York mourns the youthquake

Since the Forties, Western culture has looked to youth for inspiration. But, says Peter York, 63, the teens’ game is up. A new generation now sets the agenda. Us

Who would be a teenager now? On top of all their well-documented problems, the breed is becoming extinct. The very idea of an enviable teen-age is disappearing like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. Well, it was only ever, in the great Danny Baker’s words, a “blip in history”. The behaviours that we briefly associated with teenagers are now shared by nine-year-olds and 90-year-olds, while the over-fifties – a lot of whom have kept their cool – sometimes pretend to like things that they really think are rather second-rate and derivative.

But they call the shots now. The over-fifties are 30 per cent of the country and will rise to half by the end of the decade. They hold 80 per cent of the country’s wealth and – with mortgages being paid off and offspring waved off – they have a higher percentage of disposable income than any other group in society. Yet this simple demographic fact seems bizarrely threatening to many producers and creative-industry middlemen. They struggle with it. So let me help them pin it down.

We should start with the war. It created a conflict of consciousness between adolescents in the never-had-it-so-good years and their parents, who had lived through all the privations and tragedy and as a result were rather uptight. Now, in the popular version of events, the younger generation “rebelled into style”; an innocent explosion of self-expression that was hijacked by evil marketing men. In fact, Madison Avenue encouraged the idea of a “generation gap”.

You told this huge emerging market that they could signal their independent, anti-square credentials by buying into certain brands. You told them independence and anti-squareness were the preserve of the young. Then as they got older, you told them they could maintain their youth if they bought into this or that product or service. Though the model was simplistic, it served well enough for 40 or 50 years.

Now it is well and truly broken. To the amazement of the youth themselves, that youthquake is over – in the West, anyway.

This doesn’t mean that the 50-plus generation won’t consume. They’re just not interested in paying deference to the callow stars of a shrinking minority. I am personally against young people, and try whenever possible to tread on their tiny fingers as they clutch the ladder; it’s good for them. And when we look at what we might call the youth consumption industries, there’s a very large group of us who – but for the technological detail of the ‘platforms’ – absolutely understands what is being done.

It makes an enormous difference when there are all these people who know in their bones how, say, the music industry works. It’s because we’ve been through it before and seen it all: a thousand dance crazes, a thousand clubs.

I find it quite tiresome actually. Mature people love the shock of the new, but the producers need to try harder. We can take it or leave it. A woman from our group doesn’t need to find validation in a scent endorsed by Beyoncé. She knows the game, has seen the pattern and heard the patter before – and better.

We are the champions

For all sorts of structural reasons, today’s poor teens will never produce another Morrissey. The world is no longer repressed enough; talent shows and the i-Pod have flattened the music scene forever; and in any case, there’s a lot else for people to do.

Meanwhile, young people are condemned to wearing our cultural cast-offs without knowing their origins. I mean, what else are skinny jeans and pointy boots except drainpipes and winkle pickers? Their parents have been there, done that – and are still doing it, actually. There is no longer a proper generation gap, which is a pity, because it was a lot of fun. (Fascinatingly, middle-aged parents pretend to a generation gap that doesn’t exist because they want it to be there.)

I suppose it’s the curse of prosperity. Many of my friends have been lucky enough to have never really been tied down by mortgages and childcare anyway. They’ve been able to enjoy the fabled leisure time that futurologists once predicted we would all enjoy, and they’ve no intention of stopping now.

And then their spoilt children, who have been bought up being ferried to tennis and soccer and so on, have been influenced by their environment and have adopted shapeless, drab sportswear as their uniform. The North Face – and every piece of sports-derived clothing – is a sin against style. Its wearers should be incarcerated, but it symbolises where affluence has brought us.

Age power

There are other factors at play, too. Botox, for example – which I think is rather marvellous – and Viagra. People tried to portray them as desperate remedies but the 50-justs simply aren’t deterred. This isn’t the same as having a mid-life crisis and buying a Harley. It’s not about a last hurrah, it’s about continuing with something that you’ve had or done all your life (although it is true that we’re still dealing with some of the social niceties).

I was thinking of selling my house a while ago, and this Russian lady came for a viewing. I thought she didn’t like it, as not a single expression passed her face. It was only when she came back with her husband that I realised why.

In this area of  ‘age power’, at least, the Americans are way ahead of the Brits. Over here, if you’re in the creative industries you’re out of the window by the time you’re 32. But in New York and Los Angeles, you’ll see a lot more Blake Carringtons. I suppose it’s because they have a real Hollywood and we want one through adland. But we’ll still catch their cold.

There’s another group of people who don’t conform to the old pattern, too. Everyone used to say that student radicals became comfortable and conformist over time. But more and more, I think, with ordinary people the process is happening the other way round. Compared to today’s young adults,someone born between the late Fifties and early Sixties is seven times less likely to have been in higher education. To get worked up about policy was a luxury in the days of tribal politics. One didn’t have time. But today people have far more time to pursue their own obsessions, particularly on the internet.

As they get older, they know the deal when they read the Daily Mail or the Mirror, and are quite capable of saying, “I’m not sure about this opinion masquerading as news.” The trouble is, that leads to a kind of consumerist politics – Starbucks politics – where you pick and choose. Those poor, few, remaining teenagers are going to grow into very confused adults.

I expect we’ll have to wait a while before the marketing men cotton on to all of this. But I don’t know why they resist the idea of the end of the teen and the rise of the 50-something. Halfway between the two, aged 31 and with defenestration looming, you’d think they welcome the chance to extend their working lives…

Day two of the age debate: Dan Jones writes an elegy for oldsters

Further high50 reading:

Amortality: age is the new youth