THR Web Features   /   December 16, 2015

Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: A More Instrumental Peer Culture

Murray Milner, Jr.

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays.


You can read all the essays in this series here.

Students who are anxious about their grades seem more likely to hang out with students who share these concerns. These relationships can become more instrumental and competitive. An eleventh-grade girl reflects:


… there was a lot of pressure to perform well on the SAT. Most of this pressure came from herself and from her friends … there is always competition … to see who performed the best or worst. She does not necessarily aim to do better than her friends … but that nobody wants to have the lowest score…. Also there is pressure from parents …


This kind of behavior was not unique to Wilson High. A girl from Pennsylvania reports:


[People] became friends with each other by taking the same level of advanced classes such as math and history, and became competitive with one another over grades and even trivial points on homework. This competition was … often shakily hidden with remarks like “I got a 26/27 on that reading quiz last week. Oh, you got a 24/27? That’s pretty good.”


Serious students who study together can develop meaningful friendships, but in many respects their friendships seem narrower. Students who are working hard to keep their grades up are busy. Often they have complicated schedules and less time to simply hang out. As we have seen, one of the ways they compensate for this is to communicate with their friends via texting and social media.

The students we observed in 2013–14 seemed less relaxed than the students of 1997–99. Admittedly, this is a very impressionistic observation and it refers to a subtle change of ambiance rather than changes in the social categories or the explicit content of social roles. More academic students still have “best friends” for sharing secrets and anxieties. The difference is that it is not unusual—much less “weird”—that many of these shared anxieties are about grades or standardized exams. In the previous blog one student joked about “white students” being concerned about “only” making a 97 on a chemistry exam. His remarks are, of course, a parody—but it is a parody that points to an important change in teenage culture.

As in the previous trends that I have mentioned, it is difficult to know to what extent trends in high schools stimulate similar parallels in the broader society versus simply copy or reflect these tendencies. Certainly other observers claim that such trends are present. In his extensive study, The Meaning of Friendship, Mark Vernon puts it this way:


With work, the threat comes from being used. In a utilitarian culture, such as obtains in many parts of our world, the problem is that people tend to be valued for what they do, not who they are; they tend to be thought of as means to ends, and when treated as such become, in Adam Smith’s words, “unlovely.”


Whatever the direction of causation, the replacement of expressive and emotional friendships by yet another form of instrumentalism is a reason for concern.

Murray Milner, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Senior Fellow at IASC. His most recent books are Elites: A General Model (2015), and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers is an Era of Consumerism, Standardized Tests, and Social Media, 2nd Edition (2015) from which this essay is drawn.