A few weeks back, upon hearing the taunt "hipster" bandied about in some corner of the internet, I begin reflecting on subcultures and their lifespan. It seemed odd, in 2014, that people were still treating "hipster" as if it were a daring thing to call someone, when hipsters peaked sometime around 2005. To talk about hipsters in the present as if someone loudly denounced those disco kids in 1988, or complained about the menace of greasers during The Summer of Love. Most subcultures last for a short time. Since high school is the great incubator and definer of subculture identities, many subcultures have a life span of a few years, defined by the five year span between becoming culturally aware and having to join the real world. Cultural history is littered with the attitudes, fashions and slang of subcultures that sprang up and withered away in less than a decade.
And yet, some American subcultures persist for decades, although often mutating along the way. "Hippies", for example, started in the mid-1960s, and have persisted for half a century. "Nerds" became a term in the late 1970s, although the foundations of nerdery also go back to the mid-1960s, and in both cases, the label and concept continue to the present. Although these subcultures have spread out and defused into the larger culture (as well as getting their own subsubcultures), they are still identified by most people as separate subcultures. There are several other subcultures that seem to last across generations, with basic attitudes and values persisting outside of the era of adolescent identity formation.
What makes a culture become perennial seems to be whether it addresses a basic, recurring need of the culture to channel a psychological or social impulse. There will always be people who wish to embrace a non-aggressive, experimental lifestyle, so there will always be hippies. There will always be people fascinated with academics, technology, and the involved, epic narratives of fantasy, so there will always be nerds. There will always be a pull towards the dark, mysterious and fascinating, so there will always be an incarnation of the gothic subculture. Sometimes these impulses blur and merge, but as long as people feel an outlet for certain emotions and attitudes, they will be around in one form or another.