A potted history of youth culture

Photo by Elevate from unsplash

The term ‘youth culture’ or ‘teenage culture’ was first coined in the 1950s in America and exported to the UK in 1959. Many writers at the time believed rightly or wrongly that a ‘society within a society’ was evolving and posed a threat to mainstream values and norms. In other words a ‘generation gap’ had opened up.

The notion of a Youth Culture or sub-culture suggested those 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 phenomenon was a product of affluence and rising 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 the sociologist Berger noted in 1959 ”youth culture cuts across class lines. It creates symbols and patterns of behaviour that are capable of giving status upon individuals coming from quite different backgrounds”, whereas other writers noted that adolescence was a period and preparation for adulthood. Personal problems were commonplace, arguably still are (witness the growth of mental health issues among the young). Furthermore, compulsory National Service for 17 to 21-year olds ended in 1963, releasing young people from the constraints of military life.

‘Group rebellion’ against adult society was predictable amongst the young noted the US social analysis, Eisenstadt. Put simply, youth culture was best understood as being a reaction to being young. In North America, teenage culture was reflected in popular culture such as novels, films such as Rebel Without a Cause and rock & roll by Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis which appealed to millions of boys and girls.

Bill Haley and the Comets
Photo from wikimedia commons

But it wasn’t till the mid-fifties that ‘Teddy-Boys’ appeared on British social and cultural landscape to the alarm of the Establishment characterised by their drainpipe trousers, Edward VII long coats and slicked back hair tarnished with ‘Brylcreem’. 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 were nicely captured in the classic 1979 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 clad in heavy leather and chains had beefier motor bikes and were hostile to the comparatively effete mods. Street battles took place on the beaches of Clacton, Brighton and Margate and triggered national popular press hysteria generating a ‘moral panic’. Yet according to the sociologist Stan Cohen in his book, ‘ Folk Devils and Moral Panics’, the violence was greatly over-exaggerated.

During the 1970s some parents were getting concerned about ‘hippies’ allegedly morally corrupting their daughters with a reliance on ‘dope’ and free love. In Newcastle the spot for hanging out was the old, now demolished Handyside Arcade marked by specialist record and clothes shops like ‘Fynde’ punctuated by the distinct aroma of patchouli oil and marijuana resin.

You can watch a 1967 film of a ‘love-in’ at Handyside Arcade here. (5 minutes)

In the working-class neighbourhood of inner-city Scotswood, Newcastle, the emergence of skinheads caused fear with their menacing image of cropped hair, Doc Martin boots, black crombies and rolled up denim jeans: some of whom were racist belonging to the neo-fascist National Front and British Movement. As the sociologist Phil Cohen notes skinhead culture re-appeared 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 Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned, and confirmed conventional society’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 bands such as Blondie, New Order, Duran Duran, Visage and Soft Cell, whilst in the recession hit Midlands cities of Birmingham and Coventry ‘Two-Tone Ska ‘ groups like Selector and The Specials gained ascendancy as a response to urban decay and soaring youth unemployment.

The development of these 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 construct 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 like Peter York dismissed this view as being naive. Vandalising community bus shelters and assaulting minority ethnic groups hardly fitted in with their theory that youth culture was a shared response to their social position as the underdog in UK society.

Since the late 1990s we’ve seen a multiplicity of conflicting groups and styles ranging from young people involved in acid house parties with its repetitive beat and new drugs such as blues and ecstasy to Goths dressed in black and white makeup and into art drawn predominantly from middle-class backgrounds. Recently ‘Rap’, ‘Emos’ ‘Skaters and the much maligned ‘Chavs’ as noted by Owen Jones 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. As the writer Dick Hebdige noted it’s best understood as being about style. Some have argued that the vast majority of working-class youngsters from the sixties onwards were unaffected by youth tribes or teenage culture. The idea thar there exists a ‘generation gap’ has been challenged by others. It’s misleading to see Britain’s youth as being rebellious or revolutionary. For sociologist, Philip Brown, many youngsters hung out at youth clubs or spent a boring day at the seaside with their mums and dads.

By the later decades of the twentieth century the focus moved away from youth culture to the issues facing young people, especially jobs. Till the 1970s, vocational training – training for work – was seen as the responsibility of large employers who in the main provided quality five-year apprenticeships with day release at the local ‘Tech’. Employers working in partnership with FE colleges taught the new recruits the skills needed in the workplace. By 1979 this view began to change with the sharp rise in youth unemployment. Schools, the CBI, argued were failing to provide numerate and literate youngsters. This way of thinking led to what became known as the ‘new vocationalism’ – direct state intervention in youth training.

Conservative administrations brought in a range of training schemes for 16-year old school leavers. For instance, the Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP) started in 1979, was a one-year work-based scheme for 16 to 18-year olds. It was replaced by Youth Training in 1983 and rebranded in 1990. Alongside this came NVQs designed for a range of specific occupations.

Yet several post-war training programmes were criticised by educationists. Phil Cohen in ‘Schooling for the Dole’ noted that many trainees spent a lot of the time ‘running errands’ and ‘being useful’. For Cohen few received any real job-related training or skills. Most were a source of cheap labour some unscrupulous small employers. Dan Finn in ‘Training Without Jobs’ argued that youth unemployment was due to a lack of jobs, not lack of skills!

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 four out of ten voted Conservative with Labour coming a distant second. Labour did well amongst the young in both the 2017 and 2019 elections with the housing crisis, job insecurity, grants and soaring university fees the key issues. But contrary to popular belief there was no youth surge in electoral turn-out nor a ‘youthquake’. Five out of ten young people aged 18 to 24 abstained according to the British Election Study of 2020.

Many young people have become more individualistic, seeking an identity through conspicuous consumption in our post-modern times without the need to join groups This has become more pronounced during the pandemic lockdown. Few young people belong to trade unions or political parties. As the Huddersfield University social scientist Robin Simmons points out, what most ordinary young people want today is a rewarding job or high-quality apprenticeship, the elimination of student debt, a decent affordable place to live and to start a family just like their parents.

Please follow us on social media, subscribe to our newsletter, and/or support us with a regular donation