Sunday, February 25, 2007

Youth Culture: Struggle, Identity and Community
Youth culture is about struggle. It is a complex confluence of historical influences, societal forces, developmental stage and the need to settle two primary needs in the young person’s life, the need for identity and the need for community. This confluence of forces has created a youth culture that forms and shapes youth into seemingly indecisive, self-absorbed individuals who can maintain seemingly opposite views and beliefs simultaneously. They are struggling to self-identify and to discover a place in community where they fit. “Youth culture,” therefore, it literally a season of struggle.

Historically, the move from childhood to adulthood has been much clearer than it is today. With the removal of rites of passage and clear lines of demarcation, the adolescent is often left to self-determine the definition of adulthood. While certain lines are still part of the overarching culture, such as obtaining a driver’s license and the ability to vote, we have moved away from a definitive mark of adulthood. To complicate the loss of lines of transition, the Baby Boomer generation grew up as the first group of young people with time and money to waste, the ability to delay, as long as possible the acceptance of adult responsibilities and the ease and availability of dependable birth control. The current youth culture is the product and offspring of the Baby Boomers. They have continued the pattern to delay adulthood as long as possible. It is now acceptable to delay the acceptance of full adult responsibilities until the late twenties or early thirties. What this means to youth culture is that they have the “privileges” of being an adult (ability to drink, have sex, etc.) without the previous generations constraints (marriage, children, mortgage, etc.). They can put off commitment and obligation for more than a decade. The struggle that used to last only a couple of years to make the breakthrough to adulthood can now last a decade and a half. That is a long time to struggle.

Societal forces also influence the youth culture that emphasizes struggle. Society rewards accomplishment. Standardized testing focuses on measurable, concrete objectives rather than abstract thinking. At the same time, society is formed by the non-competitive ideals of the 1960’s & 1970’s where everybody wins and everybody is “special.” There are exceptions to every rule. Even though everybody is “special” there are always those that are more “special” and who get privileged treatment. Societal structures have proven, like family structures, to be unreliable and inconsistent. Their struggle continues as they attempt to determine what is fair and just amidst changing societal targets of success. The seeming invincibility of the United States was threatened by a small band of radicals. The President “gets away” with having oral sex with an intern. Society speaks about consequences but inconsistently applies them. There is always an exception. Youth culture is fueled by the tension between everyone winning and there being only one winner, between non-competitive sports one day and high school coaches encouraging victory at all costs the next. The struggle continues.

The adolescent life stage is also a time of struggle. The hormonal changes, occurring younger and younger, along with improved physical health and early maturation prove to force the young person into appearing more mature than they actually are. They struggle with an unparalleled level of sexual temptation fueled by dozens of sexualized images per day in media. While they seem physically to be an adult, the delay in their cognitive functioning and inability to think abstractly means they have the ability for sexually function like an adult without the full awareness of all the consequences, emotionally, spiritually or psychologically. This combined with the normal move of personal allegiance from parents to peers, as part of the adolescent stage of life, creates even greater struggles. They struggle with parental boundaries and peer influences.

Lastly, the struggle culminates in the tension between the young person’s need to discover their own identity and their need for community. Clark is partially right when he observes that youth culture is a reaction to abandonment. Young people are looking for stable structures after watching both familial and societal structures crumble. They are desperate to discover a holistic community of hope and care that will embrace them for who they are without the desire to sell them something or make them into idealistic clones. While struggling to find community they are also struggling to discover their own identity. To find the person they are and where they are truly unique in the world. How is it that they can be so different from everyone else and so much the same? How can they feel so alone in the world and be surrounded by others sojourning on the same path? They cluster to find community. They blog, pierce and tattoo to express identity.

Youth culture is struggle. Struggle with maturation, socialization, historical forces and the need to find identity and community. It is struggle and crisis. Out of the struggle will come adults who will face the world either fearfully or fearlessly, but the season of struggle cannot be avoided.

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