Who Killed Youth Culture?

I was struck, not so long ago, when I happened to be walking around New York City in the early morning. Everyone was dressed pretty much the same. Or, at least, no one stood out. A few decades ago, a modern, Western city like NYC would have been filled with all kinds of youth cultures — punk, skinhead, rockabillies, breakdancers, etc. I’m not saying they don’t still exist; I’m merely pointing out that they don’t exist in anywhere near the same numbers. This is weird. If you lived in the suburbs of London (and undoubtedly the suburbs of America), a few decades ago, then you knew or saw plenty of people dressed outrageously — more than I see in NYC or London today.


Youth culture, it seems, is dead — at least as we understood it. True, there are “Hipsters,” but they are so inoffensive that they don’t stand out the way every other youth culture has (if it can be considered one).

What happened? Both London and NYC like to claim that they invented punk — the pre-punk Ramones, Blondie, and so on in the latter, and The Sex Pistols and the Clash in the former. But why was it invented?

Life was pretty bleak during the ’70s, when punk emerged. In Britain, there were mass strikes and frequent electricity blackouts. The garbage collectors and fire brigades all went on strike. Instead of nice, shiny red fire trucks, green army ones patrolled the streets. It wasn’t really much fun. Unemployment was high; despair higher.

Then there was “fashion.” A few decades ago, it took several years from the latest thing to trickle from the catwalk and pop stars to the high street. Regular fashion, sold in every mainstream store, was usually boring and exactly alike.

If you wanted to resemble your musical idol, or just didn’t want to look like a geek, then you had to do it yourself. Youth cultures gave those who were dissatisfied with the status quo a way out.

Nina Hagen with leather jacket (left) and Siouxsie Sioux (right).

Nina Hagen with leather jacket (left) and Siouxsie Sioux (right).

You could go to small stores in the city and buy clothing, but pretty much every subculture took regular items of clothes and modified it, cutting it up, bleaching it, painting it, and so on. It was more creative. (Even skinheads bleached and cut their jeans short, sewed patches on their flight jackets, and cut their wool hats small.) The wearer was able to express himself. And it drew similar people together, into gangs based on music, clothing, aesthetics, and ideas about life, and even humor.

Today, no one needs to bleach or cut up their jeans. If you want that, you can buy it. Designer labels are happy to charge you for it. Fashion is, it has to be said, a whole lot more interesting, and pretty much everything is available. Unlike a few decades ago, there is no overwhelmingly singular style. No one would be surprised or shocked to see a girl in jeans today, a miniskirt tomorrow, and a dress the day after that. But that wasn’t the case a few decades ago.

Youth culture has died, because there is more choice — in clothing, music, etc. — and there is no necessity to create one’s own look or, perhaps more accurately, to create a new world.

What have we lost?

Creativity has filtered from the youth as an expression of energy and utopianism. Creativity exists online — in blogs, sometimes — and it exists in brands. But the raw energy of youth culture has dissipated. Music genres don’t seem to change much. Notably, Hip-Hop, now 40 years old, is generally still considered the most daring genre. Country has made a come-back.

We’ve also lost another community. With the destruction of the extended family, then the nuclear family, young people made their own very tight-knit groups. There was a strong sense of what it meant to be an insider or an outsider. They listened to the same music, wore the same clothes, hung out in the same places, read the same magazines and books, liked the same kind of art, and had a vision of what life should be — a vision that they expressed through the youth culture that they created.

It would be foolish to claim that these groups were ideal, but, like it or not, we should acknowledge that members were able to support one another when others — often including parents, family, teachers, etc. — did not.

What we have lost is not just one of the roots of modern creativity, but one of the few ways in which young people could find guidance — not always very good guidance, admittedly, but some kind of guidance — into adulthood and into ideas that superseded purely mundane and material concerns.

Angel MillarAngel Millar is the author of The Crescent and the Compass: Islam, Freemasonry, Esotericism, and Revolution in the Modern Age as well as other books on Freemasonry, symbolism, and spirituality. His writing has also been published in New Dawn magazine, The Journal of Indo-European Studies, and at Disinfo dot com, among others.