Aging and Subcultures
Many individuals, including scholars and academics, have connected the concept of subcultures to youth. However, can subcultural participation truly be defined as a youth phenomenon? Many researchers have begun to investigate the changing roles of aging subcultural participants in relation to their younger counterparts. Rather than simply growing up and out of the scene completely, many adherents continue their participation, balancing it with a desire to conform to societal expectations for appropriate adult behavior.
Beyond Youth in Subcultures
Interaction with one’s subculture and subcultural identity is a repeated process of engagement and examination that does not cease with the process of aging. The aging process simply moves subcultural participation to perhaps more conventional or socially expected trajectories. Adults who ‘phase’ out of their subcultural scenes often transition from evident expressions of style and adopt an “internalized code” that is reflected primarily in lifestyle choices (Haenfler 2014:141). Values and ideals cultivated in subcultures are reflected in politics (Girls’ Rock Camps), mentor relationships, and careers. These mentoring relationships allow older subculturists to model positive adult participation. Many naturally move from subcultural involvement to conventional careers, such as graffiti writers making more conventional art. Subcultural identities can also provide subcultural capital that supports entry into deviant careers, such as tattoo artists and drug dealers (Haenfler 2014:147). There is great value in observing and learning from the subcultural dialogue around “growing up,” revealing how notions of adulthood are truly socially constructed.
Declining Participation of Aging Subculturists
As physical appearance (i.e. “fitting in”) and time management rise in importance as individuals age, adult subcultural participation tends to decline as a result. Because active participation (expressed through clothing, events, etc.) can inhibit individuals’ abilities to function as members of greater society, they often have to make sacrifices. Recent sociological research demonstrates that the participation of aging subculturists moves away from community-oriented events and increasingly toward personalized modes of participation (Hodkinson 2011:265). With the development of adulthood responsibilities, aging subculturists take on more obligations that conflict with the core elements of rave culture, for example. Paul Hodkinson’s study of older goths reveals that participation generally declined as they afforded a greater priority to full-time work and family. Female participants, especially, experience constraint and a cultural pressure to tone down their subcultural participation in order to fulfill their motherly duties. Commitments relating to family and children limit their own participation. Aging subculturists’ social networks and friends tend to drop out of the scene due to these same responsibilities, which causes a decline in community-oriented participation (Hodkinson 2013:15). With these adult responsibilities comes an emerging sense of “age appropriateness.” For example, many older subculturists stand in the back of music events and avoid wearing certain types of youth-labeled clothes and adornments, illustrating “appearance flexibility.” At a certain age, individuals often begin to develop identities which others regard as suitable for middle-aged persons (Hodkinson 2013:16). For most aging subculture participants, retaining a youthful identity is not a priority. They tend to develop distinct identities that reflect their years of experience within the group. Some see themselves as subcultural “forefathers” who hand over the outwardly spectacular forms of participation to the new generation The aging subcultural population must learn to “negotiate their continued involvement with adult practicalities, responsibilities, bodies and identities” (Hodkinson 2013:17). In general, the fatigue of physical aging contributes to fewer and shorter nights out, and this directly equates to less communal subcultural participation (Hodkinson 2011:271).
Relations Among Participants from Different Generations
While many aging subculturists experience a de-intensification of participation (such as attending less large-scale events and drawing less attention to themselves through appearance flexibility), some older adherents continue their commitment to the subcultural lifestyle. Youthful subculturists often label these heavily participatory older adherents as in “age-denial” and claim that their participation lacks real substance (Hodkinson 2013:14). When aging subculturists indulge in youthful forms of behavior, it can create tension between the two populations. A punk subculturalist from Marta Marciniak’s study stated, “what pisses me off today is that young people don’t have respect toward the older crewman. I have always had this respect.” (Marciniak 2015:216). Some young subculturists view older participants as burdens, sticking around a young person’s scene rather than letting younger bands send messages that may be more relevant to the changing audiences. Many older subculture participants romanticize past eras, such as 70s punk. Friction emerges when aging subculturists, wanting to preserve their traditional ways and set an example for younger generations, neglect to give young participants freedom to create their own space in the subculture. Older subculturists stay relevant in their scenes because they “continue to talk about issues that are commonly ignored” (Marciniak 2015:218). A subculture’s core values, unlike its adherents and modes of participation, change much less across generations. In different communities, the younger generation takes ideas from the older generation and makes changes as they see fit for their current context (Marciniak 2015:220).
Paul Hodkinson explores the impact of subculture of family life on subcultural involvement, particularly among goths. While most goths identified family life as their primary reason they saw for people leaving the scene, subcultural involvement and parenthood are not necessarily incompatible. For instance, some retailers have even started carry goth-themed baby clothing and larger goth festivals create accommodations for children and families with childcare and events such as the children’s disco. Growing accommodations such as these make it easier for parents to continue to participate in the subculture despite the demands of family life. Many goths who remain in the scene allow their family and subcultural lives to blend into each other rather than remaining two completely separate spheres. This true of many subcultures, as parents fin ways to incorporate family life into their preexisting subcultural participation.
Aging in Specific Subcultures
Punks, for instance, age in a variety of ways. Some do find aging and the scene to be incompatible, leaving punk entirely after college or young adulthood. Aging, however, is a delicate balance.Many punks look down on both those who leave the scene and those who remain stagnant. Ideas of age-appropriateness can permeate even the most resistant scenes. As one punk said about his aging peers who still maintain punk style in hair and dress, “Dude, I don’t want to tell people to act their age cuz you’re still gonna play in punk bands, but haven’t you learned, don’t you see the same thing that I see . . . keeping up with shit, it’s silly, it’s what kids do; when you get older, it seems like you should have a little more dignity” (Davis 2006: 66). This expectation of aging with ‘dignity’ can drop when it comes to punk legends and career punks. Many are willing to accept older punks continued commitment to dramatic style, if they have some perceived amount of success. The element of resistance in punk does seem to continue into old age. While the constant anger may dissipate, many older punks do embrace all things rebellious and anti-establishment (Bennett and Taylor 2012:240). Punks may age differently, but the ones who gain the most acceptance generally leave the more performative, stylistic elements of punk and hold onto the rebellious ideals central to punk.
In queer scenes, many reject ideas of age-appropriateness and normative aging, continuing to attend gigs and dance parties, be sexually open, and take drugs recreationally. These continued activities in queer scenes disrupt conventional, heteronormative ideas of aging. Unlike punks who seemed to grow less performative as they aged, many queer subculturists seemed to grow more performative with age. Restricted in terms of style at work, many embrace the opportunity ‘frock-up’ with extravagant dress and style (Taylor 2012:32). While people may not be able engage with the queer scene as frequently in adulthood, they often feel even more deeply connected to it as a reprieve from otherwise conventional lives. Of course, many others do reject the queer scene as they age, particularly as more traditional avenues of marriage and family become increasingly open to queer people.
Written my Regan Kasprak, Naomi Runders, and Lauren Yi 2016
Andy Bennett is a cultural sociologist at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, an Australian institute that integrates humanities and social science research to approach the complex issues impacting contemporary society (Griffith University 2016). Bennett applies this lens to his studies of youth culture and popular music, contending that music becomes an increasingly critical marker of individuals’ identity in a subculture in the process of aging. Bennett has written several publications, including Music, Style, and Aging, that address the shift in expression as subculturists undergo physical changes and adopt responsibilities associated with adulthood. Bennett finds that aging subculturists give less importance to the stylized assertion of membership (fashion, body modification) that often defined them in their youth; rather, aging individuals often recognize music as the source of their identity and essence of a subculture.
Paul Hodkinson is a professor at the University of Surrey, has written many well-known pieces of academic literature such as “Goths, depression and self-harm – reflections on Bowes et al’s study” and his book “Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture.” Hopkinson explores contemporary sociologists’ transition from solely studying youth populations within subcultures to aging bodies and those who continue their participation beyond their teens. Hodkinson illuminates the role of these enduring subcultural identities and broadens the reader’s understanding of fluid identity development. Hodkinson’s work challenges the popular assumption that older subcultural participants merely take up space in the youthful scene and, in some ways, just refuse to grow up. Some of the key elements that prevent full adult participation in subcultural scenes, such as family and work, take priority as individuals age. Aging subculturists must conform to society’s idea of “age-appropriateness” to support themselves.
Dr. Jodie Taylor is an Australian Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Griffith Centre for Cultural Research and a Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at SAE Creative Media Institute. She focuses on the study of music and queer culture and has a PhD in Critical Musicology. Taylor wrote the book Playing it Queer: Popular Music, Identity and Queer World-Making along many journal articles and book chapters and co-edited both The Festivalization of Culture: Place, Identity and Politics and Redefining Mainstream Popular Culture. With regard to aging and subcultures, Taylor has explored aging punks and goths with Andy Bennett in Popular Music and the Aesthetics of Ageing and aging in queer scenes in her book chapter “Performances of Post-Youth Sexual Identities in Queer Scenes.”
Ageing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style and Identity edited by Andy Bennett and Paul Hodkinson
This collection explores what happens to subculture members as they age, including work on Straight Edgers, Queer Scene members, Rave Women, B-Boys, Punks, Riot Grrrls, Goths, and more. The pieces question not only whether or not adults remain in these subcultures but how they negotiate these identities, balancing work, family, and subcultural involvement.
Baby Boomer Rock and Roll Fans by Joe Kotarba
We often forget that in its emergence and proliferation, rock ‘n’ roll was once the soundtrack of baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964. Kotarba explores the rock ‘n’ roll scene and how individuals a part of that scene continue to use their experiences as they advance through adulthood and everyday life.
Music, Style, and Aging: Growing Old Disgracefully? by Andy Bennett
Bennett provides a broader analysis of popular music’s role as people transition out of youth and settle into a process of aging. He describes how fans of rock, punk, andother contemporary popular genres continue to incorporate music in ways that deeply impact their lives.
“10 Most Famous Hackers of All Time“ by ITSecurity
This article differentiates between the different types of hacking and provides examples of the life courses of a few prominent hackers. Interestingly, the deviant background of many hackers is evident in their criminal records, but for most, their technical skills eventually produce established, if not respected occupations.
This case study of the goth scene helps to give readers a better understanding of adult participation in a characteristically ‘youth scene.’ Hodkinson details the ways which older members negotiate time between their adult responsibilities and subcultural practices.
Smith theorizes music as a pleasure that contributes to individuals’ personal and collective identities. She argues that even as individuals age, their continued engagement in music scenes can act as a method for maintaining community.
“Bboy Legends Break it Down” by Michelle Lim
Lim’s interviews with a number of critical members of the early breaking scene discuss the evolution of breakdancing and its coverage in the media. Their comments reveal a changing environment in which the public element of breakdancing has contributed to the development of a global community. This has led to positive developments, such as new mentorships, and more controversial aspects, such as the commercialization of the artistry.
“Growing Up Punk: Negotiating Aging Identity in a Local Music Scene” by Joanna R. Davis
Davis focuses on the punk scene, outlining ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ ways of aging within the subculture. Ultimately, success seems to rely on adhering to ideas of age-appropriateness and differentiating between style and ideals.
Marciniak discusses the role of aging within the punk subculture and also addresses the tension that can arise from intergenerational involvement in one social scene. This ethnography allows readers to see role changes that accompany aging in a specific context.
“Popular Music and the Aesthetics of Ageing“ by Andy Bennett and Jodie Taylor
Bennett and Taylor study aging in subcultures that center on popular music. They find that all studied seemed to change their subcultural participation in some way as they age, but that total withdrawal from the subculture is rare.
“Spectacular Youth Cultures and Ageing: Beyond Refusing to Grow Up“ by Paul Hodkinson
Critically acclaimed sociologist Paul Hodkinson describes the role and identity development of aging subculturists. He takes the reader away from the popular notion that older participants simply “refuse to grow up ” and also discusses the reasons for many individuals’ reduced participation.
“These Grown-Ups Are Making a Living Playing With Toys Online, and Internet Kids Love It!” by Melissa Maypole
Even in the largely youth-based Youtube community, many adult individuals have begun to use this platform as a primary source of income and occupation. This article reports on how these adults find enjoyment in using this particular medium to bring safe entertainment for children.
A photo gallery from the Guardian featuring older goths and family life.
An article profiling Angel Ortiz a 45 year old graffiti writer with a six year old daughter and how his involvement in the subculture has changed.
This article highlights some of the tensions between old and young rockers and includes their different takes on the music’s future.
This documentary follows some of Japan’s most infamous biker gang members and records their opinions on the subculture’s glory days and its current declining participation rate.
This movie follows punks who have grown up and become fathers, exploring how they their anti-authoritarian values with family life.
Punk: Attitude documents the history of punk rock in the USA and UK and includes interviews with many musicians, discussing the subculture’s roots and future with the next generation of participants. This movie follows punks who have grown up and become fathers, exploring how they negotiate their anti-authoritarian values with family life.