Youth are strange. At least to those no longer young. We choose, usually, one of two ways to dismiss them: Their values can seem either too extreme or frighteningly bland. Or both at once: They have astoundingly authoritarian ideas about free speech, and they love bubble gum pop. They never believe exactly what we want them to believe.
Recently, they are more likely to be mocked for being not edgy enough. A spate of puzzled magazine articles has covered the strangely childlike re-creations of a generation of twentysomethings. This adult colouring thing, for example: Apparently urban dwellers go to cafés where they sit for hours drinking herbal teas and earnestly colouring in predrawn patterns with markers.
It is an only barely creative act, with no interesting art to show at the end of it, but the activity itself is therapeutic, a kind of mindfulness, and an undemanding form of social interaction. It seems very nice, and yet the grizzled oldster can't help but wondering, shouldn't they be making violent music somewhere and piercing their frenulums?
The same faint scorn came down upon them a few years ago when it was found that in big cities they were hosting cuddle parties: pajama-clad affairs in which nothing sexual was allowed (therapy again). (That trend never did catch fire: Turns out the young are still reliably horny after all.)
Now, they the have board-game cafés where they sit late at night, under bright light, and play Clue and Monopoly and drink, I don't know, kombucha. It appears to be completely non-ironic, good wholesome fun.
See, here I go mocking them myself. But they don't even care about getting on my lawn: My lawn is too messy for them. It is covered in my empty pill bottles and dirty bandages. They wouldn't go near it.
We in the media have always been puzzled by new occurrences in youth culture. I was a little embarrassed to listen this week to an old recording from the CBC Radio archives, posted on the broadcaster's website: a feature from 1959 about beatniks and hipsters – people who wrote poetry in the United States primarily, but who were apparently then moving in to Montreal and even, believe it or not, Toronto. (One can hear the distant-second-ness of provincial Toronto in the announcer's amused tone.)
This regular curation and presentation of archives is one of the great things that the CBC does and it is always instructive, not just about vanished culture but about the way in which we covered them.
In the 1959 clip, from the show Assignment, a very serious presenter interviews John David Hamilton, a "newspaperman" from Winnipeg, who has actually spent time among Beat poets, as a zoologist might spend time among chimps.
Hamilton reports that the Beats' reputation for marijuana and orgies is well deserved – they do all that – but the ones you see just hanging out in cafés and smoking all day are just the followers, not the leaders.
The leaders are the poets who actually have serious ideas – a genuine protest against conformity and materialism. And some of those are respectable men: They teach in universities and one is a priest in a monastery. (This is brought as evidence for their import, not, as it might be today, as evidence of some kind of establishment-corrupted conservatism.)
Some of them are poseurs – especially the girls, who are "not particularly attractive" – but the poets are ascetic as monks, and trying to improve their souls. They may occasionally use obscenity, but there is a place for obscenity in art in the correct context. Yes, there is something called a hipster, which is an extremely anti-social representative of the Beat movement.
Hipsters speak in slang and are influenced by "Negro" jazz. They don't represent the true Beats at all! Aside from the nonchalant sexism and racism, the reporters are articulate, and generally attempting to illuminate what might be valuable in this subculture. What strikes me is how they are trying to diminish the anti-social nature of the beatniks, to dress them up as fundamentally safe, so that they may be taken seriously and not dismissed as riff-raff.
Criticism of contemporary youth culture is just as likely to do the opposite. In fact, the contemporary hipster is mocked for not being dangerous or scruffy enough: He is held to be concerned only with the material and the personal, not with the seditious or subversive. He is held to be knowledgeable only about technology, apps, fashion, bicycles and coffee. Far from being ascetic and anti-social, he is socially obsessed, constantly online, communicating and self-promoting, never withdrawn and reflective. Even the corporate-owned media seem to want him to be more of a revolutionary.
When punk rock broke in the 1970s, the newspapers expressed outrage, even horror, at its ugliness and danger. Its unhygienic practices were a subject of revulsion and titillation. Now we hold the Beats and the punks up as icons of audacity, as brave and necessary subversives. Our hipsters are just not punk enough.
I can't really imagine, now, a youth movement that would provoke moral concern and a genuine sense of threat the way the original hipsters did to the CBC in 1959. We are too jaded for that.