instance, petty crime was somewhat rampant spreading even to the young working class who were shifting in and out of the delinquent tendencies. Though there was no evidence of an emerging gang culture, concern was rife due to the general acceptance of petty crime as a cultural norm among the young people.The various youth sub-cultures emerging also grabbed the society’s attention as they appeared inclined towards rebelliousness (Ritzer, 2005). This resulted in widespread concern particularly within the older generation who feared of a possibility of a breakdown in the societal moral fabric. The concern by the society may be said to have been exaggerated because even with the youths appearing to be rebellious in the eyes of their parents, they remained highly conservative in matters morality and societal values including sex. The stereotype associated with teenage so called rebellious nature was actually discredited by surveys which showed that despite the youths’ high affinity for leisure, they still maintained high decorum. The concept may have actually resulted from the difference in times that these events had occurred with parents remaining conservative as the youths explored the emerging trends(Carrington &Pereira, 2009).
The emergence of youth subcultures that differed from the conventional societal trends of the time may have arisen due to dissatisfaction that triggered a cultural radicalism. As the youths tried to curve their own niche culturally, tensions emerged between them and the conservative society. The opposition to what the society considered ‘normal’ sparked hot debates what with the media exacerbating the issue with what it described as the ‘youth of today’. The British youth were in the forefront pace setting the entry of the new subcultures. Their identity marks were expressed in the dress code, behavioral and speech patterns, musical preferences and communication coded symbols. The males initiated these trends with females remaining relatively conservative. The subcultures were actually initiated by individuals who would dictate new fashion styles and codes. Thiswould then trigger others to buy into the new ideas creating a unique subculture. The observant fashion industry was always alert to cash in on any emerging fashion fad and would readily avail the latest designs as preferred by the youths.The origin of these subcultures during the post-war era is claimed to have began as intergroup rivalry among young people over territories within the city estates as well as against immigrants as experienced in the Notting Hill riots of 1958.Hooliganism by youth groups that characterized football matches made youths appear as a national disaster.The media branded any other grouping or trend among the youths as acult with similar characteristics of those initial groups sending a chilling panic across the society. The media contemptuous bias upon these youth groups made groups such the Rockers and the Mods appear demonic. Despite this negative campaign, the Mods for instance, were commanding so much influence thatfashion designers, magazine publishers and commercial radio stations aggressively courted them due to the commercial viability and influence they elicited among fellow youths.By early sixties, Mods dressing style had become the preferred fashion statement from urban centers to the provinces. The legacy of the Mods as fashion darlings was crashed by the media following a scuffle with the Rockers. This portrayal of the group as riddled with violence led to dumping of the subculture they had established and in its place entered the ‘skinhead subculture’. This was characterized by shaven heads, boots and braces (Donnelly, 2005).
Not all youth subcultures were based on fashion craze. The middle class youths, courtesy of their education gained intellectual knowledge and moral ethics which led them to initiate cultures different from the conventional community culture. Theirs was based on political protest and fashion modesty with no allegiance to any tribal forces of the time. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was a revolutionary statement by youths driven by ideologies and morality against the moral decadency of the older generation.The protests they organized may never have stopped the government’s projects on the nuclear weaponry but it created precedence for what was to follow as later the youths successfully managed to form strong movements such the anti-racism and women’s liberation campaigns whose impact affected the society for eternity. Antagonisms arose among various youth groups owing to class distinctions. The middle-class educated CND protesters were perceived as naïve and dull, politically immature. The Rockers on the other hand appeared violent and the Mods as fashion dupes. The Beat bohemians were regarded as self-indulgent and pretenders (Donnelly, 2005).
A new form of music –rock music fused with jazz brought with it a universal appeal among all the youth groups and the previously antagonistic groups all had one common reference. The unifying factor that characterizes music made the youths a homogenous group. Radio and television programs resonated with pop music effectively attracting the youths. Soon, fashion, magazine and the film industry joined the new heat wave orchestrated by pop music and with it a new youth culture was born. The culture cut right across the Atlantic with music from both the US and the UK filling the charts. Songwriters and artists became overly idolized always appearing on requests in television and radio shows. Publications such as the New Musical Express (NME), maintained the buzz around music popularizing new forms of music as they emerged. For example the trad jazz, a modification of the traditional New Orleans jazz and the untested rhythm and blues that sensationally surpassed the earlier Mod audience. With most of the messages in the songs involving teen romance, it was not surprising to witness the phenomenal response. Through the mid seventies, more music genres had emerged keeping the youths glued to music. Beats such the Jamaican and American rhythm and blues fusion called ‘ska’ strengthened youthful cultures. The eventual acceptance of reggae from Jamaica by the British audience is said to have contributed immensely in the ‘Rastafarian politics’ of 1970s as the blacks used it to express their discontent with the whites in the UK (Donnelly, 2005).
The American youth aggression in the 1960s is also said to have been triggered by pessimism. Despite America being a prosperous society, there was a general feeling among the youths that the nation’s dream had been lost in pursuit of affluence. As part of the youth revolt that was spreading in many parts of the western world, it almost became inevitable that actually the American youths should be in the fore front. A generational conflict was boiling and on top of it was the struggle for social and political emancipationas advocated by the blacks from the south. There seemed to be a total breakdown of authority as evidenced b y rampant crises in institutions of learning creating a sense of panic within the wider society. The youth grouping and movements were perceived to be revolting against culture or as though they wanted to enforce their own cultural trends in the society. Never before had the society been so concerned about the youths’ uprising. The force was hitherto unheard off as previous generations had been more amicable in their approach with some level of reverence demonstrated upon the traditions in which the society foundations were based (Bremner& Barnard, 1974).
It is evident that the literature, music and arts have a strong influence upon a generation as the morality ideals may arise from it. The rise of the teenager and their ability to challenge existing systems can not be shoved away or disregarded as delinquency. More often than not it arises from dissatisfaction with the general society or the need to break away and establish what the youth may perceive as befitting of the times they are living in. By observing the movements that youths established in the late twentieth century in the western world, it can be deduced that they may have gone overboard due to neglect by the larger society which perceived their idealisticpotential as a misplaced use of energy.