Friday, November 1, 2013

The Media is Making Many 20-somethings and 30-somethings Feel Old

Society tends to think of 20-somethings and quite often 30-somethings as people who are young, vibrant, have a great lifestyle and an endlessly optimistic future. Almost every movie that features somebody in their 20s or early 30s portrays their character in this light. After all, 30 is the new 20, and 40 is the new 30, right?

Apparently, out there in the land of the real world, 25 may as well be the new 50. If I could have ten dollars every time I hear somebody under 35 spoke about how old they felt now, I would probably have enough money to buy a car with the money now. If this phenomenon were isolated instead, we may not need to pay attention to it - I am sure there is the odd otherwise healthy teenager out there who thinks that their best days are over and that they are prematurely old, but since such cases are thankfully still uncommon, we can't see it as a society-wide problem. But with people around 25 or older, complaints of feeling old, whilst not really universal, are still indeed common.

Most 25 to 40 year olds do not really suffer from the physical effects of aging that much - apart from an inability to party all night and an inability to consume too much alcohol. But you really can't pinpoint aging on that - after all, teenagers also cannot (are not allowed to) party all night or drink alcohol. My point is, it's very possible to live a young lifestyle without these things. Still, when so many 25 year olds think they are getting old, it certainly can't just boil down to their individual imaginations or just the fact that they can't party all night anymore. So what's causing their feeling?

I think there are two main reasons. One of them is that the media has become extremely skewed towards youth.

Unlike any other time in living memory, people well under 25 now make up most of the major icons in the Western popular culture. For example, 2013 was called 'the year of Miley Cyrus' by many people - yet she was only 21 that year! This is actually not normal, and as I will argue later on, not healthy. But many 20-somethings really have nothing to compare to - this is the only way popular culture can be that they know. But why is this the case, and how may we be able to mitigate the effects, and hopefully in the longer run change this situation?

Young people are attracted to the world of popular culture, often before they are teenagers. It's there they get their voice and their identity as youths. In high school, what music you listen to or what celebrities you identify with is a huge part of your identity. For many years in their lives, the entertainment industry had produced the soundtracks to their lives, the movies that defined the culture of their generation and their subcultures, even the language that defines their speech. Although it's actually produced by a multi-billion dollar industry, teenagers tend to think that popular culture is theirs to own.

But time passes, and it passes quickly. Suddenly, when you find yourself in your mid-20s, you are well above the average age of the cool people in the music and cultural scenes. What's more is that the whole culture becomes geared towards a younger generation, and becomes something you can no longer identify with. The cool people nowadays speak a different language, and seem to be talking about a different culture altogether. It's not uncommon to hear people around 25 or so saying things like 'kids these days don't know what music really is', and it's not logic defying either - there's a different generation with different tastes out there, and they are the ones being catered to by the culture out there, in the very same scenes that used to cater to OUR culture. It's like you have been kicked out of the cool scene.

It may not be everyone's ultimate goal in life to be 'cool', but being told by the media that effectively you are uncool because of your age is like being told, via loudspeakers that are omnipresent in your life, that you are old. There's no sweeter way of saying this, unfortunately.

A few decades back things were quite different. The average age of people making it in the entertainment and popular cultural scenes was quite a bit higher, for starters. Even in that industry, it used to be that you matured and your career matured in your 30s and 40s, nowadays at that age you are usually considered too old to be still relevant to popular culture. And it's hard to imagine this would not produce knock-on effects in society.

So we have now established that the popular culture, driven by the media and largely controlled by a multi-billion dollar industry, is heavily skewed towards extreme youth, with serious consequences for the rest of society. But the next question is, why is it so? And will it change any time soon?

Different people have given different answers to this question. But there is one central reason for all this, I believe: MONEY. It may not explain everything you are seeing out there, but it sure is a major part of the puzzle, I believe. You see, most companies exist mainly to make money. Most of the entertainment and popular cultural industry exists not because people like music, movies and celebrities, but because there's money to be made.

Let's use the music industry as an example. Now think about the last time you bought a CD. What did it cost? Somewhere around $20 to $30, maybe. If you downloaded it online, it would have been even cheaper. You see, CDs don't sell for much, and therefore by extension must not earn the industry much. The costs of producing the CDs, getting the advertising out (and advertising is everything these days, so they do spend a lot on this), and other associated costs may often not even be recovered by people like you buying the CDs. Things like tours and concerts is where the big money actually comes in.

Now think about it: did you go to a concert recently? How many did you go to in the past year? If you are over 25 or so, it's quite likely that you haven't been to a concert in a while, and that you didn't really go to that many in the past year. You have work to do, after work and on weekends you just want to relax and meet your friends for brunch, and in fact, you just cannot stand the screaming teenagers and early-20s crowds bound to be present at concerts anyway.

And then there's another thing: if you went to a concert recently, did you go to one of a mega popular artist, one that the industry has poured lots of advertising money to support? Chances are you did not. You may even have attended the concert of an unsigned artist, and many of your favourite artists may indeed be unsigned or indie. Years ago you concluded that the stuff the industry was promoting was overrated, and there are better things to be found elsewhere. Today, you just think it has become even more true. Speaking for myself, I have maintained a personal music chart since I was a teenager. Back in 2002, most chart toppers were what they were promoting on radio. But by 2013, there were probably more unsigned chart toppers than there were radio promoted chart toppers.

These days, in my opinion, chart hits are often created rather than arise naturally. It starts with overwhelming airplay. The few weeks before and after a chart hit is released, there would be overwhelming airplay everywhere you go. Often, even my mother, who does not listen to the radio much, would start singing these hits to herself when she is reading or working. Why? She was 'forced' to listen to it when doing her shopping. You see, a lot of supermarkets and grocery stores have the radio on too. And when certain hits are played every hour on almost every top 40 format station, you would have to be living under a rock not to have it imprinted in your mind. After the imprinting comes the hype. At that point, many minds which are more vulnerable to outside influence would begin to believe they actually like the song in question, and when this happens with enough songs over a period of time, they actually believe that they like the artist in question. Next they are getting their concert tickets, and when enough people do that, the industry makes a lot of money.

Again, if you are over 25 or so, the above process usually does not apply to you. Surely, you may like a radio hit or two every now and then. But surely, you can't be bothered to really like all the crap that they play on the radio over and over again whilst you drive to and from work every day. But younger minds are more easily influenced. They have often not been exposed to as much music, they will more easily believe the hype that the media creates around everything, and their music tastes are also more malleable. And there's this thing about searching for an identity and needing a shared identity with their peers. Therefore, if you convert enough people to be 'fans' in that age group, you reach a tipping point where it just spreads like wildfire. It's really the stuff of dreams for a mass production entertainment industry whose primary goal is to rake in as much profits as possible. Surely, not all teenagers and early-20s people are like that, but there are enough out there to make this business model very profitable.

The fact is that, even though over 25s make up most of the population, from a entertainment industry's money making point of view, things may be a bit different. Most over 25s just don't go to concerts enough for the industry to care too much about them. Over 25s, when viewed as a market segment, do not make them the big money. The younger market is where the money is to be made. They are the ones to appeal to. And the best way of appealing to a population is by making them identify with whatever you are promoting, thinking in the mindset of and speaking the language of the people you are trying to appeal to. Therefore, the entertainment industry doesn't really speak with the voice of the whole society. It doesn't even speak with the voice of 'young people in society' in general (which should at least include all under-40s). It most often speaks with the voice of those it wishes to appeal to - teenagers and people in their early-20s.

Now think back to when you were a teenager. You probably thought that old people were uncool too. If you didn't, you almost surely knew some friends who did. And amongst you and your friends, 'old' used to be defined quite differently too. People who are over 30 were so old and uncool to you back then. You surely didn't think of 35 year olds as your peers, right? Chances are they were closer to your parent's age than your age, which made them even more uncool. If you want to sell to the younger market, there really is no point in using a 35 year old as the face of your product most of the time. It's like if a company wants to sell a product to young women, the last person they would want to use would be an elderly man. This is why the media is full of 'ultra cool and popular celebrities' whose average age would be around 21, and why most of them are doomed to disappear from the public radar in the next 10 or so years.

In the real world, almost nobody has accomplished much at 21, but in this heavily skewed media driven culture, people peak at 21, because that's the best way money can be made for the industry, even if this really distorts reality. Surrounded by a culture where people peak at 21 and fade away by 35 or so, we can begin to think of ourselves as old, even when we are only about a third of the way through an average life expectancy. Seeing that the culture that we used to identify with as teenagers and the celebrities we used to like are all long gone from the public radar, living in an age where they have been prematurely swept away and are to be found in places of nostalgia only, we become resigned to talking about the 'good old times' like 70 year olds. But what we need to remember is this, it's all very distorted and crazy, and shouldn't influence our perception of the reality.

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