You were born in the 90s, buy clothes from H&M, get all your music from Spotify and have been on Facebook in the last 20 minutes… Chances are you’re part of the subculture-less generation.
If you were born in the early 90s or later you probably know little more about subcultures than that of your Dads nostalgic mod stories, or your mothers Punk phase. Chances are you took your first breath when Tony Blair was leader of the Labour party, and you grew up with his ‘education education education’ mantra rattling around your head for the first 10 years of your life. You grew up with Britney Spears and Blue, rather than The Who or The Sex Pistols. It’s the generation of the internet, the kids who had Myspace and MSN who then grew into the teenagers who had Facebook and Spotify. Sometime in the 90s, a story of youth culture came to an end. A proficient period of creativity and individualism centred around fashion, style and music came to an unnoticed conclusion. A 50-year period in which Teddyboy turned to Rocker, Mod turned to Skinhead, and Punk to New Romantic came to a close, somewhere in a field with a thousand youths on ecstasy. Never mind ‘We are the mods?’, where the fuck are the mods? Are the youth now just highly educated zombies procrastinating in bubbles of Snapchat filters and celebrity gossip? Or do we simply live in a civilised, less tribal society that no longer has a taste or need for individualism and rebellion?
“Trousers”, was BBC broadcaster Robert Elms response when asked what defines a subculture. “I always think of these as trouser tribes”.
Elms was part of “pretty much part of all of them” in his own words, initially starting out as “a ten-year old skinhead in 1969”.
When speaking to Robert, there was an unbelievable, admirable, enthusiasm when he spoke about these youth cultures. “They were part of my life” he passionately exclaims, “because if you were growing up as a teenager in London in the 70s and 80s that’s what you did, that was how you defined yourself. “This didn’t happen in France or Germany or even America, it was always distinctly British”.
It’s difficult to put an exact date for when this unique period started and ended but there’s a general feeling that it began shortly after the huge upheaval of the Second World War. “You’ve got that first generation of people that aren’t conscripted into the army, so when you got to 18, you don’t have to go and pull on a uniform and go off to fight. So instead you go create your own uniform”, said Elms. This was more than just a uniform however, there was obviously the music, but also there were often political and other ideological aspects that went with these youth movements.
“Punk for example, the attitude, political and social thinking behind it, made it the most enduring and powerful”, fashion designer, Wayne Hemingway explained.
These youth subcultures arrived during an intense period of social adaptation after the war, and often were responses to political changes. Writer and journalist Paul Gorman described it as “a little chemistry set with all these catalysts popping off, and these gave rise to these very interesting and quite powerful youth movements based around these subcultures.
“They were basically saying ‘fuck you’ to the establishment, we’re not to be controlled”.
Youth cults are a bit like mushrooms, they’re grown in dark, damp places, where you don’t get very much light.
So where have those subcultures gone? Elms thinks “it’s vanished”, that we’re “no longer as tribal as a society”.
Red or Dead co-founder Hemingway believes there to be “a culture of nihilism” amongst today’s youth that has been exacerbated because “people just feel whatever they do nobody’s going to listen”.
Sociologist, Dr Kevin White seemed to agree stating “the growth of right-wing populism, Brexit, there’s a real sense of not being able to change things, there’s a real disenfranchisement”.
It seems slightly ironic the youth feel voiceless, in a time where they are able to communicate with masses faster than ever before through the internet. However, it has been suggested that it’s that speed of communication which has killed youth subcultures. “Nothing gets the time to gestate, to grow and form because it’s immediate now” said Elms.
A fundamental aspect of those 20th century youth subcultures was that they had to remain ‘underground’ out of the limelight and off the radar to remain ‘cool’. “Youth cults are a bit like mushrooms, they’re grown in dark, damp places, where you don’t get very much light.
“They come out of the gutters, certainly out of the council estates, and youth clubs and it doesn’t get imposed from top down”.
You can see his point when you think you rarely can flick a bogie these days without a ‘Snapchatter’ getting an angled close up intrudingly zoomed into your nostrils. Elms believes social media is youth cultures kryptonite, “the light of day, light of Instagram, light of Twitter, kills things like youth culture now”.
It’s all sourdough and that bloody cereal shop. It pretends to be individual but in fact it’s mass culture which is apolitical”
“All hipster is, is this year’s variant on the yuppy”, Elms exclaimed dismissively when asked about whether hipsters could be this generations subculture.
Groomed beards, tattoos, lumber-jack style checked shirts, and things which are authentic…Whatever that means. The Hipster really is difficult to define, and even harder to point out, whether that’s because you don’t know what you’re looking for or because no one seems to want to be associated with the term. “It’s a look but it’s not associated with music, and that’s what I can’t get my head around”, replied DJ Bill Brewster.
He’s not the only one, Gorman’s voice elevated “It’s all sourdough and that bloody cereal shop. It pretends to be individual but in fact it’s mass culture which is apolitical”.
A problem the 57-year old reiterated when he compared it with Britpop, suggesting it’s “toothless”, “doesn’t disrupt” and lacks any “political edge”. Craft beer, ludicrously priced coffee shops, breakfast cereal cafes. Entrepreneurship does seem to be encouraged within the trend, which conflicts with Gorman’s core idea, “The true subculture is one that can’t be sold to and isn’t for sale”.
Dr Ruth Adams an expert in youth subcultures suggested the decline in youth culture is related to the level of commitment you have to make when buying commodities. “In the 1960s the types of clothes and records and other sorts of commodities that would have defined a subculture were relatively scarce and relatively expensive. They were affordable but you probably had to save up for them, so you had to make a commitment to that subculture”.
So perhaps youth cultures no longer exist in the same format because young people are now spoilt in terms of choice.
“I think in an era of fast fashion and iTunes you can have all the music you want”, pointed out Dr Adams.
It seems the luxury of having an unlimited buffet of fashion and music seems to have made young people fickle in their loyalty to a particular group. Though if you have the chance to have a little bit of Chinese, some Mexican, and a dollop of Indian rather than a whole plate of Chow Mein, wouldn’t you?
Everything has been done until we grow 3 legs, and 2 heads”
Grimsby born Brewster said he believes “music has become much more conservative and less wide ranging”.
The 57-year-old spoke about a lack of “innovation” in the industry, that there are “far too many Simon Cowells about nowadays, and the ‘Cowellisation’ of the industry has been disastrous for creativity”.
It seems the youths greed for music choice, which has in turn led to platforms like Spotify has made it difficult to make profit from music. This means it is only going to be more difficult for any young artists to break through with something innovative and new. And it doesn’t look much more promising in terms of fashion with Hemingway claiming “Everything has been done until we grow 3 legs, and 2 heads. “What do you expect people to do, walk round on a pair of stilts?”
Paul Gorman spoke about Malcom McLaren’s realisation in the seventies “that music and fashion had a great delivery mechanism to disrupt”.
In a time of Trump and Brexit, that societal scrutiny that came from youth subcultures seems to have become fragmented and lost in the overwhelming jumble of the internet and social media. The issue of the subculture-less generation is not just the lack of experimentation with clothes or music, it’s how those things were used as tools to bring about unity and a single voice. Dr White believes it gave young people “something that was really worthwhile, “that gave meaning to their lives”.
The digital evolution has spread so quickly, the youth left subcultures behind and instead got distracted with Facebook cover photos and Snapchat filters. It’s not about bringing back the youth subcultures of old but creating something new which can fill their void. Gorman intriguingly reflected, “It was a great thing (20th century subcultures), but there are other great things going on. If you were in whale blubber in the mid to late 19th century, you were the king of the world, because you powered lights, you were a multi-millionaire. Then electricity came in and you were nobody, you were just a bloke with a bunch of whale blubber. Everything has its time.”
Want to see more:
Watch – What ever happened to the youngsters from those 20th century subcultures?
Listen – The future of youth subcultures?
Timeline – The story of British youth subcultures
Social Media – Take a look at the Subculture-less Generation’s page to see how the project developed
Read – Shortened version of The Subculture-less Generation article
Survey – What do young people think?