Youth Consumers: How powerful are they?

I’ve been reading a book called “Teenagers: A modern history” for the last few weeks. Its a pretty staid sociological study with an interesting proposition: The categorization of “teenagers” is a modern phenomenon that came around in the 1940s. At that time, marketers were looking for a new way to sell loads of goods to the largest population of people between the ages of 12 and 18 that the U.S. had ever seen – the “baby boomers.”

This tendency towards minimizing the contributions of youth, towards seeing young people as nothing more than robotic consumers of pop culture, didn’t stop with the old days. A lot of people today would say its stronger than ever. Recently, some brilliant economist actually put together the reality that there are actually more youth than seniors in the US today. The fear! The rocket science!

This treatment of young people is literally demeaning. Our society routinely values physical possessions and consumption over community action and social networks. Unfortunately, lately many youth organizations have jumped on this bandwagon too, offering to educate young people about consumer decision-making, and equating the ability to make money to successful civic engagement or progressive social change. [here, here, and here.] Worse still are marketing companies and businesses which appear to have a social mission, but are merely trojan horses into a fiened “youth culture.” [here here.]

They aren’t the same. Organizations that support the struggle of young people to make authentic, empowering change throughout their communities are charged with the vital responsibility of helping young people make meaning of the mess of marketing they participate in everyday. That meaning can only come through critical engagement, where young people actively analyze and identify the purposes of the media and culture they are surrounded with everyday.

The mistake of marketers in the 1940s was underestimating the monster they were trying to cage. By categorically lumping all young people into the same pool, they birthed a scarier being than had ever been imagined. Rather than subduing all young people, they actually incented young people to activate and create the upheaval of the 1960s and early 1970s. Young people today are continuing those struggles, and despite the savvyness of marketing targeted at them, many are throwing aside those shackles and launching the revolution.

Now get educated, get off the Internet, and get into the streets.

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