1920s youth culture was a new thing. Not simply a marker of age anymore, youth became a state of mind, the adherence to a separate culture with its own values and attitudes.
Before WWI, people went from childhood to adulthood with no intermediate state. A person was either a child who had to learn everything and was in need of attention and education or an adult who had adult responsibilities. Young people were simply learning to be better adults and already shared the values and the ways of the adults around them.
But after WWI, a few things happened that separated young people from both children and adults.
The relevant factor was that young people of both sexes attended high school in unprecedented numbers. The American middle-class had become more affluent. They could now afford to renounce the income their children could bring in and spend money on giving them higher education.
These young people had the opportunity to attend college away from their families and organise their lives around their peer group. This encouraged the creation and evolution of a separate culture, which did not necessarily adhere to their parents’.
The collegiate life became a thing, and the young culture was born around it.
Youthfulness as a state of mind
WWI was a great generational divide. The young generation who had fought in the trenches because their elders decided to wedge war on each other lost all trust and respect towards that older generation. Those who thought the war was a good idea didn’t deserve respect, less so following from the generation who had actually fought – and died in shockingly high numbers – in those trenches. The ones who survived often brought home wounds both visible and invisible.
This was a significant divide between the two generations and one that favoured the creation of a new, separate culture specific to the youths.
Young people believed in having fun while they could. They thought that realising their dreams was more important than working hard for the sake of it. These were youths who had a completely new, different understanding of the relationship between the sexes. Both young men and women shared a new vision of the future that was at odds with their parents’, even if, in essence, it wasn’t totally different.
Yet, it would be untrue to say that this new vision only belonged to the young people.
Yes, they were the ones who saw it more clearly and who pursued it more fiercely, but other people shared that vision. Older people who were not their age but shared their values.
Because this was the truly novel characteristic of the youth generation: because it wasn’t a stage of life but a state of mind, even older people could share it. The youth culture that valued self-realisation and self-determination, who lived a modern life and understood the relationship between men and women in a more equal way, could be absorbed and supported by older people too.
It became a lifestyle, and people of all ages could pertain to it.
The flapper and the 1920s youth culture
This new life, these new values were embodied by the flapper, this new, modern incarnation of life after the war.
The flapper was the most vivid expression of everything new the youth culture had brought about. She was a girl who defied tradition. A girl who lived life fully, who went after her desires. She would flirt with young men because it was fun, not necessarily because she intended to marry them. And if she found the man she wanted to live her entire life with, she wasn’t afraid to get involved with him fully, even before marriage.
She dolled herself up because young men would be attracted to her. She made herself up because there was no shame in it.
She wanted to have her own job and her own money. She was the quintessential embodiment of self-determination.
The more mature expression of the New Woman was also the brighter expression of the youth culture. On this ground, this culture more fully expressed its diversity.
New Errands: The Undergraduate Journal of American Studies – Collegiate Masculinity and the Rise of American Youth: Culture During the Roaring Twenties
Design You Trust – “Impressions Of The Roaring Twenties”: 40 Found Snaps That Show Lifestyle Of Young People In The 1920s
Most of the population expressed these ideas of equality and independence in much less shocking ways. And they weren’t totally accepted even by the youth. Anyway, my parents went to college in the 1930s and 40s. They and their siblings all lived at home while attending. All of them worked hard their whole lives, as had their parents. The only ones who seemed to be about partying, still worked hard during the week until in middle age the drinking caught up with them.
I think the extremes were in movies and books and among the classes with money to spare on raising children with expectations of living for fun.
It is certainly true that not all youths lived the life I described. The same way flappers were just a little number in comparison with the totality of girls. But they expressed the ambitions and the vision of so many other girls.
I think this is the reason why we talk about this minority of young people: they defined what these youths, in different degrees of partecipation, were dreaming.
My working-class ancestors who were coming of age in the 1920s didn’t have the luxury of indulging in most aspects of youth culture, though they probably would’ve loved the opportunity. My parents had attained lower-middle-class status by the time I was a teenager, though I was too introverted and serious to have much of any interest in typical teen goings-on.
I think the importance of these groups of people – who were, admittedly, a minority – is that they expressed desires and ambition of oung people who cold not afford that kind of life. Which, I suppose, happend in all times.
Ronel Janse van Vuuren
I like this sentiment.
The way people reacted to WWI, sometimes in surprising ways, is one of the things that most fascinate me about the interwar years.
Anne E.G Nydam
There are lots of good values here, but also the unfortunate corollary that older people have been devalued ever since.
WWI had certainly had a long aftermath. Far longer than we normally admit.