Is Alternative Culture Youth Culture?

Many people may experience pressure to “act adult” if they participate in culture that deviates from current social norms. Is alternative culture inherently youth culture? Are the cultural experiences that often profoundly impact our youth ephemeral commercial products targeting a young demographic or can they have substantial content that enriches our lives throughout our lives?

If they can be part of our adult lives, then why are alternative music, clothing, and even some political cultures so closely associated with youth? Perhaps the association is so strong because alternative cultures rarely are able to provide their participants with careers and communities they can participate in at every stage of life. Because so few options exist, youth that don’t have a need for career and homes in which to raise their own families are often much freer to participate in alternative culture. Once they begin to enter adulthood most participants abandon alternative cultures in order to assimilate into the norm out of a need to acquire employment and acceptance from the communities where they will be raising their own families.

Alternative cultures can play an important part in cultural diversity and in some cases can be thought of as a mechanism by which something like new ethnicities can be born. Diverse collections of communities with porous boundaries allow people to find a way of living that they are truly consensual to and enthusiastic about participating in. This arrangement probably require less coercion since the participants are more consensual and the productivity of the participants throughout their lives is probably much higher due to higher levels of satisfaction and enthusiasm. Encountering a diverse set of ways of living and related problem solving approaches can also create a society that is better able to experiment, transmit knowledge and perceive generalities that find unity amongst diversity. Diverse societies may also inspire better international relations since there is a better chance that a nation has members in subcultures that people from other parts of the world can relate to.

If all of these benefits are to be had, then why does the “alternative culture is youth culture” stigma persist? Perhaps the answer can be found in the economics of employment, investment and manufacturing. In a society based on mechanical production there are high costs associated with preparing a factory for producing a particular product and a substantial amount of upfront investment. In order to better ensure that initial costs will be recovered, businesses often focus on making very generic goods and services in order to maximize the size of the potential market. If the only alternative to this system is manual production, then the costs associated with creating alternative products and services for a smaller market often makes it difficult to impossible to build a successful business. Because the most successful businesses are those creating the most generic products, these businesses often become the major employers. Therefore, most people find themselves consuming generic goods and services, and working for employers that produce them.

Is there a way to escape this systemic pull towards the norm? Perhaps the answer lies with small and personal scale technologies that enable small groups with modest investments to create high quality jobs, goods and services that support the participants in their subcultures at all life stages.

Open source hardware and software have already made significant progress towards realizing these goals, however, the tools available today may still be more like dot matrix printers than the high quality, full color devices that would produce items with the properties we desire. We can find hope in the fact that the fundamental science seems to support the notion that these devices have the potential to continue to improve.

We can start work today by building the cultural conventions and avant-guard proof of concept designs that will prepare the way for an exciting, diverse society where the individual participants are less alienated from the process of creation and its benefits.

Rational Skeptic. Hopeful Seeker.