Youth Consumption


The increase in the number of teenagers relative to overall U.S. population as well as their relative expendable capital has lead to the increased interest in the development and growth of a teen market.  Companies can now be hired to find the “youthquake—the next great movement to define the millennium,” for teenagers to display on the street what the next popular item will be (Lopiano-Misdom & DeLuca xii).  Through different means, teenagers have control over more money than ever before.  “The typical teen spends an average of $89 a week and one in nine high school kids has a credit card cosigned by a parent” (Michman 142).  This amount is spent on what may be considered more leisure activities or items as opposed to that which is required.  Due to their position teens have a “freedom from necessity,” meaning “they are exempt from adult commitments to the accumulation of economic capital” (Thornton 207).  This ‘freedom’ to spend has been argued by Murray Milner in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids to result in teenagers are no longer “’learn[ing] to labor’” as suggested by Paul Willis, but “’learning to consume’”. 

The question of what is consumed is related to both the taste and therefore identity of the teenage consumer.  One’s taste is related to their position within the social system; taste cultures are groups facilitating “socializing…into a knowledge of (and frequently a belief in) the likes and dislikes, meanings and values of the culture” (Thornton 3).  As such, taste cultures become centered upon aesthetic judgments.  Like Weber’s status groups, these taste cultures consist of “consumption of goods as represented by special ‘styles of life,’” or lifestyles (Weber 193).  Taste cultures then become forms of lifestyle branding, whereby aesthetic judgments are simultaneously tied to commodities and the identity of the consumer.

By using lifestyles, marketers appeal to a “way of life” as opposed to the product itself as a means by which to market items (Cohen 299).  Marketers examine these lifestyle by creating “different clusters of attitudes and behavior” (Zukin & Maguire 183) with which to identify their product, therefore “draw[ing]…sharper distinctions between themselves and their competitors” (Cohen 297).  These lifestyles, which may correspond with practices within the consumer’s life, are transformed into sets of commodities in which their meaning is altered.  These distinctions within and between groups, not necessarily based within class, can then be used as “a suggestion of superiority, an assertion of hierarchy, a possible alibi for subordination” (Thornton 209).

When examining the ‘lifestyle’ choices of the American teenage consumer, one must take into account themes of resistance towards “‘authority’” (Willis 11) and the creation of “Otherness” (Subculture 120).  In general, subcultures place themselves in “an antagonistic relation to the prevailing culture and ideological practices” (Willis xiii).  These themes are not played out outside of ideological practices; however, and occur within the capitalist setting.  Subcultural behavior is transformed into a product by marketers and sold back to the teenage population.  Such organizations “anxiously await… that rebellious and radical surge from youth culture to fuel [their] creative thoughts, ideas and products for tomorrow” (Lopiano-Misdom & DeLuca xii).  Simultaneously, teenagers’ need for collective groups and identity association is often reflected in their consumption practices (Michman 142).   

Style and fashion are often the medium by which this play of identity within consumption is approached.  The role of style within subculture places emphasis on the visual expression of self.  “Image serves for the members of the groups themselves as a means of marking boundaries, of articulating identity and difference” (Hiding 30).  This distinguishing of self from others as “a coherent and distinctive way of ‘being-in-the world” becomes a process of using commodities from the dominant culture as signs (Clarke et al 54).  Marketers then respond to the use of such commodities but marketing resistance back to the subculturalist.  While the goal of ‘resistance’ within the style is disputed, the stylized display is one of undoubtedly communicating identity as a member of one group or lifestyle as opposed to others.

The origin of ‘alternative’ fashion engages arguments over agency.  While subculturalists display power through creating fashion, urging marketers to look to the ‘street’ for new trends, trends are also sold back to the population studied.  “Young people are caught in a paradox.  They drive themselves to extremes to create space in which to be themselves.  Yet, the commercial machine they think they’re escaping is always on their back, ready to sell them something new” (Hine 281).  The media also acts as a catalyst to this relationship, whereby popular artists associated with particular taste cultures are looked to for new trends as well as aid in the dissemination of fashion.  Through such forms the media aids in the process of defusion and diffusion of subcultural style.

In the process of mass production, fashion is removed from its original context. “Through defusion, the subversive potential of subcultural style is sanitized, commercially, through…commodification…into mainstream fashion” (Muggleton 132).  Within this alteration process, genre boundaries are often crossed in order to increase profitability and messages are often altered.  A “desirable youth market” is created with “rebellion and opposition to the mainstream [transformed] into a fad” (Brooks 2, 4). 

Diffusion, “the actual geographical and social dispersal of the style from the original nucleus of innovators to new and mass publics,” is carried out through mass media forms as well as local shopping venues (Muggleton 132).  One of the most prominent venues of teen consumption is the mall.  Consisting of a multitude of chain stores, malls function to bring an array of current trends to singular centralized locations within suburban sprawls.  Malls act as a public space within such large geographic areas and are often used by teens as locations to ‘hang out’.  This does not mean that spending does not occur, however, with teens spending $3,000 on average each per year (Grover).  Because these teens are often middle-class, they are sometimes called “poseurs,” implying they are posing to be members of the subculture through fashion, and are therefore inauthentic relative to “[h]ardcores [, who] tend to be older and established on the subcultural scene, working-class in origin and male” (Muggleton 153).

Through the defusion and diffusion processes both the ‘Otherness’ of the subculture is minimized , allowing it to become a “pure, simple, raging, commercial success,” which draws the contempt of ‘authentic’ members of the subculture (Clarke et al 66) as well as takes part in the labeling process.  The “forbidden content” in “forbidden forms” was no longer forbidden; “they become codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise” (Subculture 96).  This process is not linear, however, and a constant dialectic occurs between resistance and incorporation.  The process is sped up, however, with increasing media proliferation (Muggleton 132).   

Clarke, John et al. “Subcultures, Cultures and Class: A Theoretical Overview.” Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain.  London: Harper Collins, 1976.

Cohen, Lizabeth.  A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.  New York: Random House, 2003.

Grover, Mar Beth.  “Teenage Wasteland”.  Forbes.  28 Jul, 1997.

Hebdige, Dick.  Hiding In the Light.  New York: Routledge, 1988.

Hebdige, Dick.  Subculture: The Meaning of Style.  New York: Routledge, 1979.

Hine, Thomas.  The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager.  New York: Bard, 1999.

Lopiano-Misdom, Janine & Joanne DeLuca.  Street Trends: How Toda’s Alternative Youth Cultures are Creating Tomorrow’s Mainstream Markets  New York :  Harper Business,  1997.

Michman, Ronald D., Edward M. Mazze, and Alan J. Greco.  Lifestyle Marketing: Reaching the New American Consumer.  Westport: Praeger, 2003.

Milner, Murray Jr.  Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption.  New York: Routledge, 2004.

Muggleton, David.  Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style.  New York: Berg, 2000.

Thornton, Sarah.  Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital.  Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.

Weber, Max.  From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology.  New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1946.

Willis, Paul.  Learning To Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Zukin, Sharon & Jennifer Smith Maguire. “Consumers and Consumption”. Annual Review of Sociology, 30 (2004): 173-97.