July 7, 2009

In pop culture, is demography destiny?

The perennially bothersome and wrong commenter / blogger Whiskey (aka testing99) always leaves comments at various blogs in the Steve-o-sphere suggesting that the poor fool whose post he's commenting on has clumsily neglected the One True Explanation for Everything -- changing demographics.

Demography obviously has the power to influence many aspects of culture. The question is, in a given case, is the purported demographic change true? If not, then we're done. A non-existent change cannot have caused other changes. Recently in a thread about the decline of musicals since at least the 1950s, Whiskey offered a demographic explanation:

It's not the cult of authenticity that killed musical innovation, it's demographics. Not enough White teens to both provide innovators, and the market for it.

From memory (I won't bother looking them all up), he's offered this for a lot of changes between the 1950s and '60s vs. today -- not as many white teenagers. Is this true?

Obviously there are fewer teenagers now than in the 1960s because of the Baby Boom, but his argument is still wrong. That is because the period when teenagers and early 20-somethings made up the largest chunk of the population was not the 1950s or the '60s at all -- it was around 1980. As someone who reads a bunch of this stuff for graduate school work, I stupidly think that it's part of anyone's background information who talks about demography. So let's look in just a bit of detail -- actually, you only need to see two graphs.

First, let's look at the fertility rate over time. Notice that the peak is in the late 1950s and is still within a few percent of the peak through 1960; only after 1960 does it tumble downward. By the time the cohort born in this peak period reaches high school or college, it will be the late '70s or early '80s.

Next, let's look at the age pyramid in 5-year intervals. It's animated without a pause feature, so you may have to sit through it a few times to catch it, but the year when the 15 to 19 and 20 to 24 year-old bars are at their widest is in 1980. This says that our prediction based just on fertility was right -- those born during the peak around 1960 did not massively die off, and so young people were greatest in proportion around 1980. (You can see these pyramids in any good book on demography in your library.)

If such a puny fraction of a smaller population size was sufficient to make musicals and musical innovation marketable through the 1950s, then surely a larger fraction of a larger total population would make them even more marketable in 1980. Except musicals had been dead for decades by that point, and there weren't a whole lot of fundamentally new musical styles. The mistake in the argument is locating when young people made up the greatest part of the population. For the decline in musicals, there must be some non-demographic explanation. [1]

This also shows that demography isn't as all-powerful as we think in a broader sense: the period that we associate with youth rebellion, Hear the Voice of a New Generation, etc., is roughly 1957 to 1969 or so. But if it were sheer size that mattered most, we would look to 1980 as the golden age of teenagers. Not that there isn't something there in the popular awareness -- punk, new wave, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, etc. -- but we certainly don't think of the new wave era as quintessentially youth-dominant as we do The Sixties.

And it only gets worse if we look at the makers of youth culture -- they're not 15 to 24, but usually in their mid-20s. And 25 year-olds were represented the strongest in 1985, decades after The Beatles released Help! If sheer size mattered, we would look at "college rock," which exploded in the mid-'80s and was created mostly by people born in the 1958 - 1964 cohort, as the pinnacle of youth-dominant music-making.

Instead, it is the culture of the cohort that went through an intense hysteria that has persisted for the longest, rather than the culture of the cohort that was biggest in size. Going through a massive social hysteria forces solidarity on socially desperate young people (which is to say, all of them), and more solidaristic people will hold onto their culture for longer. That's why you still see Baby Boomers who look like they've just gotten out of a Weathermen meeting, and whose speech makes it sound like they're organizing a student sit-in. The same is true for Gen X people who still look like they just left a womynist slam poetry reading in a Berkeley coffee shop. They've preserved these things more because they feel a stronger connection to their generation.

The silent generations, on the other hand, never had to go through a hysteria and so don't feel such a strong affinity for their age-mates. No one born in 1959 still wears clothes that they would have at Studio 54 or CBGB's, and their disco-punk-era mannerisms and slang words are gone too. I can assure everyone that my generation, when we're in our 50s, will not still be wearing those retarded carpenter-style jeans of the late '90s, or blasting blink182 or Britney Spears out our car windows.

But I'll wager that in their middle age years, the Millennials -- who will go through a hysteria within the next 5 to 10 years -- will complain that rock music all went downhill after My Chemical Romance and Fallout Boy, will still be clinging to the skinny jeans and ballet flats look, and will still use "fml!!!" in their Facebook status updates.

In sum, as far as cultural production and persistence goes, sheer size of the group matters less than the strength of its bonds. Cohorts with a strong sense of belonging to a Generation will produce more and preserve it for longer, considering it something sacred that you just don't throw away, no matter how smelly may have gotten. And it is a generalized hysteria that brings socially defenseless young people together in tighter-knit groups.

[1] In Arthur De Vany's excellent book Hollywood Economics, he shows that Hollywood consistently ignores the niche for G, PG, and even PG-13 movies, even though they have higher return-on-investment than R movies. Maybe Hollywood people prefer making edgy R movies over cheesy G movies -- or whatever -- but there is a huge void there, and musicals would surely fall under this untapped niche.


  1. It is not just how many teens there are. It is who they are. Using the UN population database, you can see in 1965 there were 20,041k kids aged 0-4. Five years later, in 1970, there were 20,510k kids aged 5-9. The same birth cohort had increased by about 470k. Then in 1975, there were 20,726k aged 10-14, an increase of 210k. By 1980, there were 21,009k aged 15-19. Total increase of about 5% from 1965-1980. Since we know where babies come from, we know these are immigrant kids. Also, these kids often have siblings born in the US who wouldn't be noticed in this type of count. So there could be as much as 10% culturally foreign among teens in that cohort. That is inference but not unfounded.

    Demographically speaking, there is a shift but I can't see that being the reason for fewer musicals.

  2. There is something odd about that age pyramid. I am not an expert, but towards the end, there seems like a huge number of women in the over 85 group in 2050. I get that over 85 is counting a 15 year range not a five year range like the others, but life expectancy at 85 has to be pretty low.

  3. Thanks for posting that fertility rate chart.

    I was unaware that Candian fertility is so low. Feminism must be a disease up there.

    I really and truly think if more people knew what the replacement birthrate was, more would make a conscious goal of having a second or third kid. Its sad to see a population like Canada have a birthrate of 1.5, in which 4 people basically become 3 people in ensuing generations. There is plenty of room in Canada, but its getting filled up with non-Westerners via immigration. Sad.


  4. " I can assure everyone that my generation, when we're in our 50s, will not still be wearing those retarded carpenter-style jeans of the late '90s, or blasting blink182 or Britney Spears out our car windows."

    Lets hope not....

    The nineties were the first time that loads of kids seemingly really bought into TV-driven-fads and were willing to be tragically hip even in the heartland.

    In the 1980's for instance, out here in fly-over country, kids did NOT look like hair-metal bands, or Duran Duran. They might have let their hair grow a little long in the back (mini-mullets), and a few of them might have had a small earring on their left ear, but other than that........they were in jeans and pretty normal shirts. They did NOT buy into what MTV was attempting to dress them like.

    In the nineties however, it was different, and one could see kids with outrageously-colored hair, tattoes, facial piercings, bare midriffs, ripped jeans, lots of rings and trinkets, clod-shoes and other markers of social groups that were intensely different from "regular" people. Youth really started taking their cues from TV for fads and fashion in the early nineties en masse.

  5. I second Anonymous above on music. It's one thing the baby boomers got right.

  6. Dusk in Autumn, you still don't get it. It's WHITE TEENS that matter for Rock and Roll (I'm not talking musicals here). I've had several posts on the subject, the most recent being here. Far fewer White kids means far fewer guys making a pick-up band. Far fewer customers to provide a living for the few who make it big. Your link is for ALL races. Mexicans and Blacks don't do much rock innovation, or even participation.

    Look at when most of the toys were produced: in the baby boom 1950's when the boomers were kids. There was a market for it.

    Pop culture needs two things to create innovation: one a market, and two general wealth. We've had the latter pretty much unbroken by lasting recessions from 1955 or so on through to 2008. But not the former. Why couldn't Indie 103.1 make it in LA? Not enough young White people.

    Musicals are a gay, female ghetto. They became so because the focus was on gays and women. Even the most conservative impresario, Andrew Lloyd Webber, made no attempt to get men into say, "Cats." A rising economy allowed for $100 tickets to stuff like that or "Wicked."

    Once upon a time, stuff like Oklahoma and South Pacific was considered all-ages family fare. The closest you can get now is Enchanted, and that's still families with daughters (little for boys to watch).

    The Decline in White Teens explains a lot, nebulous "Zeitgeist" explanations don't -- I still can't figure out your explanations for why Rock just died after the 1980's.

    I agree that G rated stuff cleans up over R-rated stuff, and Hollywood is uninterested in making money. But singing and dancing are so cemented into young men's minds as "gay" that musicals will never be anything but that to them.

    Musicals by the time of the 1960's had been replaced simply by Rock (and Rock Opera -- like Tommy, or Hair, or the Jesus Rock Operas). This trend simply increased as young men and women changed from listening to Tin Pan Alley and Sinatra to Elvis and the Beatles and U2.

    Typically, you miss the whole point. WHY did musical innovation in whatever form, simply die?

    As someone who looks at Demography in Grad School, you've missed the key element of young white men as content creators, and the young white audience as consumers. [My data in fact shows youth peaking at the early 1980's -- arguably more creative than the 1960's -- with punk, country revival, ska, reggae, New Wave, the synth bands, the roots bands, and so on. You had all this musical ferment and experimentation, and then ... it fell off the cliff. Right as the youth cohort fell off the cliff. Making interesting new music is a young man's game. Elvis, Lennon-McCartney, Brian Wilson, the Stones, and Depeche Mode's members were all pretty young when they created their earliest and most innovative work. It seems to require just enough ignorance not to know it can't be done. Take away enough of those guys ... innovation fails. And you get Britney and Justin.]

  7. No, you're still clueless as always. The Baby Boom was mostly a white thing, as they were and are the majority. Massive Mexican immigration didn't happen until the mid-1980s -- some after the late 1960s, but too late to cause a teenage boom around 1980.

    During the 1970s, they stayed put since they thought the Mexican oil boom was going to make their lives sweet. Only in the mid-'80s did they figure out it wasn't going to be that way.

    That's why young people peaked around 1980. Unless you're claiming that white teens peaked in the 1950s or '60s. Which would be wrong.

    Easy way to see that you're wrong: the link I posted for fertility rate has both the US and Canada. They're basically identical, even though Canada's always been much whiter than us.

  8. Agnostic, we are in at least one thing arguing the same thing. Didn't you look at my post and data? I clearly show that teens PEAKED in the 1980s, when Musical genres and innovation in both sheer number and pace peaked.

    Sorry, I found your data approach ... lazy. The only data that is useful is out of the Census, if you are looking at White Teens. You have to use the 1980 PDF (which I have both a link to in my post and screenshot) to key in the numbers for that census, the 1990 and 2000 Census are online. In full disclosure I note that the 2008-2006 estimates have an uptick, and sizeable one in White teens. But explain my reasons for not considering the estimates solid data (for one thing, they fly in the face of Sailer's Affordable Family Foundation). Nevertheless, it is all there in my post.

    You can use the same data, and same sources, and get the same tables and same graphs.

    The 1960's, were not very innovative compared to the 1980's. The former had the Surfing/Beach Boys, Beatles/Brit Invasion (harmony-based), Blues-Stones rock, and Psychelic. That's by my count five major schools of rock.

    By contrast, the 1980's had:

    1. London Punk, and the inheritors such as the Clash.
    2. NY Punk, stripped down fast pop melodies with relentless hooks, "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" by the Ramones.
    3. NY "art rockers" like Talking Heads.
    4. LA Punk of teen angst, faster and more emotional than NY/London Punk.
    5. Bay Area punk, aimed at being "ugly" in musical style. Think Dead Kennedys.
    6. New Wave
    7. Rockabilly -- Straight Cats, Blasters, Big Country, etc.
    8. Psychobilly, ala the Cramps.
    9. Goth bands like Bauhaus
    10. Synth bands that were not explicitly New Wave
    11. Birth of Rap.
    12. College Rock
    13. Hair bands
    14. Heartland Rock (John Cougar Mellencamp).
    15. Arena Rock (Pat Benatar).
    16. Post Punk.
    17. Ska
    18. Reggae
    19. Midwestern "alt-rock" ala Replacements, Violent Femmes, etc.

    Even if you put all the punk genres together, you'd still get far more genres, far greater pace of innovation, and so on than the 1960's.

    Genres could suddenly pop up, flower, and die within a year or two. Scenes were active in LA, NYC, London, the Bay Area, and Athens GA simultaneously, something not seen in the 1960's.

    There was a drop-off of about 3 million White teens from the 1980's to the 1990's, and yes those missing teens do seem to make the difference.

    Teen size reached it's peak in the 1980s, along with affluence, and it's no surprise that innovation peaked then, and fell off the cliff afterwards.

  9. There are far more sub-genres now than there were in the 80s. Music just keeps fragmenting.

  10. There may be more genres now, but the fundamental developments were more stunning back then. similarly there are more quantum scintists now and more subfields. But Schroedinger's advancement (and Heisenberg and Dirac blabla) was more stunning and meaningful.


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