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I want to be an individual...just like all my friends

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The most honest and informative comment I ever heard on this subject came from a sincere young man who said, "I want to be an individual… just like all my friends." How could anyone state more simply and succinctly the inner struggle and frustration of youth?


Forty-year-olds rarely think about whether they are conformists or non-conformists. Work and family have long since taken center stage; but at age 16 it is another story. Conformity vs. non-conformity is serious stuff as one tries to sort out such important questions as the meaning of life, and where one fits in the grand scheme of things.

The most honest and informative comment I ever heard on this subject came from a sincere young man who said, "I want to be an individual… just like all my friends." How could anyone state more simply and succinctly the inner struggle and frustration of youth? There is both the desire to find one's own identity, and at the same time a desire to conform—or, put more properly, not to be an outcast for being different from one's peers.

Junior high and high school can be difficult and sometimes cruel years. One would think that those who have negotiated that contradictory and stressful stage in life would do all they could to assist those who follow, but such is not the case. Sadly, some who know better are actively making it more difficult, in order to gain wealth and prestige.

Following World War II, advertisers discovered a growing and largely untapped economic gold mine—their children. To put it more precisely: everyone else's children. All they needed to do was find a means of separating young people from their money. What better way to fleece this market than through music, and tapping into youthful desire to become independent, to conform to one's peers and to find love?

At first, the music was dressed in a tuxedo. While parents did not always like Elvis' sound or his gyrating pelvis, at least the uniform was generally clean cut. But as time progressed, this changed. The Beatles arrived in North America with a new sound and a new hairstyle that shocked the WWII generation. By today's standards, John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared pretty clean cut, but to the former GI's who fought in Europe and Asia this seemed like a new "feminized" look for boys.

Every few years, a new class of youth chose a more degenerate look and sound to take up as "their own." Buddy Holly, Johnny Mathis, Blue Hawaii and Jailhouse Rock were replaced by the harsh sounds of Mick Jagger, AC/DC, and more recently by rap and hip-hop. With each new gimmick that shocked the older generation, more money rolled in.

The intent has always been the same: shock parents, and make young people think it is their own special expression. What has changed is how explicit and vile it has all become. And a 2001 PBS Frontline special, "Merchants of Cool," illustrated that it will only grow worse. Correspondent Douglas Rushkoff described how Viacom, Disney, AOL/Time Warner, Universal Vivendi and Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp control an overwhelming degree of what is recognized as youth culture today. Together, these five massive media giants "look at the teen market as part of this massive empire that they're colonizing. You should look at it like the British Empire or the French Empire in the 19th century. Teens are like Africa. You know, that's this range that they're going to take over, and their weaponry are films, music, books, CDs, Internet access, clothing, amusement parks, sports teams. That's all this weaponry they have to make money off of this market." In short, these conglomerates control the looks, sounds and attitudes of today's youth, and their sole concern is market share: Youth "want to be cool. They are impressionable, and they have the cash. They are corporate America's $150 billion dream."

Take MTV as just one example. "Everything on MTV is a commercial," explained University of Illinois communications professor Robert McChesney. "That's all that MTV is. Sometimes it's an explicit advertisement paid for by a company to sell a product. Sometimes it's going to be a video for a music company there to sell music. Sometimes it's going to be the set that's filled with trendy clothes and stuff there to sell a look that will include products on that set. Sometimes it will be a show about an upcoming movie paid for by the studio, though you don't know it, to hype a movie that's coming out from Hollywood. But everything's an infomercial. There is no non-commercial part of MTV" (ibid.). How can a 16-year-old comprehend this manipulation? What about a 13-year-old?

Young people certainly do not like being manipulated by pot-bellied 50- and 60-year-old advertising executives. That is what makes this sordid business so tricky, but you do not become Rupert Murdoch or AOL/Time Warner by lacking savvy. Marketers are very clever in how they go about the task. Sell "cool," but never make it look like a cheesy advertisement. Make it look as if it were spontaneously driven by young people themselves.

Young people are not stupid. In fact, most are quite bright. The problem is that few have enough experience to fully understand that very smart middle-aged men and women have infiltrated their world and are carefully crafting a new image to sell to them, for the purpose of taking their money. These strangers do not have the slightest concern for their well-being—and if it means separating them from parents who have cared for them, and loved them through the most difficult of times, so be it! Part of their toolbox is to paint parents as old-fashioned and out-of-touch with their children's concerns, compared to the carefully created idols who supposedly "understand" them. Their message to teens is that people they do not know, and who have given them nothing, should be idolized above the ones who love them the most. Does this make sense? Of course not!

If you are a teen, the fact that you are reading this indicates that you may have a level of maturity other teens do not have. You recognize the difference between those who love you—your parents—and the marketers who only want to exploit you. Do not be afraid to be an individual! Do not be afraid to say "No!" Remember: "If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small" (Proverbs 24:10).

Most teens want to be thought of as mature. One sign of real maturity is having a long-term view of life—recognizing that there is a tomorrow. A mature person will appreciate what the Apostle John wrote about conforming to the world's expectations—not just in outer attire, but also in the inner person. "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever" (1 John 2:15–17).

Some people think that teens cannot live up to this. Marketers are selling the idea that you should be an individual, just like all your friends. Will you send them the message that you are not buying?

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