Growing up in Europe, 1945 to Now
(EXHIBITION ENDED 2020)
In the past 70 years, young people in Europe have gone from being a group to whom history happened, to a group that actually makes history. This exhibition looks at four generations of such young people who came of age at key moments in the European story: the late 1940s, the 1960s, the 1980s and the 2000s. It explores the key experiences of youth; from education and employment, to forging an identity and finding love.
Such experiences are inevitably shaped by the politics, society, culture and economics of the time. Being young in an affluent and free society is very different from a youth shaped by poverty or political oppression.
Across Europe, young people chose to break with the values of their parents and view themselves as a distinct generation – ‘my generation’. They forged their own culture with its own set of values; values that young people were ready to fight and even die for.
But while this exhibition is about young people, it is not just for them. All of us were young once, and while youth may be fleeting, it is rarely forgotten.
Europe’s Quiet Generation?
The Second World War had deeply traumatised young people and their families. Loved ones were lost or separated from each other, the infrastructure of daily life laid in ruins. Against the backdrop of scarcity and shortage, young people were getting on with their lives. Wedding dresses made out of parachute silk and cardboard wedding cakes symbolise the struggle to create a sense of stability and normality.
Unfortunately, the end of the war did not always mean the end of violence and peace for everybody. Struggles of in the form of wars and opposition movements continued in many countries. Instead of enjoying the long-desired freedom, young people were again affected by violence and severe punishments. In newly established communist regimes in Eastern Europe young people became involved in a number of resistance movements, both peaceful and armed.
He was carrying the saw on his back during a sudden raid. Kokk got shot but the saw stopped the bullet and he was unharmed. However, in 1949 Kokk was deported to Siberia, where he died.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, a specific youth culture did not yet exist in Europe. However, newly emerging youth cultures influenced by America attracted wide scores of Europe’s youth who wished to express their individuality and opposition to the conformity of society. Different subcultures emerged in almost every country: Teddy Boys and Rockers in the UK, Blousons noirs in France, Teppisti in Italy, Nozem in the Netherlands, Halbstarken in Germany, Bikiniarze in Poland, Jampecok in Hungary, Malagambisti in Romania, Potápkas or Páseks in Czechoslovakia, and Stilyagi in the Soviet Union.
Authorities in East and West were alarmed by the rise of the youth subcultures. Increasingly, government and the police viewed these young people as hooligans and juvenile delinquents, and harassed them because of their appearance.
Europe’s young people and youth movements expressed a desire for peace, which would only be fulfilled by them acting across national boundaries. Youth was depicted as beautiful, strong, and — with peace symbols — united internationally in the fight for freedom. International youth camps and youth meetings were organised across Europe as a means of post-war reconciliation.
The Cold War changed this situation as Soviet domination gripped Eastern Europe, isolating it and disrupting broad international exchange. Youth and young people became a key weapon in the propaganda war between East and West
Between Despair and Hope
High youth unemployment led many to stay longer in education and postpone settling down. Frustration was also growing in Eastern Europe, where the young saw little chance of advancement within failing communism. A common refrain appeared in the music of young people ‘No Future’. Economic, cultural and political stagnation inspired new genres and subcultures. Punk, for example, set out to shock and offend, offering a critique of contemporary society and lifestyle all over Europe.
In 1980/81, a wave of street protests, squatting and violent clashes with police broke out. Young people were dissatisfied with the current system, yet unable to find an alternative.
Unemployment and racial and religious tensions also led to bloody confrontations, often with young people involved.
In the East, young people were more concerned with peace, freedom and human rights. They would become instrumental in the movement for reform and autonomy.
By the early 1980s changes promised by the sexual revolution seemed about to materialise. Contraception was increasingly available and women gained more control over decisions affecting their bodies. Young Europeans were having sex earlier and before marriage. Casual sex was more readily accepted by both young men and young women. Homosexuality became more visible. Sexual relationships were seen as uncomplicated. But the advent of AIDS radically changed lives and attitudes to sexuality.
Young urban professionals – yuppies – were the ‘winners’ of the 1980s’ economic upturn, displaying their success in every facet of their lives. The music video, hyper-visual and commercial, highlighted the increasing internationalism and image-consciousness of youth culture. By the early 1990s, mobility in education and employment, combined with rising living standards and dissolving political division, created an image of Europe’s youth that was both cosmopolitan and outward looking.