Youth Culture: Repressing our own potential

I’ve been young for 21 years. That’s 21 years of commentators of all ages telling me about ‘youth culture’ and our ‘cultural zeitgeist.’ It’s also 21 years of having no idea what any of these people are talking about.

In a recent piece for Vision, a fellow student argued that Neknomination is a “a testament to a moment in time that we are meant to be at our most hedonistic and gloriously stupid.” Being young, we are told, “isn’t about being sensible.” Arguments about the social merits of Neknomination aside, I suppose I should thank the author, someone my age, for letting me know what my defining characteristics are as a ‘youth.’ I would have no idea how I’m supposed to behave or what farcical and utterly useless subculture or trend I’m supposed to be a part of as an individual unless commentators clearly more attuned to my zeitgeist didn’t tell me.

In fact, who are we even talking about when we refer to ‘youth culture’? Is that term supposed to encompass my generation and what we do? Then why do I constantly have to be told by both those my age and older what it entails? Shouldn’t I, as a representative of the very group being defined, be able to say what defines us? Shouldn’t I, as a person boxed into these definitions, be able to say, at the very least, who ‘we’ are? I can’t.

This is a case of high school students leaving school and not being able to cope with a world and social interactions more complex than that of the classic jocks vs. chess club dynamic. We assume that since there was a cool table and a preppy table and a stoner table in the lunchroom, we can separate the world into two tables: us, the united, like-minded youth, versus the shadowy, malicious ‘older generation.’

When someone complains that the ‘older generation’ (whoever they are) doesn’t ‘get us’ and that our parents are applying assumptions from their own time to ours, it’s hard to take them seriously. I could just as well complain that ‘my generation’ (again, who of the approximately 3 billion people under 25 this monolithic term refers to I still don’t know) doesn’t get me and that I’m being pummeled by expectations that may or may not have anything to do with the way I live my life.

But judging from the amount written on the topic in student media alone, outspoken members of our generation are looking to do just that, yearning for categories to lump all of us into. Why? The underlying urge seems to be an attempt to set ourselves apart from our parents and everyone else that age, and understandably so. Apparently we want to be our own people, independent of archaic and anachronistic conceptions of what we want out of life. But then why create a dichotomy that assumes there is such a thing as a collective ‘our generation’, effectively reducing our combined human complexity with all of its intricacies and uniqueness to a tribe of aliens in Toy Story?

Maybe when Respektnominate, URY’s response to Neknomination, became a fad for about two hours on Facebook, it wasn’t a concerted effort to sabotage our expression of our ‘youth culture’ through self-censorship. Maybe, just maybe, it was done by people who wanted to do something different, people who felt that Neknominate was not the be all and end all indication of what defines us. Maybe they just wanted to be nice on their own terms. Possibly, they thought there’s more to being young than hedonism and stupidity. More realistically, though, they didn’t put anywhere near as much thought into it and weren’t concerned with what someone thinks is appropriate for ‘our generation.’ Instead, they probably acted out of a desire to do what they did because they’re humans, individuals with opinions and thoughts, not caricatures in a self-imposed, one-dimensional anthropological study of ‘the youth’.

This dehumanising obsession with categorizing our own culture detracts from the time we could spend living as individuals with individual interests, uninhibited by what anyone tells us should be our collective definition. By defining ourselves not as humans but as members of a faceless collective, we achieve nothing of personal value. If anything, the very concept of ‘youth culture’ sounds the death knell for youth culture.