The Eruption of Youth Culture in America

The youth culture of the 1960s – often referred to as a “counterculture” or a “subculture” – saw the emergence of a new youth lifestyle, one that challenged the values and morals of their parents’ generation. While no generation is a monolith,  during the 1960s and 1970s, many Boomers (the Baby Boom generation with birth years between 1946 and 1964) and Silent Gens (the generation born between 1925 and 1945) experienced a radical disconnect in social, political, and economic values, which ultimately led to their major rivalry. Popular history tends to classify the ideologies of these generations rather generally – it is important to disclose that not every Silent Gen necessarily opposed the counterculture, and not every Boomer was in favor of it. Nevertheless, the conflict that arose between these two generations remains notable in modern American history.

The conclusion of World War II ushered in a time of social and economic prosperity, especially after the hardships of the Great Depression. Silent Gens were children during the Great Depression, and they learned the values of hard work and American nationalism, as World War II helped pull the US economy out of the Great Depression. In the years following the war, birth rates spiked across the country giving way to the generation of Baby Boomers. The baby boom encouraged the image of the traditional American “nuclear family” structure. Nuclear families spiked during the 1950s and consisted of two married adults and two or more of their biological children, all living in one household. This structure became the intrinsic archetype of the new American dream. Having lived through years of economic hardship and war, the Silent Generation settled down to enjoy uniform lives of prosperity and consumption. These were the environments in which most of them raised their children. The Baby Boomers benefited from the structured lifestyles of their parents and, due to massive economic recovery after the war, lived in a continuously growing middle class, with America secured as the world’s richest country (“The Postwar Economy”).

The futures of Boomers were bright and filled with plans to attend universities and work in respectable industries. However, as they came of age, many Boomers shifted away from traditional values of living that their parents so carefully instilled in them. Counterculture was a response led by the Baby Boomer generation to the cookie-cutter, uniform lifestyle that their parents had adopted and, by extension, expected of their children. Mario Savio expressed this ideal in his 1964 “Put Your Body Upon the Gears” speech, where he compared his own generation of young people to “raw materials” that their parents’ generation would mold and profit from. He asserted that their lives were part of a “machine” that contributed to capitalism and properly functioned off of normalcy and traditional social values (California Newsreel). Savio was a student activist on his campus at University of California Berkeley and gained significant traction in California for his speeches and work in the counterculture. His role in American student radicalism was substantial, and he was widely known for his activism in areas such as student rights and the Vietnam war (Savage).

The counterculture involved several sub-culture movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement, feminist movements and the hippie movement. Counterculture and the Free Speech Movement took hold of university campuses, primarily around the activism of white, middle-class college students. Students at UC Berkeley found the Black Power Movement to be particularly influential to their advocacy. Black students did participate in on-campus activism during this time; however, the free speech movement was popularly associated with white middle-class Americans (California Newsreel). Whereas black activists were challenging a white power structure, white student activists were challenging their own parents who were that power structure. Essentially, college students were advocating for a radical transformation of the entire society, towards a future that encouraged experimentation, alternative lifestyles and inclusive, anti-establishment core values. What then emerged throughout the 1960s and 1970s was a conflict between Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation.

The effects of the counterculture were immense, and their presence was especially felt on college campuses. The Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964 spawned student activism and social buzz across the nation. Loyola University underwent some of this influence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well. The effects that the counterculture had on the student community at Loyola can be seen in the university annuals – particularly the 1969 university annual. The yearbook took political stances on such affairs as the Vietnam war. Song lyrics from popular artists such as Bob Dylan were dropped sporadically throughout its pages. Other quotes pushed for the peace movement and other youth culture influences (1969 Loyola yearbook).

Upon the yearbook’s release, a controversy erupted over the countercultural style that it exhibited. In a letter written in the spring of 1969 to the president of Loyola University, a student described the annual as being “riddled with sarcasm and mockery,” involving subjects like the war in Vietnam, “out of context quotes” by artists like Bob Dylan, and “senseless pictures which are totally irrelevant to the concept of an annual.” He described himself as feeling disgusted upon receiving such a poor excuse for a yearbook. Moreover, students attending Loyola University were automatically charged a fee that covered the costs for their student annuals at the end of the school year. The student concluded his sentiment of disgust by revoking his support for future publications and demanding a refund of his yearbook fee.

Letter from Craig Sayre, 1969, Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

The controversy was felt by students and faculty alike. The university administration threatened to cease publication of yearbooks altogether, which garnered backlash from many students, who argued that they were exercising free speech and that an annual was intrinsic to one’s college experience. Many faculty members were under severe pressure by the student community and were left with numerous letters from angry students, as well as hefty decisions to make regarding annual production in the future. Philosophy professor Jasper Blystone expressed his dissatisfaction with the uproar caused by students regarding the yearbook in a letter written to Michael Stoltz in 1971. Stoltz was a head coordinator of ASLMU, the program that supported and published the university’s annuals, and had defended the yearbook’s production and the students who supported it. Blystone’s letter referred to the controversy as a “scandal.” He ultimately scolded students for being so disruptive over decisions that the university made without their consent, if the matter interested them. He also accused students for being silent over decisions made by the university that made little difference to their own interests. He closed out his letter to Stoltz saying, “were the students as vociferous…in the interests of the academic as they are in the nonacademic functions, their voice might be more credible.” In short, he made it clear that he felt students were prioritizing matters embedded in counterculture over the well-being of their education and the university.

Letter from Jasper Blystone, 1971, Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

Blystone’s response effectively illustrates the divide that Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation faced during the 1960s and 1970s. Where the Boomers wanted to see change in their governments and university administrators, as well as a more liberal influence, their predecessors sought to restore conservative ideals and social control. Although reactions to the annuals’ counter-cultural influence were mixed among students and their elders alike, the tension that was created from a massive cultural transition could be felt even in the smallest, and seemingly insignificant, places. Indeed, the yearbook controversy that Loyola University faced was minute compared to the entire movement. The yearbook controversy letters represented the reactions against what many saw as the upending of traditional values and social order and the fear of having these new values taint the university’s image. It is difficult to determine how significantly youth culture impacted the university experience at Loyola just from the yearbook controversy letters alone. Other events that were documented on campus during this time such as the Vietnam war protests, the emergence of a black student union, and a variety of other annuals, further expose the impact that counterculture had on Loyola University’s campus.

The eruption of counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s expanded the divide between the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers, as it severely tested each group’s social, political and economic values. The emerging youth culture had played a crucial role on college campuses especially, predominantly among white middle-class students who felt their rights were being oppressed. The yearbook controversy letters from Loyola University demonstrate the negative attitudes that people had toward the counterculture’s influence. These letters were one of many of counterculture-induced tensions at the university and represent an overall reaction to the uprooting of traditional society.

Written by Gail Garberg, History, LMU 2020

For further reading:

Blystone, Jasper. Letter to Michael Stoltz, September 15, 1971. University Archives, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA.

California Newsreel. Berkeley in the Sixties. 1990. Accessed November 4, 2019

Loyola University Student Annual, 1969, University Archives, Department of Archives and  Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA.

“The Postwar Economy: 1945-1960.” The Postwar Economy: 1945-1960 < Postwar America <History 1994 < American History From Revolution To Reconstruction and beyond. Accessed December 13, 2019. america/the-postwar-economy-1945-1960.php

Savage, Jon. “1966: The Year Youth Culture Exploded.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, November 15, 2015.

Sayre, Craig. Letter to President Charles Casassa, June 2, 1969. University Archives, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA.