Today’s youth culture: restraint, rebellion or rebellion redefined?

Charlotte Jones and Jonny Watts, discuss the changing face of youth culture…

Semiotics seeks to understand how the landscape and culture we live in impacts us subconsciously. A recent talk by a semiotician at our Brand Love client event prompted an interesting question; have the youth of today become the least rebellious generation in living memory? The debate as to whether youthful rebellion has disappeared has dominated our conversations ever since. If we look back it is hard to separate ‘youth’ from a culture of rebellion. Think of the wild disobedience of bikers, mods, rockers, ravers and punks; even the peace-loving hippies of the 60s and 70s were disruptively expressive in their desire for world peace. Compare this to the quinoa devouring youth, scrolling through Instagram after their early morning spin class it does appear that there is more restraint and less rebellion. Alternatively, it could be that the form rebellion takes has actually changed.

Focusing on music for a moment, nowadays, we struggle to think of any anarchic musicians and the most untamed image in the music industry is Ed Sheeran’s hair. Today artists can appear to sound quite similar (aka‘dull’), producing music that seeks to pacify more than rouse. With so many artists today being marketing entities with 360 degree accountability to the brands they promote, the fear of a PR controversy has had a real influence on authenticity.

There has also been a notable behavioural change among youth. An altered focus on health and wellbeing has redefined for many what is considered cool and aspirational. It has now become more of a status symbol to ‘brag’ about how often you’ve gone to the gym or how much kale you’ve eaten, rather than how wasted you were and what trouble you got into. You can see this change exhibited in the number of nightclubs that have shut down and the amount of alcohol being consumed. In 1998, 71% of 16 to 24 year-olds said they’d had a few drinks that week – today it is 48%.[1] It seems there is more interest in staying in to binge-watch the latest series on Netflix than binging on alcohol – sober is the new drunk. And it’s even cooler to make sure your online presence reflects this (often faux) wholesome lifestyle choice. This, coupled with growing up during the financial crash and, more recently the hike in tuition fees, has led to the latest generation to think more about the future, rather than simply living for the now. It’s easy to forget that the youth of today is also the post 9/11 generation that witnessed marches against the Iraq war fall on deaf ears, Brexit voted in by a predominantly older generation and the election of Trump. I saw a quote on a pub board the other day that summarised this feeling of disenchantment perfectly:

“Remember when we cried as kids and our parents said “I’ll give you something to cry about”? We thought we’d be sent to our room, but instead they destroyed the housing market, quadrupled university tuition fees, melted the ice caps and voted brexit.”

Given the times they grew up in it is perhaps unsurprising that 16-24 year olds have the potential to be disenfranchised with how effective protesting is and as a result less outwardly rebellious in traditional ways. It can be argued that the proliferation of social media has had the most damaging impact on the physical signs of traditional rebellion by moving it into an often unseen online context. Unseen, and more often than not unheeded, rants into the social media ‘echo chamber’ can negatively appear to some to merely offer a hollow sense of rebellious achievement to ‘keyboard warriors’.  However, it is equally easy to think of the internet as an empowered platform for debate, enabling all voices to be heard and that this may be a clue to the shift in the definition of ‘rebellion’ today. If we think of recent scandals and the role of the internet: the United Airlines video, Ryan Lochte at the Olympics – there is perhaps a recognition that the internet has become infinitely more powerful than the picket line and burning oil drum combo. Companies now have entire departments set up ready to trawl social media and respond to any customer complaint.

If we look even further, we can see that cyber-crime is quickly becoming a stigma attached to youth. The National Crime Agency recently released a report where the average age for those carrying out computer-based crime was just 17! Compared to drug offences where the average age was 37 and financial crimes, 39.[2] Softer forms of rebellious cyber-crime such as piracy and illegal streaming are ‘the norm’ among the next generation who no longer care about the distinction between paid-for video on-demand services and sites such as Putlocker and set-top boxes like Kodi. To the majority of 16-24 year olds, the internet represents opportunity and on it many identify themselves as ‘ghosts’ not having to adhere to societal norms and regulations[3]. From a cultural point of view, it is perhaps easier therefore to argue therefore that rebellion itself is being redefined.

[1]content.digital.nhs.uk/webfiles/publications/003_Health_Lifestyles/Alcohol_2012/Statistics_on_Alcohol_England_2012.pdf

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-39654092

[3] http://www.c21media.net/perspective/the-new-pirates