From Pop Culture to Pop Cultures and Developing Youth

Pop culture has traditionally been thought of as the collective ideas, attitudes, trends, and interests of the population as a whole. There is no denying that shared notions about what is cool or normal plays an important role in our youth’s development.

Too often we forget about the importance of pop culture for our youth. I distinctly remember my mentor telling me in the early 1990’s that a youth worker has to get out of the Ivory Tower and meet youth where they are at. She knew we had to enter into their realm. This wisdom was right then and also now.

Has the information age changed pop culture?

I don’t have to cite research to tell you that as a society we are consuming more media than ever before. Today’s pop culture is generated via a variety of media sources and the effects are profound.

Youth today can find a pop culture that best fits or appeals to them through a variety of channels. Pop culture can now be ‘custom tailored’ by each youth. I recently noticed a large group of middle school students gathered outside the building and each was looking at his or her smartphone. They weren’t all consuming the same pop culture. They were looking for culture that fits their perception of the world…and I am confident they found it easily.

Adults do this too and it has led to so much of the divide we see in our nation and other developed countries. Which source of news fits you…FOX, CNN or MSNBC? Some of you may have found Steven Colbert’s rip into President Trump funny and fitting. Others may have found it troubling and disrespectful. Your view of this pop culture event depends on your experiences, attitudes, and interests.

Youth work is difficult because at the core of helping youth is our ability to drop our biases and understand youth for who they are. Their experiences, including pop culture, have shaped them into who they are today and will continue to shape them.

However, their life experiences are not our experiences. We all grow up with different circumstances. It’s incumbent on us, as caring adults, to understand how to work within the life circumstances of youth, whether it is individually or in a group.

Youth workers must ask themselves questions about factors that can be influenced by pop culture such as:

  • Education – What is a youth’s pop culture saying about being smart? Is it cool to do well at school or seen as a waste of time? Is the youth’s pop culture reference point consistent with their life goals?
  • Appearance – Does a young person’s dress and look reflect the pop culture they seek out? If so, what is this telling you about their self-image? Is their appearance indicative of self-esteem issues and consistent with their view of the world?
  • Dating/Sexuality – What is their belief about healthy sexuality and how does this fit with the media they are consuming? How is this affecting them? Are they safe? Are your views about this topic interfering with how you are serving this youth?

Even if you disagree with my notion that pop culture has evolved into multiple pop cultures, we all should agree that we need to understand it as youth workers in order to best serve our youth. I encourage you to think deeper about this overlooked idea and how it affects the youth you serve.

Paul Meunier is the Executive Director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA)