Youth Culture: 20th Versus 21st Century – What Has Changed?


Prior to the 20thcentury, the concept of youth culture was non-existent. But as the decades passed and society became more liberal, the idea of young people striking out on their own, rather than simply following in the footsteps of their parents, gathered momentum.

Various creative revolutions bubbled up out of youth culture, from swing music and jazz to punk rock and techno. But in the 21stcentury, a new set of era-defining trends have risen to prominence, forging an entirely different landscape within which youngsters can express themselves and live their lives.

So what is different for the youth of today compared with their counterparts in the 20thcentury and what impact has this had on the way that culture is developed and disseminated?

Smartphone Takeover

Access to a telephone was far from a universal feature of 20thcentury life, but it became more common in the latter half of this era and allowed young people a degree of freedom in terms of how they communicated. That being said, most households ended up with a single phone, usually located in a public space, which meant being overheard while chatting with friends was almost unavoidable for teenagers.

Cut forward to 2018 and it’s now unthinkable for any young person to be without a mobile phone which doubles up as a portal to the internet and a whole world of social media and messaging services. This hasn’t just altered the way that people communicate with one another, but also means that entertainment is delivered in a completely different way.

Playing games on your phone, from online casino apps to entertainment mediums like Netflix provides literally millions of ways to pass the time. This has led to a huge drop in the number of teens who drink on a regular basis. With so many ways to stay in touch with mates and stave off boredom on their smartphone, the appeal of hanging out in a cold park sharing a can of Strongbow has diminished.

Some even link access to phones with a fall in teenage pregnancy rates. This means that youth culture is typified by abstinence and insularity, rather than by wild acts of rebellion and excess as in the past.

Creative Empowerment

The 20thcentury saw youth movements flourish around artistic endeavours of all types, from music scenes to cinematic hits. However, even in a time of great cultural change, there were still a number of limitations on how easy it was to actually create and spread works of art.

Sure, teenagers could form bands and hone their creative skills at home, but being able to get this work seen and heard on a wide scale was tough. You had to get past the cultural gatekeepers at record labels, galleries and studios to gain traction.

Today, the internet has democratised creativity and given young people unfettered access to a global audience. Anyone can gain a following for their work and ultimately attain mainstream attention, so long as they have a basic laptop or smartphone and an internet connection. You do not need to impress a single executive to make it; fans and followers will come flocking and big companies will ultimately beat down your door to sign you up, not the other way around.

This has led to a degree of cultural fragmentation, with thousands of niche movements emerging online, allowing people to pick and choose what they engage with, rather than having to consume a smaller array of creations from a more limited band of artists. Whether this is a good or bad thing is down to personal opinion.

Political Engagement

Social media has connected billions of people and also created more distinct divisions along political lines, particularly amongst the young. It has allowed for instantaneous harassment and bullying by anonymous strangers, while also giving teens the tools to make their voices heard and speak back against a political establishment in a way that was simply unthinkable in the 20thcentury.

Upheaval and resistance was a common theme for youth culture throughout the past 100 years, so in a way not that much has changed. However, 21stcentury youngsters have a far more immediate, acute experience of the political world than their precursors. How this impacts the state of play going forwards is in their hands.