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Contemporary Youth and the Postmodern Adventure

By Steven Best and Douglas Kellner (sbest1@elp.rr.com and kellner@ucla.edu)

Contemporary youth are major players in the postmodern adventure because it is they who will enter the future and further shape the world to come.1 The offspring of the baby boomers born in the 1940s, their identities are indelibly marked as "post" -- post-boomer, post60s, posthistorical, postmodern. Yet they live in a present marred by extreme uncertainty, facing a future that is murky and unpredictable. For youth today, change is the name of the game and they are forced to adapt to a rapidly mutating and crisis-ridden world characterized by novel information, computer, and genetic technologies; a complex and fragile global economy; and a frightening era of war and terrorism. According to dominant discourses in the media, politics, and academic research, the everyday life of growing segments of youth is increasingly unstable, violent, and dangerous. The situation of youth is today marked by the dissolution of the family; growing child abuse and domestic conflict; drug and alcohol abuse; sexually transmitted diseases; poor education and crumbling schools; and escalating criminalization, imprisonment, and even state execution. These alarming assaults on youth are combined with massive federal cutbacks of programs that might give youth a chance to succeed in an increasingly difficult world.

Hence, today's youth are at risk in a growing number of ways and survival is a challenge. Ready or not, they will inherit a social world that is increasingly deteriorating and a natural world that is ever more savaged by industrial forces. Yet they also have access to exciting realms of cyberspace and the possibilities of technologies, identities, and entrepreneurial adventures unimagined by previous generations. Contemporary youth includes the best educated generation in history, the most technically sophisticated, and the most diverse and multicultural, making generalizations about the youth in the present day precarious.

In this study, we develop some concepts to outline a critical theory of youth that articulates positive, negative, and ambiguous aspects in their current situation. We delineate some of the defining features of the condition of contemporary youth to indicate the ways that they are encountering the challenges facing them, and to suggest how these might best be engaged. There are obviously a wide diversity of youth experiences of varying genders, races, classes, sexualities, and social groups, and we want both to suggest differences while also emphasizing what they share in common as a generation. Our argument is that within the present social crisis, there are grave dangers for youth, but also some enhanced freedoms and opportunities. More positive futures cannot be created, however, unless youth are able to achieve a variety of forms of literacy, including print, media, and computer skills and enhanced education (Kellner 2002). These abilities will enable them to cope with a rapidly changing environment and can help the emergent generations to shape their own future and remake the culture and social world they inherit.

Today's youth are privileged subjects of the postmodern adventure because they are the first generation to live intensely in the transformative realms of cyberspace and hyperreality


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