Term of Art: Youth Culture

Youth Culture: Strictly speaking a subculture, the subject of an influential debate between (mainly) functionalist writers and their critics. Youth cultures are explained either by factors in the experience of adolescence, or by the manipulation of young people’s spending and leisure, through advertising and other mass media. The functional separation of home, school, and work supposedly makes teenagers increasingly distinct from adults, more self-aware, and subject to peer group rather than parental and other adult influences. But the relative affluence of teenagers in the decades after the Second World War, especially if they were in work, also encouraged the growth of a large and profitable market for goods and services specifically directed at young consumers. This has promoted the growth of a distinctive youth fashions and styles in clothes, music, and leisure, many of the originating in the United States.

For some writers, the cultural clash across generations has displaced social class as the primary form of conflict in modern industrialism. Yet class itself figures importantly in shaping the content of different youth cultures. Research in the United States distinguished the so-called college cultures of (mainly) middle-class youth from the rough or corner cultures of their working-class counterparts. The former were thought to manage the gap between conformist attitudes to achievement and otherness of adolescent school life—of which the school itself is the center. Corner cultures, in contrast, were viewed as a response to working-class academic failure; centered around the neighborhood gang rather than the school; and as reflecting the search for alternative, even deviant status, identity, or rewards. In Britain, however, youth culture was almost exclusively identified with male working-class youth and the moral panic about its style and aggressiveness. Neo-Marxist studies saw this as symbolic protest against, for example, the dissolution of the traditional working-class neighborhood community, and mass control over what were once predominantly working-class forms of leisure (such as soccer). Much of this literature is reviewed in Mike Brake, The Sociology of Youth Cultures and Subcultures (1980).

Developments in both sociology and society itself, notably during the 1980s, greatly modified the terms of the debate. Feminist writers pointed to the invisibility of girls in the mainstream literature on youth and have researched gender variations in youth culture. The experiences of youth among ethnic minorities have received more attention. But, above all, the period since the mid-1970s has seen the demise of the notion of the independent teenage consumer and rebel. The focus of research has switched instead to the youth labor-market, and the dependence of young people on the household, as a result of growing unemployment and the vulnerability of youth to flexible employment. See also Coleman, James S. 

Excerpted from: Matthews, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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