Hipsters And The End Of Youth Culture?

In my last “Sausage” installment I linked to an article in the New York Times about how hipsters are generally good little capitalists turning their apparent counter-culture into nice little cottage industries – gluten-free bakeries, ethical butcher shops, custom bicycle co-ops and so on. At first I thought, “oh, irony” but on further reflection I wonder if this is a signal that we are at the end of “youth culture” as it has been conceived of since the time of the boomers’ adolescence.

In order to develop this, we need a little history: what I mean by “youth culture” in this case is that period of late adolescence and early adulthood where beatniks/hippies/punks and so on would drop out of the mainstream education-career track in order to create various cultural projects and generally contest the dominant adult culture. Now it is a gross misrepresentation to say that everyone was a hippy in 1967 or a punk in 1977 directly involved in creating these culture moments, but there was enough of a critical mass that these movements did affect what was the rest of their respective generations listened to, wore, and cared about. A twentysomething in the late 1960s didn’t have to live in San Francisco in a van or go to Woodstock in order to hear the Grateful Dead or Hendrix and grow out their hair a bit.

In each case, at the core of the movement there was a sort of idealized social form, says the author of the original piece, William Deresiewicz:

“Previous youth cultures — beatniks, hippies, punks, slackers — could be characterized by two related things: the emotion or affect they valorized and the social form they envisioned. For the hippies, the emotion was love: love-ins, free love, the Summer of Love, all you need is love. The social form was utopia, understood in collective terms: the commune, the music festival, the liberation movement.

The beatniks aimed at ecstasy, embodied as a social form in individual transcendence. Theirs was a culture of jazz, with its spontaneity; of marijuana, arresting time and flooding the soul with pleasure (this was before the substance became the background drug of every youth culture); of flight, on the road, to the West; of the quest for the perfect moment.

The punks were all about rage, their social program nihilistic anarchy. ‘Get pissed,’Johnny Rotten sang. ‘Destroy.’ Hip-hop, punk’s younger brother, was all about rage and nihilism, too, at least until it turned to a vision of individual aggrandizement.”

This is contrasted with the current generation which Deresiewicz sees as still dreaming about changing the world, but in a different way:

“Bands are still bands, but now they’re little businesses, as well: self-produced, self-published, self-managed. When I hear from young people who want to get off the careerist treadmill and do something meaningful, they talk, most often, about opening a restaurant. Nonprofits are still hip, but students don’t dream about joining one, they dream about starting one. In any case, what’s really hip is social entrepreneurship — companies that try to make money responsibly, then give it all away.”

This is where I think we hit the end of youth culture. That is not say there will no longer be young people or things that young people do that confuse or frustrate older people, but now we have young people using the existing tools the dominant economic and social order to change things. Put another way, the hipster would be inspired by Don Draper, not bummed out:

The youth culture of now, such as it is exists, is still coming up with new stuff, but it is not positioned over against the dominant culture of the previous generation. The previous generation (all those ageing punks and hippies) are now, in no small part, a target market. Sure, some of the stuff that hipster businesses promote (recycling, sustainability, authenticity and so on) might seem extraneous or anti-free market but then again 1950s tailfins on cars are surely the former and “buy American” slogans are the latter.

This may be the result of the millennial realizing that the earlier generations were commodified and that it might as well be them who owned the whole system of production instead letting someone else cash in on counter-culture. While younger people will probably continue to drive trends and so on, they appear set to do so within the larger dominant system.