Howard Becker’s 23 Thoughts About Youth

I came across this interesting little post on Becker’s site earlier this week. It’s worth a quick read for anyone interested in youth studies and/or Becker’s work. HT Kip Jones for the video of Becker playing at an ASA conference.

Everyone (at least everyone above a certain age) knows–it is no more than common sense–that, in every historical era, “youth” cause all, or certainly most, of the troubles of the world. They have no respect for tradition or authority, they do things which harm them physically and, especially, mentally: alcohol and drugs, but also (depending on the era) spending too much time at the movies, watching television, or playing computer games. They take too many chances. They aren’t prudent. They are always a major pain in the ass and it is because of them that our country and the whole world are going to hell. […]

Young people usually get blamed for society’s troubles. (Said it before, I’ll say it again. Can’t say it too often.) Students don’t work hard enough. That’s why they don’t learn what they should. Yes? Maybe not. Maybe teachers and schools don’t teach properly. Maybe that’s why students don’t learn what someone wants them to.

* * *

Try that out in some area you know about. I did, with this result. Older jazz players complain that younger players “don’t know any tunes,” that is, the tunes the older players grew up playing and regard as the minimal repertoire a literate player must have. It’s true, the younger players often don’t know all those songs, and that makes trouble when a hastily assembled musical group has to perform without rehearsal.

* * *

Older players, however, don’t know the more complex compositions younger players grow up on. But, since older players have more control over employment and performance opportunities, this makes less trouble for collective performances. The older players needn’t know the newer compositions. They can just say “No, we won’t play that.”

* * *

Symmetry: Both groups “don’t know any tunes,” so you can’t use that observation as a “fact” that explains what’s wrong with younger players and why the music business is going to hell.

* * *

Symmetry pays off in a better understanding of the situation, which is good whether you are a sociologist trying to understand social organization, a musicologist trying to understand the development of a musical genre, or a jazz player trying to get along in the world of contemporary jazz.

* * *

“Youth” is a relational term. It doesn’t describe a stable characteristic of someone or some group. It tells you where that person or group stands in relation to some other people or some other group. “Youth” are older than “teenagers” but younger than “adults.” That’s a possible meaning. But this innocuous relational description carries other, less innocent, less symmetrical, and less neutral overtones we should be wary of.

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