Although this is something I was aware of, a recent chapter from the book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand really brought to light how the West arrived where it did in terms of understanding the relationship between youth and the elderly.
The move to create and define the word “teenager” is actually fairly recent in Western history and connects directly to cultural and economic interests. One could argue that America wouldn’t have developed its cultural and economic footprint without the development of this term. Almost overnight (an immediate 400 percent increase) the framework for highschool was established, creating this definable middle space between youth and adult and distancing the West from the way we have viewed “youth” throughout history. The statistics are actually quite astounding. What followed soon after was the creation of post secondary education, something that developed in large part because of the economic interest and viability of a “youth culture”, shifting it from a 3 year gap to a 6 year gap.
Although this belongs in a larger more nuanced discussion (the seeds were largely already planted) this shift essentially elevated the future oriented thinking of progress that saw “youth” as the future (positive) and aging as the past (negative). And overtime the “youthful” age has simply been getting younger and younger in the West following suit with those cultural and economic interests. As the book suggests, selling youth culture is one of the most lucrative businesses out there.
A couple interesting outcomes from this:
1. If rock n’ roll was the first to become fully synonymous with youth culture (and all that it symbolizes), it is interesting to note its origins with black culture and black voices, and how quickly that became advertised as the white man’s genius.
2. If you ever had the thought that it seems like youth culture always seems to be driven by the interests of 13 and 14 year old girls, that’s because it is. This is the number one demographic targeted by those selling youth culture even if that was coopted and rebranded in a “man’s” world.
3. It’s also no mistake that youth culture was used to capture this dominating image of the free person as a movement towards self discovery and self identity. One can argue this is the soul of what makes youth culture what it is.
4. With those three things in mind, what’s also clear is that as we follow this development we also see the gradual shift away from some of the cultural norms that informed Americans development and towards a culture shaped by this high school-post secondary structure and its ability to give birth to this notion of the “individual” embodied by this cherished (and lucrative) youthful zeal. What got discarded was any necessary language for understanding the relationship between youth (however the culture defines it) and the aged, including the general demise of family systems and structures that tend to inform it. And to be clear, this appears as evident in the development of the old conservative models of the nuclear family as it is in the rest of modern western culture. And at the same time what got glorified were the same enlightenment values that planted the seeds for youth culture to become the bedrock of western society and our continued obsession with the future.
Which is why I found this article so enjoyable.
It’s a small snapshot of a multi-generational family that helps redefine and repurpose (or maybe better, erase) that gap between “youth” and adult, or young and aged. We often don’t realize that here in the west, due to our long and storied obsession with youth and youthfulness, that this obsession with the future that has been tightly interwoven into our systems (social, religious and political) in problematic ways. Ageism, and the unspoken challenge for many in reconciling their worth when these vey systems discard them, is a very big and very real problem. It just gets swept under the rug and not really talked about. Heck, I felt it the day I turned 40, that negative assertation and label, rearing its ugly head.
I do think that immigration can and does help to infuse different narratives into the dominant western motif, even if it can still get confused and muddled in the process. In fact, people often equate the presence of immigration as proof of the Western narratives worth and that the grand American experiment as the symbol of the Free World is in fact working. The would suggest that this is the reason why people come to America or Canada for example, and that it should then be expected that those coming to a Western society built on the backs of thsoe who made it need to assimilate to this same youthful and future laden obsession. The idea of imigration I dont think its anywhere near that simple or narrow. In truth, there are many reasons why one immigrates, many benefits that immigration brings to a given society on social and economic levels, and varied ways of co-existing. Perhaps more of note is how it is that we entertain this notion of co-existing in the first place, something that deserves a much larger and more embodied discussion in terms of what pluralism is, what pluralism looks to achieve, and how that fits with our view of the future, the function of a global society and the moral questions that flow from that. Unfortunately these questions get pushed to the side in favor of this youth-full and future oriented obsession, with the aged often bearing the consequence.