When we think to the youth culture of the Twenties, we tend to have this romantic idea that suddenly, Youth was born and young people took awareness of themselves and changed the world with that awareness.
Well, as it’s often the case, actual history is neither that easy, that clean or that simple.
In the 1920s, a change that had been happening since the Victorian Era came to its completion. Upper class and upper-middle class parents changed their attitude towards their children. Because contraception methods had become more accepted and effective, this class could do what their parents had aspired to but couldn’t attain: deciding how many children to have and dedicate more time and resources to the few they chose to have.
This lead to a longer childhood for these children, a longer period in which youths could pursue their own aspirations and express themselves in a freer way before taking up an adult’s responsibilities.
WWI also had an impact on this generation. Men went out to war, and many never returned. Women took up the jobs men had vacated, and they often worked jobs previously barred to women.
When the war ended, nothing went back to what it used to be.
Even when women did go back to their previous occupations, they still had the experience and the notion they could do as good as men. Men that came back had their Victorian ideals shuttered by the crude experience of Europe’s trenches.
This new generation, who had a lot of time on their hands and was better educated, exploded in the post-war years. Though equality wasn’t a thing yet, the difference between sexes wasn’t as sharp as in their parents’ times. And they thought that personal fulfilment was important because you can never know when your life will change forever.
The same contraception methods that had allowed their parents to decide about their parental life, allowed these youths to explore sexuality in a freer way. They started dating, which assumed people didn’t need to be engaged to have a relation. This made looks a lot more important because now everyone could choose their partners. This led to maybe the most shocking part of Twenties youth culture: freer ways of acting and presenting themselves, especially on the part of women (because the change was more apparent on their part, but of course both sides of a relation accepted it).
The idea that one could choose their partner brought about a more companionate attitude because people looked for a companion in the partner, not only a mate.
And besides, these young people also thought personal fulfilment was key to anyone’s life. They went to college, so their future wasn’t linked to that of their parents in terms of opportunities and education. They knew life didn’t last forever and so it was right to pursue your dreams when you could. In a lot of ways, these youths were shrewder than their elders.
But when the time came to end the party and get down to business, meaning getting a real life, their ideas weren’t all that different from their parents’. They wanted to choose their partner, they wanted to be attractive for them, they wanted to have a more companionship relation, but ultimately what these youths were after was very similar to their parents: a family, a house, women wanted a good possibly wealthy husband, men wanted a good wife and mother for their children.
And besides, what young people did, despite all the shock they seem to rise, did filter through to other sections of the population. Not all women were flappers, but many women took up flapper’s way of thinking and dressing. The ideal of a more companionate couple life became acceptable for these youths’ parents too and sometimes reshaped their own relations. The ideal of personal fulfilment clearly came from their parents, who of course accepted it as a good thing.
It’s easy to stress the way these young people seem to have broken away from the past toward a completely reshaped future, but in fact, they were the result of ideals started long before them and that would come to full fruition long after them.
Nothing in history is cleanly cut.
Modern Youth (pdf)
Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977
Kyvig, David E., Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940. How Americans Lived Through the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the Great Depression. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, 2002
Perrish, Michael E., Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1992