If the distinguishing virtue of classical culture was a celebration of a sacred divine principle, while modern culture mourned the loss of the divine and post-modern culture celebrates its absence, then youth culture shows itself to be pre-eminent in trumpeting the supremacy of the individual - divorced not just from the divine, but from family, lineage, community and nation.
This inclination towards extreme individuality has always been latent within the human heart, but social conditions have not been particularly conducive for its expression - until now. Small families, long working hours for both parents and a soaring divorce rate cause children to be tied more loosely to their immediate families than ever before. Today, a child reared within an integrated nuclear family is exceptional not because he lives apart from his grandparents but because he knows both of his parents.
Yet even when children are brought up in a stable domestic situation, their bonds to family are not formed as closely as they once were. Families now sit side by side watching TV rather than face to face at the dinner table discussing the events of the day. Children and adults alike retreat to the solitary world of the personal computer, the iPod or the Game Boy rather than engaging in social intercourse with friends and family.
It is true that families have always engaged in solitary pastimes such as reading and painting, but the modern examples cited above are different in one very significant way. While reading traditionally involved delighting in the artistic creations of the older generation, modern electronic media allow children and youth to live in a socially isolated, individualised world which is entirely a creation of youth culture itself. Modern music, video games, chat rooms and text messaging are not connecting the recipient with the accrued wisdom and understanding of the nation’s cultural heritage. They are means of transmitting youth culture from one participant to another.
Technology allows youth to live continuously in a cultural environment entirely of their choosing, comprising nothing but adolescent outpourings. The cost of producing electronic music is such that any teenager with access to a personal computer can compose, produce and distribute his or her own music. Personal music devices allow youth to live the entire day not connecting with others but hemmed in by a wall of artificial sound.
Modern education exacerbates the alienation of youth from their elders. There was a time when education was the process of learning, absorbing, understanding and mastering the best that one’s culture had to offer. In our times of post-modern educational theories, all texts are equal, and children are now fed a diet of “relevant texts” which will “engage” them. That is to say, they study texts written in their own language. They no longer learn the rules of grammar and learn to speak like well-educated adults. They have their street slang and local idioms fed back to them and affirmed as appropriate means of communication. Children who aspire to master mature concepts are derided as nerds, while those who develop street cred are cool.
The youth of today are further divorced from the older generations by the absence of significant rites of passage in their lives. Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep identified the rite of passage as an essential element of life through which the individual gains access to membership of a community. He noted that the rite of passage usually involved an initial separation from one’s previous clique, a temporary existence on the intervening margin and finally incorporation into the new community.
Traditional rites of passage such as christening or baptism, bar mitzvah, confirmation, graduation, engagement and marriage have lost their central importance in modern life which has become less about preserving and magnifying the cultural heritage of our predecessors and now centres on individual expression. Nowhere is this more graphically illustrated than in the trend towards writing one’s own marriage vows, as if the ceremony (if one bothers to get married at all, that is) is seen as an expression of the couple’s personality rather than an opportunity for them to join a sacred institution.
The absence of significant rites of passage, with the necessary trials, temporary alienation and eventual acceptance into a new and more mature stage of life means that many youths never actually grow up. They remain forever in the adolescent stage of angst, rebellion, protest and destruction and never enter the adult stage of taking on the responsibility to create a better life for future generations.
It is a strange irony when one of these perpetual adolescents recognises the meaningless of her own existence and wishes something better for her own children. Madonna, for example, won’t even let her children watch television. Having based her career on destroying the morality of sex and religion, and having reaped the financial rewards for providing this essential service to the youth of the world, she now realises the error of her ways and refuses to inflict it on her own offspring.
What she is saying is that it's OK for other people’s children to consume her offering of overt sexuality and anti-religious sentiment, but it's not good enough for her own children. But she is not apologising for her previous artistic output, nor is she withdrawing any of her music from the market.
Having been denied legitimate rites of passage, yet still yearning for membership of a congregation, youth invent their own communities and marks of membership. Yet rites of passage such as one’s first experiment with drugs, loosing one’s virginity or the hedonistic mayhem of schoolies week, which often involves both, are no salve for the yearning all young people have to enter into a community which embodies significant meaning. This is because the taking of drugs or the loosing of one’s virginity requires no concerted effort or hard won talent. Consequently the entry into this new congregation bestows no benefit to the new initiate.
Having attained such an easily won status, he or she is left feeling bereft, cheated, regretful and even guilty, and searching for a justification for his or her mistaken transition. Justification can only be found in numbers, and the most common course of action is to encourage others to follow and to belittle those who will not. So youth culture is perpetrated in a vacuum of meaning and without reference to a cultural tradition which is the sole means towards a creative and fulfilling adult life.