Today's modern industrialised societies are often said to have a “cult of youth”, a worship of the idea of being young. This could be linked to our consumerist culture and the constant search for new products and experiences. The “seductive power [of objects of consumption] lies mostly in their not having been experienced before [and] the young, by definition, fit the bill … as objects of consumption” (Bauman 2007: 59). This positions youth as desirable but not respected, a thing to be possessed but not admired.
We see an example of this in the idea of the “trophy wife” or “toy boy”, a young person valued as a possession for their youth (and the physical attractiveness that implies) and nothing more, a status item for an older person to show off their wealth and power, no different than a fast car or expensive jewelery.
Such ornamentation, be it material possessions or people, shows that the possessor has means enough to waste on frivolous extravagances. This demonstration of “the capacity and the willingness to use power is a form of power in the social world” (Docherty 2004: 863), granting greater status and influence.
The origins of this tendency to value young people as objects to be owned may lie in the process of industrialisation and the “factory-based system in which accumulated experience mattered less than strength, endurance, and speed” (Barnes Lipscomb & Marshall 2010: 12), making young workers a valuable commodity to factory owners. No longer was a person valued for their skill and experience, now the body was valued for its physical characteristics and pressure began to build on people to stay young (and therefore valuable) by whatever means. “Youthfulness itself was promoted as an advantageous state that could ensure continued health, beauty and employment” (Barnes Lipscomb & Marshall 2010: 12).
We see this in the way that luxury products are promoted and advertised. For women there is an emphasis on maintaining a youthful appearance and hiding all signs of aging. For men the focus is more on self-perception; the pitch is to sell an idea of youthfulness, of vitality and relevance.
Youth is seen in this context as a state of “maximum aliveness”, a refutation of deterioration and death, and attempting to cling to youth is a “search for immortality … denial of death [and a] refusal to acknowledge finite embodiment” (Greening 1992: 112). “Traditionally gloomy stereotypes of decline, decrepitude and dependency” (Katz 2001: 27) feed into this creating a sense of resentment and envy towards the young and the perception that young people are, in their ignorance, wasting this most valuable of commodities. Youth, as a quality, is desired, but those who possess it are often seen to be undeserving of it.
This attitude encourages the exploitation of youth; if they're not exploiting this resource to its maximum potential then it becomes reasonable (in some people's eyes) to exploit it “on their behalf”. Of course, this benefits the exploiter rather than the exploited, but since the resource is “going to waste” otherwise it can seem more reasonable to those who view it from this perspective.
A part of this is the changing nature of adulthood. Young people today “[belong] to a generation whose historical situation is markedly discontinuous with their parents'” (Blatterer 2007: 98) where the traditional markers of adulthood (such as marriage, children and a steady career) happen later in life or not at all. People who grew up with these expectations often see the younger generations as deliberately resisting the pressure to grow up, continuing in an extended adolescence.
Young people who “refuse to model their behavior on what the parent culture considers appropriate” (Brooks 2003: 1) are seen as a threat to society and to themselves. “These oppositional classifications of young people as either dangerous or in danger pathologize youth and youth culture” (Brooks 2003: 1) and serve to reinforce the idea that young people need to be reigned in and controlled, for their own sake as well as for the good of everyone else.
Not only do young people “need” to be exploited for the benefit of older, more powerful people, but for their own benefit as well. Again, this is viewed as a waste of resources. If being young is the ideal state then one has an almost moral imperative to make the most of it. If childhood is preparation for “real life” and young people in today's world are spending their entire youth on this preparation stage then that leaves none left for the “real life” stage.
Another factor is the modern trend for “youth [to] have more money for consumption, [consume] more at an earlier age and [to] have an even stronger influence on family consumption” (Wasko 2008: 461). For this reason, youth as a commodity is sold to youth. Although this sort of marketing tends to present a more positive image of youth, it is still one carefully curated and controlled for the benefit of those selling the product.
In this context, young people are seen as a resource to be exploited. The question is how to extract the most money from them and often includes attempts to control young people's perceptions of themselves and their place in society, to position them as more pliant consumers, more willing to spend in order to attain the ideal promoted by marketers and more willing to be exploited for others' benefit.
This feeds back into the idea of youth as the ideal, as people who find themselves moving out of the youth demographic begin to worry that they are no longer part of the contemporary zeitgeist. This paves the way for the transition from being part of youth culture to the desire to possess youth; an opportunity to move from the position of being desired to being one of the powerful who owns and controls.
But for those who cannot (or believe they cannot) attain such a position of power there is a desperation to remain in the position of being desired. If one cannot possess youth then the only acceptable alternative is to be young. When neither option is within reach then people become desperate.
To this end we see people indulging in cosmetic surgery as a way to retain the desirable aspects of youth. People seek to create “a false [idealised] self created by the myth of agelessness” (Ringel 1998: 429). This false self allows them to hold at bay their impending loss of value as a commodity, at least in their own mind.
The popular phrase “youth is wasted on the young” neatly encapsulates our society's attitude towards youthfulness; we consider youth to have intrinsic value and covet it, but we don't respect those who have it. The value we place on youth is entirely separate to the value judgments we make about young people, and this leaves people with internal conflicts. The young, possessing a quality so in demand, feel entitled to respect that they don't receive, while the rest pine for that quality which they no longer possess.
All this results in young people feeling very uncertain and conflicted about their own worth or value, simultaneously wanting to be seen as an adult, to “grow up”, but also clinging to their youth, fearful of letting this precious time slip through their fingers. This uncertainty about their place in society and what they should be striving for leaves many young people adrift in indecision, “keeping the future open” (Blatterer 2007: 102) rather than making concrete plans or setting definite goals.
“There is a fear of planning, for it holds within it the possibility of closure, of finitude” (Blatterer 2007: 103), and that is what links the young with the old. To age is to approach the end. It's this fear of death, of the body “that inevitably dies from aging, disease, assault or accident” (Greening 1992: 112), that creates the “cult of youth”, and the “cult of youth” sustains the fear by projecting it onto the younger generations by placing them in the positon of society's focus, envied and desired, but oppressed and controlled. We are taught to fear ageing and avoid it at all costs, but until we accept it we can never be respected.
Barnes Lipscomb, Valerie and Marshall, Leni (2010) Staging Age: The Performance of Age in Theatre, Dance, and Film. Palgrave Macmillan.
Bauman, Zygmunt (2007) 'Society Enables and Disables' in Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research 9 (1) Feb 2007: 58-60.
Blatterer, Harry (2007) Coming of Age in Times of Uncertainty: Redefining Contemporary Adulthood. Berghahn Books.
Brooks, Karen (2003) 'Nothing Sells Like Teen Spirit: The Commodification of Youth Culture', pp. 1-16 in Kerry Mallan and Sharyn Pearce (eds), Youth Cultures: Texts, Images, and Identities. Praeger.
Docherty, Jayne Seminare (2004) 'Power in the social/political realm' in Marquette Law Review 87 (4) Jun 2004: 862-866.
Greening, Thomas (1992) 'Existential Challenges and Responses' in The Humanistic Psychologist 20 (1) Aug 2010: 111-115.
Katz, Stephen (2001) 'Growing older without aging? Positive aging, anti-ageism, and anti-aging' in Generations-Journal Of The American Society On Aging 25 (4) 2001: 27-32.
Ringel, Eileen (1998) 'The Morality of Cosmetic Surgery for Aging' in JAMA Dermatology 134 (4) April 1998: 427-431.
Wasko, Janet (2008) 'The Commodification of Youth Culture' pp. 460-474 in Kirsten Drotner and Sonia Livingstone (eds), International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture. SAGE Publications Ltd.