British Studies Web Pages


Youth Culture: a wider perspective
A response to Prof. Cashmore's book from Richard Bolt

This comment has been written by Richard Bolt, a teacher trainer at KJO £ódŸ, and a contributor to the British Studies Web Pages.


As a UK native working in Poland it is interesting to hear the comments of Polish students on recent popular UK history - particularly as I was a teenager in the late 60s and early 70s. Inevitably it is usually simplistic ‘culture bite’ knowledge but often it tends towards an over-reductive ‘if it’s the 60’s then it’s hippies - if the 70’s then the punks’. This convenient but deceiving ‘decadism’ seems factual but of course is not, it is a general knowledge substitute for culture rather than cultural understanding itself. Dates should be a starting point for an exploration of history not an end and such ‘exam shorthand’ should perhaps be seen by teachers as a stimulus to encourage further questioning.

Professor Cashmore’s book goes far beyond such simplification and can indeed be encouraged for use in further investigation, understanding and reflection. As a UK native however it became obvious that his book was written for a UK audience that had lived through the time, and were presently living in the specific political situation of the early 80s (Thatcherism - an economic restructuring replacing state control and influence with private, and with considerable freedom given to market forces resulting in a great deal of unemployment). The book and its arguments take this knowledge for granted but a Polish audience does not of course carry round such a history, and as a first view of the period it is thus inevitably partial. This was the motivation for the writing of these comments - to fill in a little of this native knowledge and context - to give a wider understanding and hopefully to prompt further questions.

Cashmore’s book successfully brings to the surface those who lost out in the huge increase in affluence in the UK since the war (which included many in the working class), and questions the claimed success of the policies that brought such affluence about. In making visible those that at the time (and still) society prefers to ignore - it in fact tends to make invisible the vast majority of young working class people. Youth cultures are much wider than subcultures, very varied and inclusive of everyone.

The limitations of Cashmore’s book are less therefore what it includes (his reputation is considerable) than what it does not. It is dominantly about male youth for example, about music (spectating and participating in sport were much more important for many), and about the marginal ‘victims’ of the time. Ruth Cherrington’s article Youth in Britain Today balances the picture well, particularly with regard to female youth, and was written partly in response to such books. In the 1980s class seemed to be the dominant issue for sociologists - today increasingly gender and ethnicity (among others) are taken as seriously, giving different perspectives and interpretations, and they are reflected in her article.

Cashmore tends to give the impression that such spectacular subcultures were the norm when they were the exception - though this is not to say they were not understood or sympathised with by many others, and they were certainly influential. He puts the members of such subcultures very successfully in the context of society but not in the context of their own life histories - the role of their parents for example and themselves as parents later.

During the period Cashmore covers there were major shifts in society - unprecedented opportunities for working class youth to escape their roots - for example the abolition of National Service, the introduction of student grants to enable free university study according to achievement (though the number of places at this time was very small), and the non-working class careers thus opened. There was an overall increase in wealth for the working class while housing, health and other conditions were improving too. These opportunities were not evenly distributed however and as many ‘failed’ as succeeded.

In many ways the subcultures were about such disappointed expectations, and were as much a reaction against those of the working class who found success, as to society as a whole. The poetry of Tony Harrison (e.g. the poem v involving skinheads) gives an idea of the guilt often felt by those who ‘escaped’, while the ‘realist’ films of the late 50s and early 60s (e.g. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Billy Liar among many others) give a feeling of the tensions of the time within working class youth in general.

Culture generally (as well as youth cultures) in post-industrial (post-modern) Britain (only beginning when this book was written) has fragmented. The succession of styles, as illustrated here, has been replaced by a multiplicity (a ‘supermarket’) of styles simultaneously present. Mass working class culture with its certainties, and its predictable values and attitudes, has collapsed. Style now seems to be a leisure choice rather than an economic and social consequence. Increasingly people define their identity by such leisure choices and not by their work. ‘Middle youth’ is a term invented to represent the increasing tendency of the attitudes and values of youth culture to be carried into middle age.

When Cashmore was writing the ideal of a job for life and the right to one was still alive - today this is no longer an expectation. Although unemployment is now low, a large number of badly paid, part-time, temporary jobs have taken its place (the ‘dole technician’ is in a way an historical artefact). Many couples today do not marry and of those that do a high percentage divorce. Neither of these two processes is liked but they are often accepted in Britain as a ‘fact of life’ - therefore a chronic lack of stability both at home and at work has become the norm. Poverty (not only financial) has become endemic among the new underclasses, with minority ethnic groups over-represented in them. Legal restrictions on aspects of youth cultures (especially of teenagers) have been increasing. The underclasses emerging when Cashmore was writing have become a continuing reality, and his history of subcultures is in a sense the history of the emergence of these new social classes.

A parallel understanding of the cultures of Polish youth at an equivalent time are complicated by the different political and economic regime. Questions of whether the cultures of young people in Poland since 1989 can be related to the UK can perhaps profitably be considered - less in the sense of copied fashion styles but in the context of increasing instability at work and at home and the emergence of underclasses here too. Poland too is becoming post-industrial and increasingly post-modern in aesthetics. In a sense both countries are now responding to globalisation simultaneously, with cultural variations but the same basic economic conditions and both in the face of global media. This is an Englishman’s view however - what is the perspective from Poland?

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