Youth culture doesn’t belong to young people anymore - if the tag indeed ever has. Young people under 25 years are as diverse as any other generation and the continued attempt by demographers to give us a “Generation Y” template continues to be a poor and simple generalisation at best. Our image of “youth” with its highly disposable income and tech-savvy ways doesn’t come exclusively from our young people - it comes from our advertisers, marketers and the industry of cool. Youth isn’t ages 12 to 25. Youth is a lifestyle choice.
The mid-life crisis is no longer relevant as men and women try to live free of responsibility for as long as possible. Fulfilling childhood fantasies has become a standard pastime inspired by the antics of rock star CEOs like Richard Branson. There is no fountain of youth; instead there are thousands of elixirs to keep us there. Lotions for younger looking skin, potions to keep us fit and pills to keep our sex lives energised and erect.
It is a concept documented fully by British think tank Demos whose report, Eternal Youths: How the baby boomers are having their time again, demonstrates the domination by this demographic of popular culture. They continue to be the wealthiest and most consumer-driven age group of our time.
Youth culture is being sold to other generations because marketing is a numbers game. Demographically there will continue to be more baby boomers than any other generation. This weight of numbers has allowed them to maintain hold of the media and avenues for public debate longer: it will see an emphasis on debates about quality aged-care in coming years and will not conclude until Generation X and Y are left to mourn the loss of their parents - the most powerful generational force of the late 20th and early 21st century.
We fetishise youth in our desire for it. Extreme makeovers take us step by step through the process of smoothing out the wrinkles and wiping away the years, while advertisers use pert models to sell us everything from soft drinks to laundry detergents. Youth culture has become a global obsession. Youth is all fun and no responsibility. But the youth culture that the adult world has created is not the youth culture that young people are experiencing. The youth culture we see in our popular culture is an imagined ideal created by people with enough time and money to recreate the youth they always fantasised about. For most young people it couldn’t be further from the truth.
In Australia young people under 25 years represent the most significantly unemployed or underemployed group. There are over 141,000 people under 25 years of age who are parents. While an increasing number of young people still live at home, there are homeless youths in our society struggling to survive. Depression and mental illness among our young people is prevalent. Young people are: punks, goths, skaters, ravers, gamers, politicians, students, employees, brothers, daughters, sisters, sons, mums and dads. It is an insult to try and quantify their diversity, especially as it is done primarily for the purpose of exploitation and profit.
Ultimately, there are more choices and options for young Australians than ever in our history. Young people are finding their way in a world where development is exponential and change is a daily event. This doesn’t mean young people are any better equipped to deal with it than any other generation, some young people are rejecting the hyper-capitalism we are experiencing at the start of the 21st century. Research presented by the International Young Professionals Forum indicates a growing group of young people interested in sustainable consumption and ideas like downshifting.
While it may be the case that some young people pop pills and dance right through the weekend at organised dance parties, others are returning to religion and churches of all persuasions. Some young people are favouring more conservative Christian values. They are rejecting the deviant and value-less stereotypes and seeking meaning through church communities and doctrine. They vote Liberal, Labor, Nationals and Greens.
Anyone can assume the youth tag, but the reality is that young people are experiencing their own generational issues. Some of these are similar or the same as their parents’, others are new challenges. Like their parents, young people still struggle to establish the balance between independence and responsibility (but possibly a few years later in life). But unlike their parents, they are confronting significant costs for their education, are not sure whether they will ever own their own home, and wonder when and how they will manage to get their issues on the table of public debate.
Young people, whatever the era, will challenge and push the boundaries set by the preceding generations - but young people today have less control of the depiction of their culture than ever before. This is because youth is a commodity, a product to be sold. So, generalise if you will, but don’t dare assume that what you see depicted as “youth culture”is representative of young Australians today.
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