NOS Balloons, Shotter Bags and Squat Parties: Understanding the New Urban British Teenager

People say subculture is dead, but they just need to look at the new tribe of teenagers wearing bucket hats and shotter bags, throwing parties in disused depots and inhaling a lot of laughing gas.

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26 January 2016, 12:17pm

Youth culture is an ephemeral, nebulous, kind of unexplainable thing. Almost anything can become part of it as long as it's young, fun and the Evening Standard doesn't quite understand it.

For much of the 20th century, the generational divide made it easy to work out what counted as youth culture, with older people looking on dumbfounded at guitar solos and impractical clothing. But in an age of climbing life-expectancy rates, acid house grandparents and a general sense of staying young for longer in the face of not really knowing what else to do, real youth – that is, teenagers – are becoming increasingly overlooked by both the media and brands, often in favour of the affluent, metropolis-dwelling late 20-somethings clinging onto their younger years.

All millennials and Gen Xers seem to know about teenagers is that they are the vanity generation; one defined by selfies and six packs, sexting and segways, vloggers and Instagram superstars. They're shallow and compliant because they grew up watching The Kardashians and filling in UCAS applications while we had Top of the Pops and Proper Pills.

Someone like YouTube star Zoella is often cited by the "used to go to Shoom, now do the school run" crowd as an example of how far the standard has fallen. And sure, she is disturbingly popular. But so were Westlife when I was a teenager; so were Bros when they were teenagers. There's always going to be banal, basic shit that gets popular, but it rarely tells you anything about real youth culture. Look beyond Dan and Phil, Snapchat and Harry Potter fandoms and you'll find that today's teenagers have their own scenes, style, preferred sounds and micro-economies, in exactly the same way previous generations did.

There are few better examples than the (relatively) new breed of urban teenagers: the kids replacing alcohol with NOS, wearing shotter bags – those little, over-the-shoulder Nike knapsacks – and bucket hats, and largely swapping clubs for parties of their own creation, illegal raves or squat parties in reclaimed or abandoned spaces.

Take the visual identity: these teenagers worship at the dual altar of sportswear and streetwear, Sports Direct and Supreme, forging an alliance between skate culture and what would have once been called scally culture – a blend that was unimaginable when I was a teenager.

For anyone who ever lived through a bus stop kicking for wearing a World Industries hoody, or got egged for wearing Adidas poppers by a group of vengeful emos in a Peugeot 206, the idea of combining townie clothes with skater clothes seems quite bizarre. But in today's fractious, anything-goes youth culture, it's become the norm. It's as if the old tribes have finally seen the best of each other, spawning this new breed who aren't limited by the prejudices of older generations.

The lives of today's British teenagers seem to be under a sustained attack from the generations above them: not able to go out, not able to stay in, we accuse them of being obsessed with social media, but it's remarkable how much they've managed to create for themselves in the real world, considering how little society is willing to give them. These kids, who can't go to a pub, can't really work, can't even get the £30-a-week EMA that my generation were given, have created something of their own, and almost nobody is applauding them for that. Instead, so many people seem to be telling them that they did it better, before them.

Some will inevitably say that it's all incredibly shallow, that this is only really clothes and music and dancing and drugs, but that's all youth culture has ever been. Of course, it's the variations between these permanent facets that come to define different scenes, the tiny little changes in the cut of trousers or the speed of the beats or the mood that the drugs put you in. These differences tell a story of modern times, and totally reflect the politics around them.

Those old, terrible, Inbetweeners-style clichés about Strongbow and fingering are looking increasingly redundant, as this new culture of free parties, balloons, bucket hats and internet economies takes ahold, yet the same age-old tribal ideals of escapism and exploration that date right back to the dawn of the teenager are still at the heart of what they do.

Britain has a long, incredible lineage of youth culture, and today's teenagers are every bit as part of it as their forefathers. Most importantly, they're a long fucking way from Zoella.

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