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Think. Discuss. Act. Youth Culture

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The Evolution, Components, and Study of Youth Culture

Dean Borgman (2014, September). “The Evolution, Components and Study of Youth Culture.” Culture and Youth Studies.


Anyone interested in youth ought to be aware of the context of their lives—youth culture may be likened to the water fish swim in, the air we breathe. You will find some parents, teachers, and some youth workers who are primarily interested in their youth as individuals, concerned about them staying out of trouble and achieving success. They may do so without a necessary understanding of context: the cultural setting of human life.

Human culture is ubiquitous and critical, yet commonly overlooked. One simple definition of human culture is “all learned behavior—and all products of that behavior.” All nations and ethnicities tend to take their own cultures for granted—and can be surprised at the striking or subtle differences in other cultures.

Kroeber and Luckhohn analyzed 160 definitions of culture (1952, 2), and this was their synthesized description of culture:

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts. The essential core of culture consists of traditional … ideas, and especially their attached values. Culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, and on the other as conditioning the elements of further action.

It is worthwhile to ponder such a definition and consider your own understanding of culture. Michael Brake, who quoted these social theorists (Comparative Youth Culture: The sociology of youth culture and youth subcultures in America, Britain and Canada, 1985), goes on to point out a cultural paradox: “While culture is a cohesive force binding social actors together, it also produces disjunctive elements” (p. 3). Tensions between cultures and subcultures, between adult and youth culture, and among youthful subcultures, illustrate “disjunctive elements.”

Youth culture is a social construct, a product of adult invention—and youthful response to this adult creation. The Industrial Revolution began to separate children, who had typically worked side by side with adults after puberty, from adults. And girls, who usually married and started families soon after puberty, joined their male cohorts. Universal high school education for “middle adolescents” (14-18) led to high school sports, extra-curricular activities, dances, after-school hanging out and partying. A new and separate culture developed. Whenever any group seeks cohesiveness while separated from the dominant group, or whenever a special group feels its needs are not being met by the dominant society, a subculture emerges.

The music and fashions of youth were generally uniform from the 1920s through the 1950s. In England, working class youth began forming various groups or sub-cultures in the 1950s (or special cultures, if you find sub- “pejorative”). Dick Hebdige (1979, Subculture: the meaning of style) and Michael Brake (1980, The Sociology of Youth Cultures and Youth Subcultures) pointed out the meaning of post-WWII Teddy Boys, later Mods, and their musical styles in the 1950s and 60s. The sixties brought a proliferation of youthful protest in various subcultural forms to the United States. They can be identified by their ethnicity, urban or suburban context, and their unique preferences as to their favorite places (hang-outs), dress, language, music, slang, and more.

Youth culture has been studied through anthropology, sociology, and an academic field called cultural studies (including critical theory and literary criticism), along with psychology and psychiatry. The complexity of youth culture calls for interdisciplinary study.

The study of youth culture is surrounded by controversies. Some argue that there is no such thing as a youth culture—citing statistics that youthful opinions tend to follow their parents’ opinions and styles. Studies showing the separation and isolation of adolescence seem to rebut that viewpoint. Gary Schwartz and Don Merten (1967, The Language of Adolescence: An Anthropological Approach to the Youth Culture) demonstrate the cultural distinction between youth and adults. Youthful reactions to adult values and opinions seem to vary from decade to decade.

There are generalities that apply to youth culture (singular). Globalization has demonstrated its universality. Within adult societies, young people sensed themselves detached and un-served, by both the dominant adult culture, and then the mainstream youth culture itself. So, subcultures—and consequently niche markets—developed. Urban youth around the world have many similar tastes and styles. Urban youth in East Asia, Southern Africa, the Islands, and the Americas exhibit both globalized and local aspects of youth culture in their own particular “globalities.”

Having created youth culture, dominant culture began being changed by it. As individuals are obviously influenced by the various systems of culture, so in turn, individuals mediate and re-present meaning back to culture. The same is true for subcultures; they rise in reaction to (sometimes in opposition to) the main culture, and in doing so, subcultures begin to influence the whole.

British writer, Jon Savage, offered a pre-history of teenagers from 1875 to 1945 (2007, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture). His emphasis is on the growing influence of teenagers on general culture—on the juvenilization of adult society increasingly bent on pleasurable consumption.

Coming to prominence through an intricate ecology of peer pressure, individual desires, and savvy marketing, the Teenage resolved the question posed by the war (WWII): what kind of mass society will we live in? In contrast to fascism, the American future would be ordered around pleasure and acquisition: the harnessing of mass production to disposable leisure items like magazines, cosmetics, and clothes as well as military hardware.

The postwar spread of American values would be spearheaded by the idea of the Teenager. This new type was the ultimate psychic match for the times: living in the now, pleasure-seeking, product-hungry, embodying the new global society where social inclusion was to be granted through purchasing power. The future would be Teenager. (p.465)

Robert Epstein, an American psychologist, (2010, Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence) argues that we have infantilized teenagers, and urges a radical approach that would change youth culture as we know it. Where some think teenagers have too much freedom, Epstein demonstrates the growing restraints that have been placed upon teens, illustrated by a list of increased laws and restraints and a chart showing the dramatic increase of these laws from 1700 to 2000. (p.32)

Where others judge that teenagers are incompetent children, Epstein produces evidence from studies showing that “millions of teens are more competent than half the adult population.”

And to the “common wisdom” that adolescent trouble is “just part of growing up,” Savage argues that “teen turmoil is totally unknown in more than 100 cultures worldwide” and that most youth in these societies “go straight from childhood to adulthood with no unnecessary delays, transitions, or trauma” (Cover). In short, Epstein would have young people tested for competence and be licensed or given privileges to drive, to marry, to enter the work force as they are ready without adult interference.

Young people should be extended full adult rights and responsibilities in each of a number of different areas as soon as they can demonstrate appropriate competencies in each area. Passing appropriate tests should allow competent young people to become emancipated, sign contracts, start businesses, work, marry and so on, but I am not suggesting that young people be given more “freedom.” We need to start judging young people by their abilities, not by their age, just as we are now doing increasingly with the elderly. The societal changes I’m proposing have the potential to reconnect young people with the adult world. (p. 315)

More conventional wisdom comes from “A Report to the Nation from the Commission on Children at Risk,” (2003, Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities). Taking into consideration brain research from neuroscientists and the best work of social sciences, it proposes a “bio-psycho-social-cultural model of child development” (p.7). Moving away from both medical-models and most at-risk models, this collaboration of YMCA of the USA, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Institute for American Values, with experts from various fields, outlines its case for authoritative communities. Its main contention and proposition is that: “We are hardwired to connect to other people and to moral and spiritual meaning” (p. 15).

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Do you agree with the importance of youth culture, its alignment with pop culture, and its general influence upon adult culture this article suggests?
  2. Does this article provide an introduction to the study of youth culture? What most impresses you here, with what do you disagree, and what would you suggest to make such an introduction more helpful?
  3. Both Robert Epstein and the Commission see an American youth culture in turmoil and at risk. Do you agree that statistics on mental health problems, sexual assaults, and violent shootings do suggest a challenge to our society? Which of the two approaches do you tend to lean?
  4. With whom and how do you think this article and topic ought to be discussed?
  5. We have referred to the Hardwired to Connect study pointing to a youthful need, not only for human community, but for transcendent and spiritual meaning. In your opinion, do youth cultures need faith in something transcendent and a meaningful spirituality? What might that be?


  1. In considering youth culture, it is important to know some of its history and how it has been studied by various disciplines.
  2. We should be working at bringing some of the theoretical disagreements together and the implication of best practices
  3. Besides studying the fifty-some pages of Hardwired To Connect, the work of Search Institute and its Forty Assets for healthy youth in healthy communities ought to be studied and applied.
  4. Christian writers on the youth culture can be profitably studied by people of faith and others: Peter Ward, Chap Clark, Christian Smith, Kendra Cressy-Dean, Andrew Root, Walt Mueller and Dean Borgman. Their books have much to say about the complexities and challenges of youth culture—and how such challenges can be met.

Dean Borgman

© 2019 CYS

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