Understanding Youth Culture

What Is Culture?
Understanding The Generation Gap

It's often difficult for parents to communicate with their teen age children.  These communication problems between adults and their children have become known as "the generation gap."  The term "generation gap" was first used in the 1960's, but problems in communication between adults and their children appear in some of the most ancient historical records.

Sometimes its difficult to understand why a generation gap that blocks communication should occur.  After all, young people through the ages have faced similar challenges.  Each generation has unique experiences that helped shape their values, attitudes, and behaviors in ways that allow them to meet these challenges.  So why should one generation have so much trouble talking to the other generation about what they are experiencing?  The answer can be summed up in a single word - culture

What Is Culture?

To answer this question I looked up the word "culture" in Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.  I found more to the definition than I had imagined.  After first reading the definitions I walked away confused.  It took some time and thought for me to get a clear grasp of what the definition was trying to say.  Instead of presenting the dictionary definition, which is confusing and difficult to understand, I'm going to present my translation of that definition in a plain and no-nonsense description.

When thinking about culture it's important to understand that it is difficult to be objective because we are locked within a culture and our thinking is shaped, directed and limited by that culture.  Our tendency is to judge anything that challenges our cultures as wrong or bad and to dismiss it out of hand.

Webster gives a series of definitions that shows how our understanding of culture has evolved. 

The concept of culture was born and initially developed in agricultural societies where the growing and harvesting of crops was important o to survival.  The word culture comes from the Latin word cultura which means to till, grow, and cultivate.  The idea of culture started with the comparison of human growth and development to the growing of a crop.  This involves tilling, growing, and cultivating. 

The concept of tilling involves the idea of preparing the ground to plant something.  In terms of human culture, our children are born into a society with a long developmental history that, for better or worse, creates a climate for their growth and development.  Advanced societies spend time and energy trying to understand and create a social climate that will help infants grow into "proper adults."  The concept of what makes a "proper adult", however, is complicated because it is different in each culture.

The concept of growing involves the idea of the thing that was planted comes to life in the prepared soil and begins to develop in accordance with an internally driven life cycle involving birth, growth, maturity, decline, and death.  This internally driven life cycle, however, can be influenced by manipulating the environment in which the plant grows.  In terms of human culture, our children are born with certain innate tendencies, urges and capacities.  But what our children become is not totally driven by these internal or innate tendencies and urges.  They are strongly influenced by their experiences as they interact with the people and things around them.  This leads us to the idea of cultivating.

The concept of cultivating builds upon the idea that not plant grows entirely on it's own.  All plants are dependent upon their environment.  Too much or too little water, the right or wrong kind of soil, too much sun or too much shade - all of these factors outside of the plant determine how it will grow and whether or not it will be able to complete its normal and natural life cycle.  In terms of human culture, we cultivate, shape, influence, and direct the lives of our children.  We want to influence, in a positive way, the course of our children's lives.  We not only take care of our children as they grow, we attempt to influence or direct the course of their growth.  We have definite ideas about what is good for them and bad for them.  We have definite aspirations about what it means for them to succeed and to live a good life.  All of these ideas and aspirations are embedded within the culture in which we live.

So Webster includes a group of specific definitions reflecting this analogy of culture to the cultivating of crops.  Here's what Mr. Webster has to say:  

(1)   Culture is the art, manner, or method of cultivating;  

(2)  Culture is the act of developing by education, discipline, or social experience;  

(3)   Culture is the training or refining of the moral or intellectual faculties;  

(4)   Culture is the state of being cultivated, especially the enlightenment of excellence in taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training;  

(5)   Culture is the refinement in manners, taste, and thought needed to align the individual with the intellectual and artistic content of civilization;  

The idea of culture, however, has gone beyond a simple comparison to cultivating plants.  It has gone on to try a describe the total complexity of human growth and development as reflected in its highest potentials, lowest and crudest limitations, and average or common modes of life.  In this sense, Webster gives us another set of definitions of culture

(6)   Culture is the total pattern of human behavior and its products embodied in thought, speech, action, and artifacts and dependent upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations through the use of tools, language, symbols, and systems of abstract thought;  

(7)   Culture is the body of customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits constituting a unique complex of traditions of a tribal, racial, religious,  social, or national group;  

(8)   Culture is that complex whole that includes knowledge, beliefs, morals, law, customs, opinion, religion, superstition, and art;  a complex typical behavior or standardized social characteristic peculiar to a specific group, occupation, profession, sex, age, sex, age, or social class;  

In my own mind, I think of culture as a specific way of life shared by a group of people.  Our culture produces, within each of us, a distinctive set of beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, reactions, and social reactions that are shared by other members of our cultural group.  These distinctive beliefs and habitual reactions cause us to react to a variety of different circumstances in a way that is similar to how others would react.  It allows our behavior to be understood and accepted by other members in our culture.  

We are all subjected to a process called "enculturation."  Enculturation is the process of learning and internalizing the expectations and prohibitions of our culture from the older generation.  We were each "enculturated" or taught to be members of our culture, by our parents, grandparents, family members, and other members of our community.  In the modern age, we were also taught to be members of our culture by the media.

When we become adults we also participate in the "enculturation" of the younger generation by  transmitting to them our total concept of the culture in which we live.  The primary transmission of cultural beliefs and perceptual habits begin in infancy and results in a firmly established felt-sense cultural identity before a child develops the capacity to think.  

The problem is that there is no single culture.  America is a melting pot of cultures.  As America developed many people coming from many different cultures came to live together.  One culture influenced another and as a result an general "American Culture" emerged and developed.  But although there are certain characteristics that fit us all as Americans, there are numerous American sub-cultures that allow us to form into smaller groups without loosing our cultural identity as Americans.  This brings us to the idea of subcultures.

A subculture is an ethnic, regional, economic, or social group exhibiting characteristic patterns of behavior sufficient to distinguish it from others within an embracing culture or society. 

Our overall American Culture and the numerous subcultures to which we belong are static.  They don't remain rigid and unchanging.  Cultures grow and change in response to experience.  As new ideas and practice come into a cultural group, the culture must react.  This reaction causes some change or adaptation.  

So each generation is enculturated by the previous generation.  But the culture we learn from the older generation is often different from the culture in which we must live as children and teenagers.  As a result, an adolescent or youth subculture develops to help us bridge the gap between the culture we learned from our parents and the culture we need to master in order to belong with people of our own age.  As we grow, mature and develop in life our understanding of our culture begins to change.  So our culture is significantly different from our parent's culture.  

Then we have children.  We begin transmitting to them the cultural beliefs and practices that we have internalized.  But guess what?  Our children move into a new world governed by a cultural that has grown, changed, and adapted to new circumstances.  So, although in many ways we share a wide variety of beliefs and experiences with our children, in other ways we are living within the constraints of different subcultures.  Each of these subcultures has some different beliefs, perceptions of the world, and customary ways of thinking, feeling, and reacting to others.  It is these differences that create the biggest obstacle to communicating with our children.  It is these differences that we call "the generation gap.'

Each generation faces similar challenges, but they face these changes in distinctively different ways.  As a result, each generation has a youth culture that has a distinctive set of characteristics.  This means that there is a history of culture.  By understanding this history, we can begin to understand the similarities and difference between the youth culture in which we raised and the youth culture in which are children our now living.  This knowledge can give us some clues to learning how to bridge the communication gap that often drives a wedge between generations. 

previous | next

Back to Table of Contents