During the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st, the cities of England were becoming overcrowded. Rural folk and urban professionals mixed shoulder to shoulder. By this time in the evolution of the city, as compared to the non-city, life had begun to form different cultural qualities. What worked in the city did not work in the country, and vice versa. This meant that two distinctly types of people were living side by side as net migration and the promise of more money and a better life drew more people into the urban environment.
Pressure from charitable sides wishing to help those in need, and pressure from professional guilds who wished to keep their trades safe from what we would now call “cowboy” contractors, meant that the Royal court was drawn into action. The Queen decided upon a series of Poor Laws in the 1550s, and in 1555 the first institution was built to control and house the urban poor. Vagrancy laws were also introduced which made it a criminal offence to be in a city but without a residence. Many rural poor would arrive in the city without money or trade in the hope to find work and settle. These laws were intended to prevent this migration.
It was from this point that a material and social difference had been established between the over and under classes, where laws designed to assist and control provided a dualistic approach to the problem of poverty. Many who did not like the attitude and ways of the higher classes would gladly identify with the underclass in order to establish their sense of personal identity. These people would not consider themselves over or under, but generally simply a member of their particular trade of family. It is in the urban and crowded environment in which separating people into larger social groupings became required in order to maintain and govern such large communities.
The notion of working class was culturally defined in the nineteenth century, where industry gave more job opportunity and provided astronomical wealth to a new breed of entrepreneur. Those in “ragged and labouring” classes were the new underclass, and those with wealth were everybody else. This would later become the middle class, as equality in wages gradually improved in the 20th century.
It was this segregation of people in large communities that bred the mentalities which allowed society to expand in artistic and cultural directions now understood as subculture. As the class system is no longer used to identify people, the terms working professional and unemployed generally fit to most city folk, subculture as a means of building personal identity became more important. This could be most true for those who are going through adolescence as during this time, we require a personal story and mindset which suits our turbulent experience of who we are.
Defining self according to our tastes and wants, our feelings on life, love, and even death, is perhaps the most appropriate method of understanding society that we have accomplished. From the carrot and stick approach of the sixteenth century which still manifests today in the form of the benefits system, to the provision of culturally relevant and accessible places of interest and congregation, subculture has become diverse and symbolic of almost every aspect of our lives.
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