Are young people less shocking these days?

The weekend’s jubilee celebrations have been accompanied by a wave of punk nostalgia as people draw comparisons with the jubilee in 1977. Chris Dillow, who is a similar age to me and grew up in the neighbouring city, reckons the young folk of today are nowhere near as rebellious as we were.

Watching Punk Brittania reminded me of a now-lost world – one in which young people’s anger shocked their elders. Punk was more rebellious and more disquieting to the establishment than anything we see today.

He offers six possible explanations for this, all of which probably contain an element of truth.

That said, though, it is easy to exaggerate the political and revolutionary nature of youth movements in the 1970s. John Lydon sneered at the hippies for being more about students smoking dope and getting laid than any sort of revolution. As things turned out, though, punk wasn’t much different. Most people were just out to enjoy themselves. They might have circled As on the underpass but for most kids it was just another thing to scrawl. In the early days of punk it was swastikas, then it was anarchy and left-wing symbols, then, a couple of years later, everyone was wearing union jacks for the mod revival. None of it was political; it was just the next thing to paint on your jacket.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s we seemed to spend more time fighting each other than trying to smash the system. Gangs of teenagers, mostly but not exclusively male, fought each other at rock concerts, seaside resorts and football matches. (Even the crap teams had their own hardcore hooligan firms.) If you were so inclined, there were lots of different ways to get involved in mass brawls. Even the ostensibly political battles were often just an excuse for a good scrap. Sure, some of those at the National Front and Anti Nazi League punch-ups were committed to their political causes but for many, which side they ended up on often depended as much on who they knew and where they were from as what they believed.

Bank holidays often saw large-scale violence breaking out in a number of different places. Over one Easter weekend at the end of the Seventies, I remember football fans clashing at a number of local derbies, mods and rockers brawling at seaside towns and rival biker gangs attacking each other with assorted weapons in the New Forest. Wherever large number of young people gathered, trouble seemed to follow.

As The Clash sang:

The sport of today is exciting
The in crowd are into infighting
When some punk sees some rock-olla
It’s rock and roll all over

In every street and every station
Kids fight like different nations
And it’s brawn against brain
And it’s knife against chain
But it’s all young blood
Flowing down the drain.

And The Specials:

All you punks and all you teds
National Front and natty dreads
Mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads
Keep on fighting till you’re dead.

David Hepworth asked in The Word a few years ago, “What happened to violence at gigs?” There used to be quite a lot of it. Nowadays it is rare.

Where I do agree with Chris is that today’s youngsters live in a more fragmented and atomised world than we did. That’s not their fault; it’s just the way things have gone. We attached ourselves to large, menacing youth cults and hung around with each other in tens or even hundreds. Today, crowds of teenagers tend to be smaller. But that’s not surprising. The 1970s was an era of collectivism and mass culture. It therefore produced mass youth movements.

While looking for something else, I came across this footage of skinheads at Stamford Bridge at the end of the 60s. Have a look. There are hundreds of them!

You don’t see this many teenagers running together anywhere these days, let alone at football matches. It is rare, now, to see large gangs of young people. They don’t flock together in large groups like they did in the 1970s.

And yet, despite the decline in mass violence, the overall crime and violent crime rates are about the same now as they were in 1980. All that violence that used to take place at seaside towns, football matches and punk gigs has dispersed. So, while the headline-making youth clashes have ceased, nasty things are more likely to happen in a park close to where you live. This is one reason why the fear of crime has gone up while the fear of general disorder has receded. More people hear of violence happening close to their homes but no-one seriously thinks that the social order is close to collapse.

Youth culture seemed frightening in the 1970s because it brought large groups of unruly youngsters together and that quite often led to mass violence and disorder. There was no more violence than there is today but it looked more threatening because it involved lots of people and was concentrated in a few places. That’s what spooked politicians and got retired army officers talking about forming militias.

Are today’s youngsters any less rebellious than we were in the late 70s and early 80s? Perhaps but, then again, I’m not altogether sure that we were really that rebellious anyway. We did a lot of things that shook people up but that’s because our easily identifiable youth tribes made it look as though we were hell-bent on a single cause. Most of the time, though, we were just doing what teenagers have always done; seeing how far we could push things without getting into serious trouble. Nowadays, youngsters do these things in smaller and less easily discernible groups. They don’t, therefore, carry that implicit threat of mass disorder and social breakdown. And neither, really, did we; it’s just that, at times, we might have looked as though we did.

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10 Responses to Are young people less shocking these days?

  1. Pingback: Are young people less shocking these days? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. The only way most young people now seem to hang out now is on-line. They are forever connected via their mobiles and social media. I suppose they could do a bit of cyber rioting 🙂
    It seems that social media played a very large part in events in Eygpt last year.

  3. B.O. Locks says:

    Punk was a brainless phenomenon, without political foundation, similar to the riots of last year. The sense of grievance purportedly held by the Punks had no credibility. What did they feel aggrieved about? Full employment? Democracy? Liberty? Affluence? Free higher education? A generous welfare system?

    Their predecessors, the hippies and the student movements, had a much more coherent raison d’etre, even if there was a hedonistic aspect to their culture. The coherence stemmed mainly from opposition to the Vietnam War. The students also had a grasp of Marx.

    What do we have now? A bunch of “useful idiots” who think that being a Libertarian is somehow revolutionary and whose role models include such luminaries as Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, and the rest of the Republican whackjobs who now have so much influence in the USA.

  4. James F says:

    Last year’s riots are relevant to this discussion. If youth culture was typified by stronger local bonds in the 70s, now we find the facebook generation able to make a much larger number of connections over a much wider geography. There are interesting themes to consider.

  5. The “brainless” in 1976 were listening to Peter Frampton, not the Sex Pistols. Punk was a conscious reaction to both a tired music scene and an increasingly fractious society. That’s not brainless.

    Just because a youth movement doesn’t neatly fit on the conventional political spectrum does not mean that it lacks a political dimension. Punk was far more anti-authoritarian than the 60s, hence the easy adoption of Anarchist symbols and rhetoric. It was also far more moral, hence the accusations of hypocrisy towards hippies. The chief criticism was not that they lay around smoking dope, but that they were dishonest: “never trust a hippy”.

    Punk, and the wider revival of cults such as Teds, Two-tone and Skins in the late 70s/early 80s, was more working class than the broader movement of the 60s. For all the supposed meritocracy, 60s youth culture was dominated by the lower middle class and quickly absorbed by the upper middle class. The “boredom” punks talked of was often the experience of the new towns, where working class communities had been haphazardly decanted, while the “no future” reflected the failure of the 60s to spread opportunity beyond the lower middle class. In 1976, few working class kids went to university and engineering apprenticeships were still the limit of aspiration for many.

    The fighting, along tribal and football lines, was usually incoherent rage, but perversely a key feature was that it was organised. No one seemed to know why they were so angry, but they thought it important to show solidarity and identify with a group through such anger.

    Punk will ultimately be seen as both a harbinger of and a warning against the free-market individualism of the 80s. It was conflicted: kicking against the stifling fag-end of the post-war consensus, while insisting on a romantic (and often very English) sense of community. John Lydon extolling the virtues of butter is perfectly consistent with this.

  6. Dipper says:

    There seems far less difference between youth culture today and the culture of my youth in the 70’s. Consequently, there seem to be much closer relations between children and parents. At Coldplay this weekend there were lots of family groups, something that would not have happened at all in my youth.

    Today’s youth are probably the least violent or rebellious youth in history. This may not be a wholly good thing (for them).

    • Rick says:

      Dipper, this generational thing is interesting – as Chris said in his post, kids are starting to dress like their parents again (or is it the other way round?) and, as you say, the idea of going to a gig with your parents would have been laughable when we were teenagers but is quite normal now.

      But, at the same time, traditional ‘respect for adults’ seems to have diminished. In the 70s and 80s, adults were ‘non-combatants’ – even if yoyuths were fighting each other they’d stop if some grown-ups appeared on the scene. Nowadays they’d be just as likely to give the adults a good kicking too.

  7. needs2cash says:

    How quickly we forget the mayhem, looting and burning of our cities. Knowing how close we are to anarchy may have dampened our revolutionary fervor.

  8. I think you’re imposing a very narrow definition of ‘politics’ is you think that the punk upsurge didn’t have any political aspects. Certainly, it was primarily a cultural phenomenon. But it was a cultural phenomenon that, in retrospect, was a huge howl of rage at the end of something: the post war Butskillite consensus and it’s implicit promise of gently increasing prosperity and equality based on Keynesian demand management.

    Not all political phenomena come equipped with parties, programmes and defined philosophies. Sometimes – perhaps even most often – they are inchoate responses to economic and social changes which defy easy pigeonholing. (& in this sense I would hold that last summer’s riots were also a political phenomenon).

    Such was punk. At least where i was.

  9. Pingback: There’s No Riot Goin’ On « T Recs

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