April 18, 2013

Are there any distinctive cultural groups among young people?

Thinking back to The Breakfast Club some more, or Heathers, or Fast Times, or any other classic teen movie, it seems like the social groups that young people belonged to used to have a lot stronger of a cultural group identity. ("When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way.")

For one thing, all sorts of stereotypes pop into your head when you think of a certain group from back then. If they had a mushy, incoherent group character, nothing much would leap out at you. You don't see those strong, instantly recognizable stereotypes in portrayals of young people anymore. You do see personality and physical-type differences highlighted -- an awkward individual, a talkative individual, a whiner, a clown, a hottie, a beanpole -- but they don't stand out as representatives of a larger cultural group type.

I haven't seen every new teen or teen-starring movie, but I pick this up even more strongly in real life. I used to work at a tutoring center and did private tutoring during the mid-2000s, and I've been surrounded by college kids since then.

In the '80s, there used to be the jock, the nerd, the stoner / burnout, the surfer dude, the Valley girl, the prep, the metalhead, the etc etc etc. If you're around young people today, you don't feel like their groups are so well defined. No pack behavior. Not just that they are as distinctive as they used to be, only you are no longer aware of what those groups are these days -- rather, that they don't have a strong group vs. group vs. group identity. As far as social group membership goes, most of the individuals seem pretty interchangeable.

The list of high school cliques in Mean Girls (2004) seems to focus more on individual personality and physical traits more than social group membership ("unfriendly black hotties," "girls who eat their feelings"). The inclusion of "burnouts" and "sexually active band geeks" is a clueless projection of the '80s culture onto the present. Even in 2004, there was no burnout / stoner clique in the typical American high school. Ditto the sexually active part of the band geek description.

In fact, they missed one of the most recognizable youth groups of the 21st century -- the skater dudes. They are one of the few who are part of a clear type, a larger group or culture that isn't about individual traits in personality or body type. Jocks don't have much cohesiveness these days either, not outside of the sport itself. If they're part of a college team, they do hang out more together, but at the high school level where most young people are participating, it's more like something to pad their college application, or an outlet for their desire to do something athletic, but not necessarily to carve themselves apart as a pack.

A major sign of the lack of distinctiveness is how similar the slang words are among young people. In the '80s, each group had its own unique slang -- the metalheads, the Valley girls, the preps, the frat boys, the cheerleaders, and so on. You could close your eyes when watching Fast Times and identify the group membership of most of the characters from their speech patterns and vocabulary alone. Again the skater dudes seem to be the only exception -- they and those near them seem way more likely to use "sick," for example. They're the only group with a distinctive inflection; it sounds vaguely like a descendant of the surfer dude speak of the '80s.

Clothing styles all look pretty interchangeable as well, again with the exception of the skater dudes who are more likely to wear multiple bright colors, when everyone else (especially males) looks so dark, desaturated, and monochromatic. Basically all girls wear dark leggings with slouchy boots or Ugg boots. Everyone has the same hairstyle-- short for guys, maybe pushed forward, and medium-length and straightened for girls. Skaters have longer and bushier hair, again one of the few who stand out as a group. Metalheads do not as a rule have long hair anymore; it seems to be more of an individual stylistic choice, whether they grow it out or not. They've really come undone as a recognizable group.

The metal / goth / emo people still wear all black, but that's about all there is to them. It's not as though they're a cohesive group, and all-black is their uniform. It's an attempt to build groupiness from merely dressing alike, rather than identical dress being an outward reflection of their groupiness.

That seems to be the general pattern these days -- to the extent that you can pick out somewhat distinctive groups, it's minor differences in clothing, and taste in movies / music ( / video games?). They've mistaken the external markers for the solidarity itself.

How could they build up a strong sense of group membership when they hardly interact with each other in real life, let alone go through any kind of ordeal together? The quasi-jocks have some of it from their experiences on the field, and the skater dudes have it from taking risks together, and in public spaces. But the preppies don't have their own distinctive hang-out spots, where they do their distinctively preppie activities. The nerds don't get together and play D&D. The emos don't hang out in the 7-11 parking lot and blast their music, risking harassment from The Man, like the metalheads used to.

So here again we see flimsy group membership attempting to be based on shared personality traits -- what type of individual you are if you prefer Katy Perry over Linkin Park, if you prefer hoodies rather than cardigans. Social grouping is more egocentric these days, in the sense of individuals detecting their closest identical twins, not dampening down their individual identity in order to fit into a larger group.

Once more skaters appear to be the exception, where they seem to come from a wider variety of personality and physical-type backgrounds. Some are overly cautious, some are more daredevils. Some are tall and some short, some anorexic and some beefed up. Some flirt with girls, others find them boring. But they're willing to set those differences aside in order to join in the larger skater dude Way of Life, to speak its shibboleths and display its tribal markers.

In the next post, I'll try to generalize these differences over time into two different types of conformity, and try to explain why one type predominates in some periods and the other type in the other periods.


  1. I recall the stoner/burnout clique from my highschool around 2004. I also briefly joined a C.S classmate in their D&D group, but it got rescheduled onto the times I worked my pointless highschool job so I couldn't continue with that.

  2. I'm not a snob, but skaters tend to be a little further down the socioeconomic ladder. I'd expect that such people have been more outgoing over the past 20 years, since they experience more crime and have to depend on each other more.

    You're right about how the skaters would just accept anybody - even me, a shy and sensitive guy when I was 14. Yet even then it seemed the culture was more cocooned - there weren't any girls involved with it, at least in my hometown.


  3. Isn't skater culture really more of a 90's/early-mid 2000's phenomenon?

    I tutored until recently as well and the skater archetype doesn't seem as clearly distinguished as it was when I was young. Think Avril Lavigne's Skater Boy from 2002 and Jnco jeans from the late 90's.

    I would say the same about goth people - they still exist, but they're not nearly as common nor as sharply defined.

    Anyway, it's been my observation as well, from sitting in mall food courts, spending time in college towns, frequenting the few eating establishments that still lure high schoolers out in force, that today's generation of adolescents has basically no strong sub-cultures. For example, nerds no longer constitute a clear, cohesive, and socially demarcated group.

    The last sub-culture America produced was the hipster and it seems, zombie-like, to never die and be replaced by something new as was the norm in the past. But are there hipster cliques in high schools? Maybe some young people here have an answer.

  4. "I recall the stoner/burnout clique from my highschool around 2004"

    21st-century drug users don't stand out in their clothing, hair, slang, gestures, etc. They don't gather in their own hang-out spaces to get wasted. Like, "that's the spot behind the school where the burnouts get high during lunch" or whatever.

    "You're right about how the skaters would just accept anybody"

    It's hard to think of another group that has open membership, where if you pay the initiation and membership costs, you're welcomed in.

    "Yet even then it seemed the culture was more cocooned - there weren't any girls involved with it, at least in my hometown."

    Well, there were no girls in the jock crowd, but they weren't cocooners. Still, there doesn't seem to be a closely allied chick clique for the skaters, like how the jocks had the preppie girls or cheerleader type girls.

  5. "Isn't skater culture really more of a 90's/early-mid 2000's phenomenon?"

    It may depend on where you are. When I visit home (MD suburbs of DC), I don't notice a strong skater presence. But out here in the Mountain states, it's thriving. I'd imagine on the west coast too.

    At a mall today, you stand a good chance of finding a Vans, Journeys, or Zumiez.

    I do notice a big difference with today's skaters, though, compared to the Jnco jeans crowd of the '90s. The earlier skaters were more punky and angry at the world, and you can still see some of that today.

    But a good fraction of today's skaters are the guys who would've been surfer dudes back in the '60s, '70s, or '80s. More of a laid-back, life-loving, sidewalk-surfer crowd.

    Last time I was at Zumiez to check out some t-shirts, they had "Once in a Lifetime" on when I walked in, and when the next song started, they skipped over it so they could listen to "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" -- non-ironically, I might add. I can't imagine that playlist in any '90s-era skater shop.

  6. "The last sub-culture America produced was the hipster and it seems, zombie-like, to never die and be replaced by something new as was the norm in the past."

    Yeah, the hipsters are the Beatniks reincarnated. The mid-century lull in group identity still had one or two sub-cultures, and ours has the hipsters and skaters.

    "But are there hipster cliques in high schools?"

    I never saw anyone like that in my years of tutoring, nor do I see aspiring hipster high schoolers whenever I drop in to Urban Outfitters, hang out at the used record store, walk by any indie coffee shop, or make the odd trip to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's.

    There's a very small minority of them among the undergrads, but it seems like it's more of a post-college lifestyle. It's mostly about leading a non-mainstream independent whole way of life, which means you need to be making more money than a teenager or college student.

  7. Off-topic, but have you seen that there are people who don't reveal their full name with their email address? They just have their first name and the initial of their last name.

    So, I'll kind of know them in real life because we're part of a (real life) group and we'll be part of an email list to set up meeting times and places, but they don't reveal their last name. So gay.

    They do it on Facebook too if you're not Facebook friends.

  8. I forgot to mention the absence of religious groups among young people, another huge change. Millennials are way less religious than earlier generations, and even the fundamentalist types aren't very evangelical anymore, in the sense of trying to reach out to their peers and incorporate more of the student body.

    Young fundies today are more like the Jewish conversos of Spain who may have held private beliefs and practiced private rituals, but publicly were not an identifiable culture.

    Indeed, they often begin a conversation with something like, "Are you a Christian?" because nobody can tell the fundies apart from mainstream religious people or from areligious people.

    A 1989 book on campus slang includes an entry for "the God Squad," i.e. the religious nuts preaching on the quad trying to convert other students. You definitely don't see that anymore.

    Nor do you see even farther out-there religious sub-cultures among young people, like the Jesus Freaks, the Hare Krishnas, or the New Agers. If a young person today does align themselves with a group like that, it sure is hard for anyone to tell, including the members themselves.

    Religion, mainstream or otherwise, has retreated to the private sphere and does not glue groups together very much these days, certainly not like it did during the religious revival of the '60s through the '80s.

  9. "have you seen that there are people who don't reveal their full name with their email address?"

    You mean they have their name as the email address, but without the last name? Or they have some random email address, but the note that says whose email it is only tells you that it belongs to Chrissy M?

  10. Speaking of full names, do you remember that time in the late '90s when people started pretentiously and self-consciously calling their close friends by their full names?

    Like, huh-huh, I get it.

    I think it was limited to the popular / preppie group too, which just goes to show how broadly the ironic dorkiness had begun to spread.

  11. "
    Religion, mainstream or otherwise, has retreated to the private sphere and does not glue groups together very much these days, certainly not like it did during the religious revival of the '60s through the '80s."

    Same with cults. In an article I read about the Tom Cruise Scientology controversy, it said that the membership for Scientology peaked in - surprise - the early 90s. Its been going downhill ever since, though of course the media makes the organization seem more powerful nowadays(which it isn't).

    The article interviewed some guy who joined up in the 60s. From what he said, the 1960-90 iteration seemed like a dating service for science fiction fans. Certain introverted personalities need an organization to help socialize them. These organizations proliferate in rising-crime times(as does, I expect, membership in the military services); during falling-crime, those individuals who would normally rely on religion or a club to socialize them end up spending all their time on the computer.

    Scientology was also tolerant, accepting whoever joined. The guy the article about was basically some blue-collar drifter, who signed up because they needed a handyman. He married two women from the cult(not at the same time), and had a kid with one of them.

    Scientology changed radically in the 90s, becoming more authoritative and isolating...

    So once again, we see falling-crime creates the destruction of social institutions.


  12. One youth subculture that has pretty much vanished is that of the Gearhead. Back in my high school days there were quite a few kids who spent their free time tinkering with cars and proudly showing off their customized creations. More than a few of them engaged in illegal late-night drag races.
    To the extent the Gearhead subculture still exists, it seems to be mostly among people in their 20's, not 16- and 17-year-olds. In part that must be due to the fact that few teens drive today, as you've documented, but I would imagine another factor is that car parts and accessories have gotten expensive. Years ago you could get cheap parts from junkyards, but today junkyard parts can cost almost as much as new ones. [Case in point: a taillight lens for my Subaru, really not much more than a piece of colored plastic, which cost me $165 at a junkyard a few months ago.]


  13. One reason skaters are tolerant is because the requirements for membership are so low.

    Sports clubs, hobby clubs, and high school cliques are more like classical aristocratic clubs - they are competitive and there are requirements to be met(sometimes financial) which keep out most people.

    Sports clubs in high schools make you do backbreaking practice, probably that you had a dad or older brother willing to give you a head start on learning shit(which a surprising amount of men don't have). Access to girls and prestige requires waiting 2-3 years and that you have natural athletic ability.

    Even unofficial clubs, like gearheads, require a lot. First, you need a job, possibly a full-time job, and need to spend most of your money on cars. Once again, you probably need an older male relative or friend who taught you how to work with cars when you were little.

    But with skateboarding, all you needed to do was learn how to ride one. You didn't even need to master any of the tricks to get low level social opportunities, such as being invited to a party.

    Skaters are not so much a club or clique as they are a "band" - individuals uniting together temporarily for a goal - in this case, to become good enough to be accepted into a formal skateboarding club - "getting sponsored". Or, in some cases, just having access to at least some girls and drugs(though drug use wasn't that heavy)


  14. Participation in formal clubs also goes down during cocooning periods, just as membership in religions and cults goes down.

    I suspect part of this is a lack of encouragement to others. Virtually everybody needs at least some encouragement to join a club or organization - you need at least one other person to tell you its a good idea, usually a family member or someone inside the organization. Nobody wants to go into something blind, as humiliating experiences really suck. It goes back to one of the running themes of your blog - that we need feedback from other people to get a realistic self-image.


  15. This is touched on to a degree in the film 21 Jump Street (2012). The leads, in the flashback to their high school days, both clearly belong to identifiable cultural groups. This becomes relevant because the characters find themselves at odds with the lack of clear grouping in the modern high school they infiltrate. There's even a reversal at play, where their hierarchical positions of Tatum/Hill change due to reasons they don't understand.


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