Our culture sends mixed messages to all young people

IN23765679epa02863103 Polic1 300x187 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.

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  • alanpaul1

    jonathan kearnes, you are quite right that there are stresses and strains affecting Israeli society which UK would not want….but please remember that the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland were, in some (but not all) respects, not dissimilar to the security issues faced by the population at large in Israel…so in a sense at least part of UK society has had to face these similar demons…

  • Bret Tom O’Hawks

    If you stop benefits for those who have never worked and will not work or cannot work then they will resort to crime to support themselves. The situation will not be improved by removing benefits.

    Maybe a better solution is the state helping the work-less to find work by giving them the means to get the education and skills that employers need and an economy that can sustain permanent full-time work that pays a sensible wage.

  • Bret Tom O’Hawks

    You seem to be wrong in thinking that countries with greater wealth inequality (India) have relative ‘tranquility’:

    Post-Godhra riots, 2002 Gujarat, India,
    The riots of Mau, October 2005, India,
    Rajkumar death riots, April 2006, India,
    Riots in Kashmir, 2010, India,
    Riots in Assam, 2011, India, (twice),
    Riots in Ganjam, Orissa ,2011, India,
    Riots in Pimpri-Chinchwad, 2011, India.
    [Wikipedia, List of Riots]

    “Gujarat witnessed the highest number of strikes and other forms of
    labour unrest in recent times on account of various financial and
    disciplinary issues, the Economic Survey said on Friday.”
    [The Economic Times, Feb 25, 2011, 04.10pm IST]

    “Stock Market plunge sparks violent protest in Bangladesh”
    [Russia Today, Jan 10, 2011]

  • Bret Tom O’Hawks

    What would society be like if the poor were to suddenly vanish into thin air tomorrow?
    Where would inflation be if all of the unemployed were to suddenly get jobs tomorrow?
    Who are more responsible for the current problems of this country: The rich and powerful who own the land and set the rules of the land for all of us to live by or is it the uneducated and powerless underclass?

  • Bret Tom O’Hawks

    -eh? This Government isn’t running society in a pragmatic manner, it’s creeping along like it’s got a broken leg.

    If I rob you then that would be slightly naughty but if you rob me than that would be totally obscene and offensive to all decent morality and so you must be rushed into prison, before you can arrange a defence, for two years and your family evicted from their home and left out on the streets, hoping no-one notices that it’s illegal.

  • Starhelm

    If the underclass vanished there would be more space for the rest of us;
    If ‘they’ got jobs they could buy their goods from Poundland and not have to steel from Nokia; and finally 
    the responsibility for the current problems lay squarely with labour and liberal cleverly-focused sentimentality who, without having to engage with their brains. have made a very good living out of administering to and increasing the numbers of the underclass 

  • chewingthefat

    “No, this was about people showing indifference to right and wrong, people with a twisted moral code, people with a complete absence of self-restraint.

    A David Cameron quote in reference to A/ MP’s expenses B/ Corporate Bankers C/ Rioters 

    You’ve got it it’s C. Any white collar crime which MP’s or banker types get involved in do not come to public attention through politicians but through the press. They don’t give a hoot about substantial fraudulent or immoral behaviour when it is one of their own that is perpetrating it. The working class take to the streets and all the usual draconian word play comes into effect. The leading political/economic discourse is still firmly placed in the feudalism. HYPOCRITES the lot of yoos. I predict a riot!!!!!

  • Bret Tom O’Hawks

    Today on the BBC website, 16 August 2011 Last updated at 21:58:

    “India has denied it is stifling democratic protest after police arrested
    1,300 people to halt a hunger strike by an anti-corruption activist.”

    The tranquillity in India continues…

  • Bret Tom O’Hawks

    The UK isn’t the only country that has a growing problem with an underclass; the result of a growing problem that many countries have with their economies. It’s the wealthy and powerful who are responsible for and control the economy. The poor have always been with us and that’s not likely to change – unless you alone know something about economics that no-one else does.
    There are simply not enough jobs for everyone.
    Sadly, hope has now been lost for those in the underclass as the Government is restricting social mobility through it’s policies.

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