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Lecture notes for youth culture and the culture of the 50s

Historians who have studied post-World War Two youth cultures have looked to the quietly turbulent 1950s as a precursor of the openly turbulent 1960s. In this view, the cultural contradictions of the 1950s—and the struggles that grew out of them—were the first shock waves of the countercultural earthquake that shook mainstream American society in the 1960s. Teen films and rock'n'roll served as oppositional benchmarks for the emerging counterculture. For those historians who are fans of the oppositional—as most historians of youth culture today are—1950s middle-class youth are not dull conformist patsies for the corporate consumerist state, but pre-revolutionaries, as it were. While some of these historians note the complex nature of 1950s rebellion that combined oblique resistance to mainstream culture along with accommodation, most assume that the legacy was positive.

Scholars studying the 1960s counterculture have largely divided between two seemingly dissimilar perspectives. One view attacks the counterculture as being the products of overindulged suburban brats , while the other view celebrates the counterculture as saviors of an America that was fast approaching a failure of its soul due to the massive buildup of hubris and smug material self-satisfaction in its ever-more restricted veins. In Unfinished Journey, a perceptive synthesis of post-1945 America, William Chafe maintains a more balanced approach. He first praises the spirit and the message of the counterculture, tracing its roots to 1950s rock'n'roll and the Beats. Later on, however, he argues, "Reared in consumer culture and glutted with the goodies it provides, many adherents of the counter culture proved unable to shed the impulse to acquisitiveness that had become so internalized during the earlier years....In its own way, therefore, the counterculture simply became an additional market for corporate America, it own fierce conformity providing a ready outlet for new, up-to-date variants of the old affluent society."

But middle-class youth had been a market since the 1950s, not only for corporate America, but for any entrepreneur who had the vision, moxie, dumb luck, and start-up capital to create, produce and distribute a commodity that would be valued by mainstream youth. Indeed, the very sources Chafe and others cite as roots of the 1960s oppositional youth culture—rock'n'roll, teen films, even the books of the Beats—were commodities that were incorporated into the consumer capitalist system. Implicit in the generational discourse developed during the 1950s was that oppositional culture was created through consumer culture, and that this was a "natural" occurrence. My argument here is that those participating in the counterculture did not simply succumb to consumerism because of their upbringing, but that the very texts that created the opportunities for an oppositional culture simultaneously limited those opportunities and helped produce the contradictions that led to its downfall.

Both the middle-class youth and the cultural producers were a part of their larger culture and it is there we should start our investigation. During the post-war period, the number of people earning a middle-class income increased substantially. These well-paying jobs, along with the GI Bill, the expansion of credit, and the development of low-cost suburban developments, enabled more Americans to acquire various parts of the American Dream—home ownership, several automobiles, a college education, the promise of upward mobility. The mainstream media preached that the nuclear family would now be secure. Mom would be able to stay at home with the kids—lots of them, because the baby business was booming—and Dad would be able to bring home the requisite bacon.

But this vision was rife with contradictions. The economic expansion was sustained largely by military Keynsianism justified by the Cold War, which helped to trigger a wide variety of anxieties. The more sinister the threat from worldwide communism, the greater the need for more missiles, highways, aircraft and other high-ticket jobs programs. One nasty by-product of all this anxiety was the vast anti-communist apparatus that sprang up during this time to root out all commies, com symps, and other degenerates—not forgetting homosexuals, who posed as great a threat to the American Way of Life as did Godless Communism. And while many pundits and politicians swore that poverty was fast disappearing, ideology was ending, and American was becoming One Big Nation Under God, signs kept popping up everywhere contradicting this notion.

During this period, African-Americans began demanding their basic civil rights, gay advocacy groups advanced the radical theory that homosexuality was not a disease, and poverty seemed unable to behave as it was supposed to—it kept creeping forward, as more Americans fell below the poverty line. And despite all claims to the contrary, the nuclear family was really a mess. Experts blamed women for an array of problems within the family, from their husband's anxieties, cholesterol level, and impotence, to their children's alienation from society, juvenile delinquency, and spoiled natures. Suburban white women, meanwhile, increased their usage of vallium by 400%. White middle-class men, anointed by the mainstream discourse as the natural leaders of society, were finding that the corporation had appropriated most of their economic control, working wives presented a challenge to their notion of the Competent Breadwinner, and the threat of nuclear holocaust had undermined any faith that they had in controlling their own destiny. Those in control of mainstream discourses during this time worked very hard to gloss over these contradictions, to continually reassert just what "normal" was, and to punish those who strayed outside that definition. But these broad attempts at conformity simply increased anxiety, as a number of intellectuals began questioning the fate of the mainstream discourse's most prized myth, individualism.

Perhaps nowhere did the contradictions of the mainstream discourse reveal themselves as with its obsession with youth. Youth were "our kids," members of the idealized family, but the were also "the juvenile delinquent," "the rebel," or more clinically, "the typical teen." Sometimes youth were belonged to one monolithic group—"kids today"—but sometimes they were divided into "good" and "bad" kids, which often suggested divisions between races, classes and ethnic groups in some unspoken way. Youth were suddenly powerful, shapers of society, but they were also helpless victims, pawns in the hands of machinating advertising agencies; they were the hope for the future, they were a threat to Western civilization.

The structures of consumer capitalism helped create a white middle-class subculture that was socialized to see themselves as the natural inheritors of societies perquisites, but who were restricted from exercising control over many of these perquisites. Middle-class youth were thus both within and outside mainstream culture—a condition exacerbated by the mainstream culture's schizophrenic approach to youth during the 1950s—and generationalism reflects this contradiction. The generational discourse contained messages that were both oppositional and accomodationist toward the culture that they—as a group—would most likely enter with the passage of time.