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Youth in Britain Today
No Change There, Then?

Ruth Cherrington

Irresponsible teenage mothers with screaming kids, ecstasy-crazed, sweaty ravers, crusty anti-road protesters living in tree houses and the ubiquitous young football hooligans: this is British youth of today. Or is it? Which image is the most appropriate one when considering youth in contemporary Britain?

The answer is all four, of course, plus the rest, a majority of ‘unspectacular’ youth who never hit the headlines and quietly get on with the increasingly difficult task of transiting a vague, socially insecure period labelled ‘youth’ into an even more ambiguous period of adulthood. It has never been easy to move from one to the other as these stages in life have only limited biological delineation and are more to do with social and cultural norms, as anthropologists and sociologists have been commenting upon for decades. (Mead 1943, Erikson 1977, Frith 1984) Youth is a fairly recent invention following hot on the heels of childhood, which never properly existed for the offspring of the lower orders earlier in history. (Aries 1962) The term ‘child’ in England until the 17th century ‘could just as easily mean a young man, subordinate or servant.’ (Beaumont & Clark 1997)

Of course kids do go through bodily changes linked to what is called puberty but what happens socially as a result of these physical changes varies across societies and over periods of time. Therefore, the period of transition from childhood into adulthood known as youth has to be viewed more as a social construct which changes as any given society changes. The changes have been occurring very rapidly in most western societies and they do not usually come problem-free. Youth is, in fact, a problematic period per se in many respects because it is difficult to define or even to say clearly when it begins and when it ends. The recent debate about the lowering of the age of sexual consent for homosexuals in Britain is a pertinent case in point, highlighting the problems of legal definition. It is acceptable to legally have sex at 16 if you are heterosexual but you are supposed to wait until you are 18 if you are gay1. It is not the place here to enter that particular debate but it does highlight the problem of delineating youth and involves ideas of responsibility, independent thinking, self-determination and maturity. Adults are supposed to be responsible but youth need a bit more help and time, according to the adults making the laws.

Other contradictions exist in the legal definitions of youth but these pale into insignificance when considering the social and cultural contradictions especially in recent times when youth has been put at a premium and we all want more of it and for longer. There has even been another category added, ‘middle youth’ (McCann 1997) for those of us well past our green years but not quite ready for middle age. According to the market research, this social group of thirty-somethings may well go out clubbing on a Saturday night but after a few hours’ sleep ‘they go to a garden centre2. They are living the life of the Middle Youth.’ We seem to be more fixated with youth but ‘our children are rushing to grow up faster.’ (Beaumont & Clark op.cit.)

So, how do we make sense of these apparent contradictions and cultural shifts? And why do youth continue to get mainly bad headlines, such as the teenage mothers who are usually presented as a scourge on society?

Youth as a troubled and troubling period is a persistent image and most people slotted into this category would probably agree about the problems created about their uncertain and often ambiguous position in society. To make matters worse, it appears that the media retain the need to whip up what have been described as ‘moral panics’ (Cohen 1972) about youth every now and then. Youth is an easy target, being relatively powerless vis a vis adults and since the creation of the ‘teenager’ in the fifties, it has served as a useful whipping boy. Sociologists it must be said, although I am one myself, have also tended to emphasise the negative aspects of some youthful behaviour with a spate of studies of juvenile delinquents and gangs, for example, in the 50s and 60s. (Cohen 1955, Cloward  & Ohlin 1960, Downes 1966) Valentine, Skelton and Chambers point out that the study of youth in the post-war period ‘initially began within the disciplines of criminology, psychology and sociology and crystallised within delinquency and deviancy studies.’(1998:10)

The moral panic about delinquent youth in an earlier period was not only symbolic but partly, it can be claimed, led to the execution of Derek Bentley in 1952 for a murder of a policemen at which he was present but did not commit3. ‘There was then a well publicised fear that standards were slipping, that juvenile delinquency was getting out of hand.’ (Cheston 1998) Bentley’s accomplice had the gun and fired the fatal shot but Bentley was hanged as a warning to other wayward youth, as a ‘clear message of intent from one generation to another.’(Cheston op.cit.)

When a particular group is problematized then the chances are that some of them might just live up to that image and if not, the media may step in to adjust the view so that misdemeanours are blown up out of all proportion. This is what Stan Cohen was trying to explain in his classic study of the ‘battles’ between the mods and rockers on the beaches of Clacton, Brighton and Southend4 in the early 60s. This is not to deny that violence does occur and that things sometimes do get nasty but bad news is good news and the media prefer the ‘end of the world as we know it’ approach when considering youth group rivalries and other youth ‘problems’. But it works both ways to some extent and young people actively involved in some sort of ‘resistance through rituals’ (Hall and Jefferson 1976) need the media and play up to it as well. In more recent times, Thornton (1995) and McRobbie and Thornton (1995) have discussed the complex interplay between the media and youth, taking Cohen’s work a step further. It is in many ways regretful that sociologists early on took the deviancy line but things did change as the sociology of youth as a discipline developed and, dare I say, grew up, especially with the entry of female researchers. They took note of the fact that most of the early youth studies were about boys, written by bigger boys.

The entry of feminist thinking into the field of youth is linked, in the British context, to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham University in the 1970s (the Birmingham School) which did ground breaking work in this area. Set up by Richard Hoggart in 1964, it quickly established itself as a leading centre for the new discipline of cultural studies, with sociology coming together with other disciplines and new research methods being tried and tested. At first, the Centre was male-dominated and this was not unproblematic for the young women entering into its work but researchers such as McRobbie (1991) were able to put girls and their role in youth subcultures on the map. Before they had been largely invisible or on the periphery with little attention paid to them. I was once told by a leading deviancy theorist during my tender postgraduate years that ‘girls don’t go around in gangs.’ They did, in some ways, where I came from. Perhaps not as spectacularly as boys but they were there and McRobbie and her contemporaries paid attention to the 50% of youth who had largely been ignored up to then.

This is a relevant point to clear up some issues concerning definitions before moving on to consider the present context and how we might try to make sense of youth. There is a need to distinguish between the concept of youth culture and youth subcultures. Generally speaking, youth culture refers to a homogenous notion of youth as doing similar things and being treated in a similar fashion and plays down aspects of differentiation. This idea was popular with US sociologists in the 50s and early 60s particularly those of the social functionalism persuasion, such as Talcott Parsons (1964) who argued that youth culture, although disconcerting for adults, actually performed certain useful functions for society. It was a safety valve, a way of letting off steam for young people caught up in the period of uncertainty and unclear social roles. In the end, their rebellion was only symbolic but significant in that it helped them to eventually grow into adults and get on quietly with life.

The idea of a general youth culture, however, affecting the majority of young people in any given society, was criticised by other sociologists who saw differentiation and diversification amongst youth as well as the fact that not all youth joined in this peer group letting off of steam. Big differences could be seen between different social classes, ethnic groups and, as already stated girls. In the States, the emphasis was predominantly on white youth in high school, just as in the popular musical and film ‘Grease’5 where few non-white faces are seen, except for the Latinos who are presented as sleazy and violent.

Subculture is a part of the wider culture, linked to it but with differences. Subculture was first used to refer to a subdivision of the national culture. The concept of youth subcultures is not without problems but it has become more prominent with the advance of sociology and increased attention on youth-its forms and manifestations, problems and solutions and so on. All too often youth subcultures and styles are viewed in terms of providing solutions to the problems of status frustration and transition. 'What people do depends upon the problems they contend with.' (A.K.Cohen, in Brake 1985:3) It is not necessary to agree with that view but to be aware of this inherent bias in much of the research and writing on youth. 'Subcultures are the meaning system and modes of expression developed by groups in particular parts of the social structure in the course of their collective attempts to come to terms with the contradictions of their shared social situation. ' (Murdock in Brake, op. cit: 27)

In Britain it was once again the Birmingham School who took up the differentiation within youth and their perceived collective problems, mostly along class lines. Researchers there developed the concept of youth subcultures both in theoretical as well as empirical terms. We can talk of working class youth subculture that is grounded within the parent culture although possessing its own youthful elements. Social class analysis tended to predominate in the work of the Centre with an application, especially under the directorship of  Stuart Hall, of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and other neo-Marxist readings. (Hall and Jefferson 1976) Mods and rockers became, then, recognisable children of their parents although their styles were quite different from each other and from adults. They were all mostly in dead-end, low paid jobs with relatively few, if any, educational qualifications.

Mods may have aspired to be better dressed and more sophisticated than their contemporaries, giving an air of being middle class but they were mainly destined to remain working class because of their relatively poor educational attainments6. Some had white collar jobs of sorts, working in offices but only at lower grade levels with few opportunities for upward social mobility even if they wanted it. Their subculture was a spectacular but only temporary escape from work and home, especially when enhanced by drugs such as pep pills. It must be said that the present generation of youthful drug-takers are not the first and probably won’t be the last. Many mods found that pills could prolong the escape and keep the fun going all night, in the newly established all-night clubs. In the words of Hebdige, it was a ‘revolt in style’ only. (1979:106)

The Birmingham School paid attention to these and other subcultures of the period, with their swan song perhaps the accounts of Punk Rock in the late seventies. (Hebdige 1979) We can ask whether skinheads were ‘magically’ trying to get back their lost working class community or whether punks were really true masters of the semiotic, giving alternative meaning to everyday, mundane objects like bin liners and safety pins. (Hebdige, op.cit.) In the final analysis, class was the predetermining factor, which was not totally acceptable to feminists and other commentators who wanted to add more recognition of the diversities of race, even sexuality.

Contemporary sociological thinking, research practices and analysis of youth seem to be moving away from viewing youth as fitting into a number of identifiable youth subcultures, especially with regard to the clubbing phenomenon that began in the late 80s and has continued until now. Thornton (1995) indicated this in her work and other commentators take this up. Diversification and fragmentation has occurred to such a large extent within all sections of society, including youth, that subcultures are difficult to locate, let alone describe and analyse.

Ben Malbon writes ‘unity of identity, and in particular an identification with a specific sub-cultural grouping, appear to be far less significant in contemporary youth culture than has been recognised by theorists of youth culture up to now.’(1998:277-8) He refers to the trend of recent work on youth as highlighting ‘stylistic non-conformity.’ Malbon prefers to use the label ‘tribes’ (op.cit:278) which has been employed elsewhere, and New Age travellers sometimes take the term for themselves, eg. the Dongas Tribe. (McKay 1996) It may be the case that it was the theorists, in particular sociologists, who sought to discover and perhaps impose subcultural identities upon youth when the ‘classic’ youth studies of the sixties and seventies were being carried out by the members of the Birmingham School, for example.

Malbon cites Redhead (1990:25) here who stated ‘authentic sub-cultures’ were ‘produced by sub-cultural theories, not the other way around.’(Malbon op.cit:279) This may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and negating completing the value of subcultural theory. Perhaps it has to be recognised that subcultural theory may have worked in the 60s and 70s but the changed context of the 90s needs new forms of analysis which bring in theorists like de Certeau (1984) on the use of space and identity. Contemporary Britain remains divided in terms of class and ethnicity in many ways but the predominant, somewhat overbearing centrality of class seems to be in the process of being transcended.

Using a more fluid analytical approach, the shifting nature of youth identities, styles, allegiances and trends can be described and treated with more insight than imposing class struggle upon every form of youthful behaviour. The involvement of young women and ethnic minorities is well- documented in more recent work and their place recognised, their own shifting and uncertain identities brought across. To cite Malbon again, in one of his ‘vignettes’ from an Asian youth, ‘it’s pretty obvious where I’m coming from-middle class Asian, London-can’t make any bones about that.’ Class identity is coupled with ethnic identity as well as region, in this case London, being important as well.

These differentiated identities can be linked to behaviour and whether there are links between other sub-groups or ‘tribes’ of youth. In one sense, the clubbing phenomenon has brought together diverse groups as Malbon as well as Thornton discovered. It is true to say that to some extent going to clubs, dancing to rave, house, drum and bass and other popular musical forms as well as using popular drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy, may transcend class barriers. In another way of viewing this situation, youth can, to some extent, be considered as a class in itself, with subcultures transcending their social class context.

This is a highly contested and ironic point since much of the work done in this field put youth firmly within a class context and related most post-war subcultures to working class environments, low educational attainment and limited job opportunities. There was the move away from viewing most youths as belonging to a generalised youth culture, as previously discussed. The considered view is that there may be good reasons for claiming that there are enough common features that may bring elements of contemporary youth together regardless of class. It is necessary to go beyond the Birmingham School when considering modern British youth although it cannot be said that the case is proven either way. We cannot overstate the unity of clubbers and ravers and must recognise that the feelings of togetherness that are enhanced by drugs do not often last after the clubbing experience. There remain differences of gender and ethnicity and black and Asian youth experiences have aspects that are not usually present for white youth, such as the threat of racism.

Suffice to say that there is ongoing debate on this point and how it is relevant in the consideration of contemporary youth issues such as drug taking and teenage pregnancy. I must emphasise, however, that drugs are not just linked to young people but concern by the authorities and related ‘moral panics’ usually only emerge when considering non-adult members of society. Likewise with pregnancy and other ‘deviant’ acts. But I would like to finish on a note I started with and that is that most youth do not get involved in these. Teenage pregnancies are on the rise7 just as drug use amongst those below the age of 18 but there is still a majority of young people who don’t get involved in these behaviours or only partially. Many young people go clubbing but many don’t. And youthful protesters, although a very important and vocal minority, remain at that- a minority.

The imagination and potential of youth are also considered as marketable commodities not only by manufacturers and advertisers but more recently by the ‘New Labour’ government. It seems that not everything about youth is bad and the inventive of sub-cultures, especially in terms of pop music and fashion, not only present a modern image to the outside world – the so-called ‘Cool Britannia’- but also bring in money. That may be why Tony Blair is keen to court the likes of ‘Oasis’ and other groups. According to Cooper (1997), we have seen ‘a very successful commercialisation of teenagers. They’re held up as an ideal, and used to sell everything and anything.’ (Cooper:23) This adds to the already existing contradictions in the position of contemporary youth. They are reviled on the one hand for being too much into sex, drugs and rave yet held up as icons of success on the other. It is no wonder that some confusion exists but, as has been argued here, it always has, at least since the post-war period and the discovery of teenagers with attitude, style and money.

We must recognise the diversities and differences as well as similarities between youth of today and those of previous generations. Whether or not the concept of subcultures is still valid needs further discussion and investigation. Clubbing may bring young people together and they may even have their own meta-language, especially linked to drugs. But it is as difficult to accept the concept of numerous ‘tribes’ as it is to unquestioningly accept the concept of a generalised youth culture. Perhaps things are not so different after all. We still have our moral panics about youth and their behaviour but maybe we would panic even more if they all just conformed and didn’t develop attitude and style.

    Notes
  1. July 1998. The Labour Party were previously committed to equalising the age of consent but there was opposition to this move and it was defeated by the House of Lords.
  2. Garden centres can be found in most British cities selling DIY goods and materials for gardens and homes and represent part of recent home-based leisure centredness of the contemporary family.
  3. Derek Bentley was only posthumously pardoned at the end of July 1998, more than 40 years after his execution after a long fight by his family to clear his name. His execution had always been controversial since he was never accused of murder but just being present and apparently for encouraging his accomplice with the gun, Christopher Craig, to shoot the policeman. Bentley was known to be ‘feeble-minded’ with a mental age of 11.
  4. These places are all traditional seaside towns, all located within easy reach of London, which used to be popular for day trips for working class people from the East End of London, particularly on Bank holidays
  5. ‘Grease’ was a popular film which came out in 1978, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John and is runs also as a musical. It offers a look at a group of high-school friends and touches upon some problems and issues for young people such as contraception but the emphasis is on how youth should have fun, with a happy ending.
  6. The ‘hero’ of the film based upon the mods of the 1960s, ‘Quadrophenia’ can be seen as a case in point. Jimmy was the post-boy for an advertising company who had few career opportunties but didn’t seem to care. Yet his job can be viewed as non-manual, lower grade white collar rather than traditionally working class manual.
  7. Figures for 1996 show the highest number of schoolgirl pregnancies for ten years. (Cooper 1998)
References
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