The concept of “teenager” and of “teenage culture” is rather new, something that history has never seen before. It’s an abnormality that we consider normal, that we take for granted.
For centuries up to the present, there was no such thing as a teenager. The word “teenager” was used for the first time around 1941,1 and it is a Madison Avenue term. Prior to this, those of this age group were referred to as young adults or adolescences. But in the early 20th Century, a number of events occurred that ended up establishing the concept of “teenager” and teenage culture.
First of all, what do I mean by “teenager”? A teenager, according to the modern understanding, is a boy or girl, beginning at about 11 to 13 years of age, who is starting to become an adult; who is starting to grow somewhat independent from their parents. They are also undergoing the physical and hormonal changes that start to take place at this age. They now have the powers of reproduction, and all the new sensations and temptations that go with it. They also experience the urge to assert their own will and their own personality.
In a certain sense, that was always true of boys and girls of this age group. It’s that period of transition between childhood and adulthood.
What is new in the modern phenomenon we call “teenager”, however, is a kind of rebellion against parents and a separation from family. His peers, not his family, will be the greatest influence of the teen’s life. He will expect to enjoy an active social life independent from his family or guardians. He will also submerge himself in the teenage culture of dating, leisure, movies and rock and roll.
In fact, rock and roll and movies are entire industries that are centered very much on this age group, and helped create the modern “teenager”. This is all new, and had its foundation in 20th Century America.
The author Taylor Caldwell, who was born in England in 1900, and who could read Shakespeare at the age of six, came with her family to America in 1907. She wrote of what she saw in the United States regarding her years as an adolescent, and said the following in her 1971 book On Growing Up Tough:
“In America of those days there was no time to be a ‘teenager’, or to have adolescent ‘turmoils’. None of my schoolmates ended up on welfare roles even during the Great Depression, nor were any of them criminals, murderers or whiners. Our parents, even in American before the Depression – had been tough, perhaps most not as tough as mine, but all happily tough enough.”2
There was a time in America, not all that long ago, when we did have not anything called “teenager.”
Where did this new creation come from?
The phenomenon we know as “teenager” arose around 1930, even though the term ‘teenager” had not yet been coined. The main component in establishing the teenager and teenager culture was the establishment of the public, co-ed high school.
High schools themselves are of relatively recent invention. The first high school in the country was in Boston, founded in 1821. Other high schools started to pop up as well, but there were not many of them, relatively few young people attended, and many students who entered high school did not finish. Those who entered high school were considered somewhat of an elite (we will discuss 19th Century high schools shortly).
Then comes the Great Depression of 1929, and all of this starts to change. Most young men of what we will call “teen” years were already in the work force. My grandfather, for example, born in Italy in 1903, got married at age 19. But at that point in his life, he already had seven years of work under his belt.
With the Depression, the job market bottomed out. It was nearly impossible to find work. These young people were thus forced into the classroom in much greater numbers, so that by 1936, 65 percent of American adolescents were high school students. This was the highest number in history to that point. Prior to 1929, only about 25 percent attended high school.3 These public high schools were co-ed, since all male (single gender) public high schools were declared unconstitutional in 1893.
Then in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the National Youth Association, with the intention of getting as many youngsters into high school as possible.
Grace Palladino, a secular author,4 writes of the consequences of this sudden rise of the number of adolescents now going to high school:
“In the process, adolescents had become an age group and not just a wealthy social class, a shift that helped to create the idea of a separate teenage generation. When a teenage majority spent the better part of their day in high school, they learned to look to one another and not to adults for advice, information and approval.”5
It is here that the teenage world starts to become a world apart, a nation unto itself.
There is another aspect of the herding of children in into co-ed, public high
schools that Grace Palladino does not mention: it defers maturity.
Also, by 1929, the whole concept of the purpose of the high school had shifted
from its original vision in the early 19th Century.
The first high school in the United States, as noted earlier, was the Boston
English Classical School established in 18216 (later called Boston English High School). Its declared aim was “to give a child an education that shall fit him for an active life, and shall serve as a foundation for eminence in his profession, whether Mercantile or Mechanic.”7
The second public high school in the nation was Central High School on Olney Avenue in Philadelphia. Established in 1838, it was modeled on the US Military Academy at West Point. These high schools, as was the case with all of the high schools established during this time, were seen as an alternative to college.
Central High was an all male school operating on the principle that it could “produce educated men who were highly employable by age 16.”8
This, in fact, is what it did. These schools took the intellectual capacities of 12 to 16 year-olds seriously. The school produced mature, competent young men who could take their place in working professions at 16 years of age.
In 1849, for example, a sixteen year old named James J. McElhone, who had just graduated from Philadelphia’s Central High, moved to Washington DC, and became a Congressional reporter. There were a number of 16-year-olds who pursued the same path.
At the time, a fierce congressional debate was raging regarding slavery. McElhone took down the debate word-for-word in the Pitman shorthand he had learned at Central High. For the next two years, McElhone and his young friends, ages 16 to 18, created the official record of what historians consider to be some of the most important congressional debates in US History. This is what high schools used to produce.
Today, by contrast, the most profound thought of the average American 16-year- old is an obsession with getting his driver’s license, or purchasing the latest Xbox game or iPod app. Meanwhile, adults are still asking the 16-year-old what he wants to be when he grows up.
Granted, the reason for deferment of maturity is a bit more complex than what I’ve outlined so far, and I’m not ignoring the complexities. I am simply comparing the maturity level of 16-year-olds of 100 years ago to today.
And I’m not saying I was any better at that age. In many ways, I was a product of the culture. When I was 16 the two most important items in my life were getting my driver’s license and playing Allman Brothers guitar solos “just like the record”.
I also wish to emphasize that anything I say in this presentation is not intended to be condemnatory of our young people. It is merely to point out that what we call the “teenage culture” is disordered, and we should recognize this disorder. I believe parents should think twice before they allow their children to become simply the products of the popular culture.
By the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century, we saw changes in American education. Colleges were setting up curriculum for high school, and high school thus became more structured as preparation for college rather than preparation to enter the work force with all of one’s education behind him. Here again, we see the by-product: the more time young adults spent in school, the more maturity was deferred.
In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt established the National Youth Administration (NYA) with the goal of getting as many youngsters into high schools as possible. Another goal of the National Youth Administration was to establish a break between the students and the ethnic, old-world culture of their families.
The NYA did not state this explicitly but it was implicit in its programs. One of the goals was to produce a middle-class American adolescent who was distinctly American.
The NYA established “resident centers” where some adolescents would stay for up to two weeks. The poorer among these adolescents would be introduced to diets, customs and a middle-class standard of living that would make them discontent with what they had at home. On the one hand, it is good to help those in strained circumstances to be shown a way out of their poverty. On the other hand, the way this is done poses the danger of driving a wedge between parent and adolescent.
In “ethnic” neighborhoods, the National Youth Administration taught adolescents how to prepare American meals: hot dogs, Minute Rice, instead of pasta e fagioli. The youngsters were encouraged to cut family ties if Old World parents were too demanding. In fact, as Paladino writes, “the most successful NYA participants were those who shed parents’ poverty-stricken or ‘ethnic’ ways and adopted a more ‘natural’ American middle-class manner.”9
There was another shift in the 1930s as well.
The purpose of high school, supposedly, was to prepare the youngster for his future life as an adult. That is how the schools saw it, and how the parents who sent their children to the schools saw it. Youth magazines such as Scholastic, Every Girl, and the Girl Scouts’ American Girl, would publish articles on how to make the right choices, how to prepare for the future, various professions to consider, and similar themes.
But that’s not what the adolescents were interested in, it’s not what they wanted to read or to talk about. What they wanted to read and talk about was themselves: how do I look prettier? How to I become popular? How do I get accepted in my social group? What about talking to boys? What about talking to girls? – all these new concerns.
Youth magazines soon realized that if they wanted their magazines to sell, they would have to give the youngsters what they wanted. This type of thinking caused a shift that made adolescents see the activities and the social life they are living now as all-important.
As the economy started to recover in the late 1930s, and with the outbreak of World War II, “high school students were developing a public identity that had nothing to do with family life and adult responsibilities.”10 These are the beginnings of the “teen culture”.
Young people also started to adopt swing music as their own. Dances and a preoccupation with what the swing bands and singers were doing became central in their lives.
As the War dragged on, family life was disrupted with many mothers pulled into the workplace. Gasoline shortages and other privations cut the joy riding that many teens had adopted. But after the War, the party started again, and it was greatly magnified by the post-war boom economy.
It was at this point that corporate America began to notice that the teen culture was a golden opportunity to make millions of dollars by marketing directly to teens. These young people (mid 1940s into the 50s), had lots of free time, and lots of money, and what money the teens did not have, the parents had, and the marketing men knew this!
1 The Death of the Grown-Up, Diana West, [New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 2007], p 1.
2 On Growing Up Tough, Taylor Caldwell, [Brooklyn: Fawcett Books, 1972], p. 16.
3 Some statistics put that number much lower. One statistic I could not verify said it was only six percent.
4 Teenagers: An American History, Grace Palladino [New York: Basic Books, 1996]. The author’s statistical and historical information is worth reading, but her sympathies appear to be on the side of the revolution. Chapter 14, the book’s final chapter, especially indicates this wherein Palladino lauds birth control and abortion as allegedly new freedoms for young women.
5 Teenagers, p. 5.
6 See The Rise and Fall of the American Teenage, Thomas Hine [New York: Perennial, 1999], Chapter Eight: “The Invention of the High School”
7 Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, p. 144.
8Ibid. P. 46.
9 Teenagers (Palladino), pp. 39-41.
Next Week: Part 2 of 3: Life with “Teena”