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If You Can't Join'Em, Boss 'Em Around . . . and Imitate Them

Boomer-driven society is both intimidated by and covetous of youth culture.

September 25, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The guy standing on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive is all that. Hawaiian shirt, convertible cargo pants, silver wraparounds, Razor scooter--a portrait of Generation Y.

Except he's 40 if he's a day.

Watching him, it is almost impossible to argue against the influence teenagers have on American culture. Never has a generation been so scrutinized so early by so many. From the moment they could lisp "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," they have been poked and prodded relentlessly by an army of marketing analysts desperate to cash in on the next merchandising trend. Any move they make, including toward a real counterculture--the Riot Grrrls, 'zines, raves--is jotted down and within a week has a corporate sponsor.

The retail and entertainment industries pant over their numbers: 30 million teenagers wielding $122 billion in purchasing power. Only 16% of the total population, they buy 25% of the movie tickets, and 71% of teens have bought at least one CD in the last three months. Start-up networks like Fox and the WB consider teens their bread and butter, luring them with age-targeted dramas including the now-iconic "Dawson's Creek" and "Felicity."

But obsession often spawns dichotomies, and in the American zeitgeist, teens wear two masks as distinct and disturbing as the madonna/whore image women have fought for centuries. Even as they are celebrated as the increasingly autonomous uber-citizens of the millennial prosperity, they are also characterized as both endangered and dangerous, difficult to control and prone to violence.

Yes, they have their own cell phones, but they also increasingly have law-enforced curfews; yes, they have their own cyber-cafes, but those who break the law will find themselves not in Juvenile Hall but in the very adult prison system. In California, the three-strikes legislation extends to juveniles.

The recent Federal Trade Commission report chastising the entertainment industry for marketing products with violent content to children under 17 found a rapt audience. This country now views teen culture in terms of pre- and post-Columbine, when the video games, rap lyrics and Goth culture that adults had previously viewed only with distaste suddenly became public safety hazards.

Even before the 1999 Columbine school shooting, the term "super predator" had crashed into the vernacular, creating from a relative few horrific attacks an image of a new and frightening teen subspecies who raped and killed just for kicks. The media fed the frenzy with stories of teens shooting their parents, their siblings, their classmates; preteens robbing and beating and sometimes killing as well.

Tragic, yes. A trend? No. In fact, FBI reports show that since 1970 violent crime among young people nationwide has consistently dropped by as much as 40%.

Yet even as these numbers have dropped, cities large and small across the country continue to impose restrictions on teens, including curfews. In parts of Southern California, teens under 18 are not allowed to drive without an adult. Many schools now require uniforms--and no matter how derelict the high school, there will always be a dress code. The rising price and competition for college admission has equaled the decline in quality of secondary education, yet the public outcry over violence in the classroom matches the focus on lack of learning.

"It really is two very different things," says David Blankenhorn, director of the Institute for American Values in New York. "On the one hand, teens are in the driver's seat when it comes to pop culture, but then you look at public policy, and it's very different--we want to make sure they wear their uniforms. . . . What I find very troubling is trying children as adults, which seems very harsh and punitive."

According to Enola Aird, director of the institute's Motherhood Project, this may be more of a continuum than a contradiction. "We want teens to be adults for our consumer purposes," she says. "We want to liberate them from their parents so they will make their own choices, so we cultivate rebellion. But then they are liberated, and suddenly you have something that is uncontrollable. And so we are suddenly afraid."

Fear of Free-Wheeling Youths Goes Way Back

The fear of young people, especially young people en masse, is not a new thing.

"The custom of permitting boys to ramble about the streets by night is productive of the most serious and alarming consequences to their morals," wrote one Philadelphia journalist in 1791. "Assembled in corners and concealed from every eye, they can securely indulge themselves in mischief of every kind."

For as long as there have been juveniles, adults have railed against juvenile delinquency--it continues to be one of the few issues uniting the political left and right. And young people do commit crimes, often heinous ones: In 18th century America, children as young as 12 were hanged for murder, jailed for theft, arson and assault.

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