Vintage bicycles, homemade yogurt, second-hand clothes, handicraft art… If it seems like you’ve seen more of these throwbacks, you’re not alone. The surging trade in authenticity is not just a trend on TV shows like Portlandia, but a real phenomenon to which large numbers of the young adult generation ascribes. The Hipster movement cuts across ethnicities, geographical regions, and even social classes in the United States (although it is arguably more evident in the middle and upper income brackets). But what is it? What does it mean to be a Hipster? And why would anyone above 25 years old even care?
Let’s start with the first question: why bother with Hipsters? For one thing, there are a lot of them. Most writers and researchers agree that hipster culture and lifestyle are widespread across North America, South America, Europe and parts of Asia. The typical hipster lives in an urban area, often in a neighborhood that was once affluent, experienced decades of decline and is now inching towards rebirth while keeping rents low. The current usage of hipster generally refers to a member of Generation Y, also referred to as Millennials, the generation who came of age between 2000 and 2010 (Some writers see Millennials as those who became adults after the events of September 11, 2001, shortening the wave by about 20 months). Population estimates for Generation Y hover around the 85 million mark, making it the largest generation ever recorded in the United States. They are more ethnically diverse and multiracial than previous generations, the children of soccer moms, tethered to their parents by text messages. Many learned to type rather than concentrating on penmanship, and cursive Q’s are an enigma to most.
Not all members of Generation Y fit the Hipster persona. It’s nearly impossible to calculate the size of the Hipster movement due to its fluid definition and inherent diversity, and more so because very few individuals self-identify as Hipster. In fact, the term is often pejorative, a label used to describe less-aware peers who fetishize authenticity rather than embody it. As a psychologist, I’m fascinated by this expression of unbelonging as identification. It seems that my young adult clients find it far easier to define themselves by what they are not, than to commit to beliefs or fads like many past generations.
On the other hand, I may be expressing hindsight bias here: the cohorts of yesteryears had the benefit of decades of self-exploration which can be conveniently lost from memory. If you regret that year you “tried on” libertarianism, no one you meet today will be at all the wiser. There was less need to hide desires, the grappling for validation, and conflicting political or religious ideas. Today, every comment, clue and question are marked for eternity in emails, texts and social media. GenY is the first generation with no living memory before the internet was widespread. The things they carry are datapoints more than memories.
The biggest burden to buck seems to be the label blasted by middle age and elder groups, which like to refer to GenY as “The Entitlement Generation.” Like Generation X before them, GenY youths were not subject to mandatory military service. Despite an enormous surge in enlistment by GenX and GenY members in the longest running wars in American history, collective consciousness regarding combat remains low. Perhaps the blame lies with increasing technological distance from the battlefield has bifurcated the narratives of war to those with face-to-face combat experience and those deployed as support staff to keep the massive industrial complex of aircraft carriers, drone programs and forward operations moving. Or perhaps the nature of the military mission, to win “hearts and minds” rather than oppose a clear enemy, has diluted the rallying cry. Either way, older generations view most GenYers as pampered adult-children, accustomed to being chauffeured and protected by their doting parents, and in turn expecting to be rewarded for minimal effort in the workplace. Entitlement, in the current political context, implies a demand for unearned privileges.
I don’t know about you, but most of the young adults I know despise this label. And this goes beyond Gen Yers. Each generation in recent decades has dealt with negative perceptions from older cohorts. In the 1990s, Gen Xers were labeled as lazy, unmotivated, unwashed, flannel clad members of the Alternative movement. Yet as middle aged adults, Gen Xers demonstrate stronger volunteerism and entrepreneurship than their parents. In the 1960s, Baby Boomers were denigrated as counterculture hippies.
Compared to these movements, Hipsters seem relatively nonthreatening. However, it’s hard to say just what they stand for. Even Hipster slang belies a desire to state what they are not. One need only look at “That’s Racist” memes to explore the multi-layered dis-identification with the façade of political correctness they grew up with. Their activism is subtle. Rather than tearing apart the establishment, Hipsters seem to have progressed advocacy beyond basic civil rights to more nuanced causes. Across the board, they value earnest work and wholesome living. The interest in DIY projects ranges from handicraft décor to kludging a one-of-a-kind computer, demonstrating ingenious creativity. Sure, there are moments when Gen Yers’ efforts fall short, or they prematurely assume they have reached a goal. This seems less about “Entitlement” than normal development in the phase of emerging adulthood.
But again, the majority of Gen Yers do their best to repel the Hipster label. The conception of Hipster is unfitting for the very people it aims to capture: the individuals most loyal to the spirit of Hipsterism feel like the label is reductionistic and sneering. Ironically, mainstream Gen Yers who exhibit some Hipster traits, such as clothing trends, slang, music and consumer tastes, seem to be hopping on a train steered by the rebellion of the true Hipsters. Pressing against the depreciatory label of Entitlement, leaders of Gen Y have formed a reaction in the opposite direction. The truest Hipsters even shrug off that label, for to speak its name detracts from understanding its reality.
The Entitlement label is a product of jealousy by the older generations of the youth, uncertainty, and potential of the young. But rather than honoring the identity exploration of a new generation, we slam it, trivialize it, and negatively compare it to our own emerging adulthood years. The Hipster Psyche is a reaction formation to being labeled as entitled, and the entitlement label is a defense of the previous generations. When will our culture grant permission to young adults to experiment with philosophies and behaviors? If our society truly values innovation and progress, we will embrace youth without envy and accept their flirtations with various concepts as a natural part of the creative process of coming of age in a post-modern context. A little empathy could go a long way, and critics of this generation might actually learn something about themselves in the process.
At the very least, one can appreciate the goodness of the Hipster mission. They are leaning towards greater awareness and authenticity, as much as it might seem like a “put on.” Let’s hope if they wear it long enough, it will outlast their youth.
Written By: Dr. Molly Pachan