Contemporary youth and youth culture can hardly be understood without corresponding attention to the practices of consumption. The symbolic worlds of youth are enmeshed with the currents of a commodity culture such that youth speak a lingo that is steeped with the jargon of the market. Their references, jokes, and modes of address reflect their fluency in the language of the commodity market, its bewildering hold over them, and their ability to rework that language in ways that speak as much to their realities outside the market as to those inside it. Yet, the meaning of youth consumption has changed considerably as distinct patterns reflecting new configurations of time and space evolve. The explosion of digital media, the rise of conspicuous spending, and a torrent of advertising, the emergence of segmented marketing as an alternative to mass marketing, the expansion of global markets, the proliferation of global and corporate mediascapes, the international consolidation of corporate power into megaconglomerates and the drift toward increasing marketization of public goods and services, demands for external regulation by consumer advocacy groups in developed countries, and push back from the DIY (do it yourself ), anti-globalization, and environmental movements all come to bear upon the distinct historical relationship between young people and consumption. Youths’ consumer lives are further complicated by an ever-changing multi-ethnic and multicultural world marked by shifting borders and flow of movement, the ascendance of a racialized system through which meanings and symbols of “cool” are adjudicated in the commercial realm, a third wave of feminism with its easily commercialized symbols, an increasing tolerance, if not embrace of divergent lifestyles, at a time when economic inequalities continue to deepen. The role of the consumer market in young people’s lives has sparked much public and scholarly debate, reflecting anxieties about the shifting place of young people in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Youths’ participation in the realm of consumption in the last century has generated much worry about their appropriate place in society, their sexuality, their unmediated access to adult forms of cultural knowledge, their self esteem, and even their likelihood toward delinquency, though far less often calling into question their roles in supporting consumer capitalism itself. This concern has taken various forms as the logic of rationalization and consumerism reorganize cultural fields once thought to be beyond market and commercial influence This can be recognized in the global McDonaldization thesis (see Ritzer, 2005), whereby a new form of cultural imperialism threatens local and indigenous culture as it forcefully advances a program of
cultural standardization and homogenization as commercial forms of Western youth culture, brokered through MTV and YouTube, are transmitted along global mediascapes, seeping into and colonizing the consciousness of entire generations as they embed themselves in the crevices of everyday life-worlds far removed from Hollywood and the cult of American celebrity. From focused investigations of the formation and expansion of youth markets (Cook, 2004), to how youth consume and are consumed (Steinberg and Kincheloe, 1997), to the meanings young adults assign to their consumption as they struggle to participate in mainstream society (Best, 2006) and alternately etch out in-group boundaries of subcultural scenes in opposition to the mainstream (Thornton, 1995), youth scholars from different disciplines have sought to map the complex and contradictory coordinates connecting youth, commodities, consumption, and the market. An implicit assumption directing this rich and largely interdisciplinary body of scholarship is that to understand youth as a distinct stage in the life course and as a social, economic, and political category of identity and experience is also to investigate the emergence and expansion of a commodity culture. Most agree youth consumption is not simply an economic activity but deeply symbolic in its organization. While scholars have moved in various directions, we identify here three distinct narrative schema of youth and consumption: (1) the formation of youth markets and their expansion into a variety of social arenas, (2) youths’ use of the market and its resources toward various ends, (3) and the meaning and consequence of youth consumption in late modernity and the rise of “lifestyle choice” as the basis of identity and group membership. Each program has proceeded with varying attention to (a) consumer capitalism’s global expansion and (b) how fields of consumption are consequential sites for the reproduction of social inequalities and social distinctions. In this sense, these do not represent entirely distinct trajectories but have largely been taken up within and through the three narrative schema we identify.