Our culture sends mixed messages to all young people
David Cameron says the riots are about culture. We should investigate the cultural world of young people. Whether affluent or in poverty, 16-24 year olds feel a unique set of pressures that their elders may not fully understand. For some, these pressures reached boiling point this week. But behind the criminal minority stand countless law-abiding young people, perhaps equally frustrated with their lot. We will need their help to build a more cohesive society – so we should pay attention to what they have to tell us about culture.
I spent the spring this year talking with 120 young Londoners for our study Youth in Transition. We followed these 16-24 year olds shopping, chatting, out with their friends and online.
The study revealed two opposing forces which create a potent cocktail of pressures. On the one hand, youth horizons are raised through an increasingly pervasive social media. On the other, their real-life opportunities are reducing.
Our young participants felt a relentless pressure to have and spend money. They aspire to affluence and believe everyone can be – should be – successful.
Talent TV shows and rags-to-riches stories have fuelled this cultural idea over years. But social media has recently changed the game. Young people now have two-way relationships with the affluent and famous. Instead of watching exotic celebrities from afar, they can speak personally with their idols on Twitter and hear about every detail of their daily lives. Publicists tweet on behalf of their famous clients, plugging albums, shows and luxury brands. The result is to normalise fame and fortune. Young people compare themselves with the most successful, thinking if everyone is rich and famous, why am I still poor and unknown?
It’s too simplistic to say that this would cause someone to steal a TV. But our study showed that young people are deeply frustrated when they live in proximity to luxury brands, yet cannot afford them.
At the same time, daily reality is very different. Young people from deprived backgrounds in London are constrained socially and geographically. “I wouldn’t go to a new area”, one 16 year old girl told me,“I might get beat”. While many would love to move from their area they don’t see how they can. With few jobs on the horizon, these young people told us that the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance, coupled with raised tuition fees, sent them a clear signal that their prospects and education are not valued by society.
Under these circumstances, many of the less affluent youth felt separate from wider society and its regulations. For 17-year-olds living in Elephant and Castle, bendy buses are simply known as “free buses” , because you avoid the driver and always get on at the back without paying. There is no sense of cheekiness or transgression here – just pragmatism. You are a mug to pay for something, if you can get it for free.
Young people from more affluent backgrounds are fighting successfully to get jobs. But they also feel let down – these are not the”good” jobs they assumed would be theirs. They say they feel forced to give their time and energy for free, to get on in the world. While this may be good in the short term, providing more volunteers to fuel the Big Society, there is a risk that young people feel society is exploiting them rather than helping them.
The mixed messages that young people experience do not excuse the behaviour of looters and arsonists. And we must bear in mind that these are the young people’s perceptions of how they are treated, not necessarily facts. But helping youth to build realistic ambitions, and achieve them, will help us create a stronger and more coherent culture where all youth feel valued.Tagged in: london, Riots
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