I was recently involved in a discussion over on CafePhilos and as always it was stimulating, and led to thoughts that just couldn’t fit in the comments so here we go. We were talking about being young and finding one’s way and the talk meandered over into whether we lacked rituals of becoming and whether the current youth oriented culture somehow ameliorated the need for rebellion.
It is common to argue against the effect of consumer dominance of the young on the cultural landscape, and I am going to start that way but I am going to argue that the endless youth culture we are in is for the most part a positive development. But first the little rant.
In the arts, we have as wide if not wider a range of expression than ever before. However, if you just look at the mainstream culture there you have a youth dominated expression, and by definition it is shallow. With some exceptions, the concerns of youth tend to be inward focused and thus both less generalizable to the population and less applicable to the world. So to be interested in the song or film, you have to be interested not in ideas but in the person who is expressing the ideas.
Perhaps this might explain some small part, the proliferation of famous people. There have always been some famous people but I don’t think we’ve ever lived in a time where there are so many famous people who are little more than potential talents, and never have we lived in a time where almost every field is demanding their own stars (celebrity chefs, house renovators) not to mention of course those people who are famous for being famous.
There is a massive industry in not only creating more high profiles but orienting the consumer culture around them. Fame is now an excuse for intruding into fields that you have little expertise in. If you are a famous actor, surely you should be singing, and writing, and painting, and surely, it will be worth something.
Many of us like to be culturally on top of things, and now we have the added fame element to keep track of as well. They say fame is fleeting…well, no longer. This is the effect of the perpetual youth culture. Rather than have your 15 Warhol minutes you now have the years, the comebacks, or at least, the “where are they now” segments.
The negative youth effect is most pronounced in television which traditionally has been fairly infantile. (I do think that television is in a true golden age as never before but not in prime time.) We’ve always had the aaaah factor, the cheap sentimentalism that surged through shows like Friends and before that and now again the family sitcoms. What we also have now more than ever before is the lauding of the dimwitted but earnest individual such as Tracy in 30 Rock. Or many Owen Wilson roles in the movies. Here you have a sad plea for easy success for people who don’t even attempt to use their brains or when they do, they really shouldn’t. (And, I am talking about the roles not the actors here).
Ok, so I have to put up with all this thin gruel but not really. It is just the mainstream culture and there is so much great stuff out there that I really am living in the best of times. And just to be clear on a point here. I do not think that this garbage is a product of youth so much as a product of marketing to youth.
That’s the rant.
So why do I think it is good to be living within a youth friendly culture knowing that the older I get the more I will be alienated? In previous times we could comfortably settle into well established role models of aging. You get fat, you get slow, you die, and though that doesn’t sound good, it all happened with dignity and respect. We’ve lost the last part and the good news is the first part is on the block as well.
Being subject to a youth culture places good demands on those who want to remain vital. You see more fitter and active seniors, more people reinventing themselves, more people living life rather than settling into the death chute. Though nothing actually substitutes for being young, you can reap most of the same benefits. What has happened is that we’ve ceased to be as lazy. No more run and play and then after a few decades coast into immobility. We are not going gentle into that good night, and that is a very good thing.