The Rise And Decline of the Teenager

PrintPrintEmailEmailWhen the anthropologist Margaret Mead journeyed to the South Pacific in 1926, she was looking for something that experts of the time thought didn’t exist: untroubled adolescence.


Adolescence, psychologists and educators believed, was inevitably a period of storm and stress. It debilitated young men and women. It made their actions unpredictable, their characters flighty and undependable. And if people who had lived through their teens didn’t remember being that unhappy, some said, it was because it had been so traumatic that their conscious minds had suppressed what really happened.

At the age of twenty-five, Mead, who wasn’t all that far beyond adolescence herself, simply couldn’t believe that this picture of life’s second decade expressed a necessary or universal truth. If she could find a place where social and sexual maturity could be attained without a struggle, where adolescence was so peaceful it scarcely seemed to exist, her point would be made. So she went to Samoa.

There are few places left on earth remote enough to give a contemporary observer real perspective on how Americans think about their young people. The teenager, with all the ideas about adolescence that the word encodes, is one of our most potent cultural exports. All around the world, satellites beam down MTV with its messages of consumption, self-indulgence, alienation, angst, and hedonism. The American invention of youth culture has become thoroughly international; it causes consternation and sells products everywhere.

Still, although it is extremely difficult to travel far enough across the earth to escape our culture’s ideas about teenagers, one can travel in time. Youth has a history, and since the European colonization of North America, the second decade of life has offered a tremendous diversity of expectations and experiences. They haven’t all been good experiences; most were backbreaking, some horrifying. One needn’t be nostalgic for those lost forms of youth in order to learn from them. Nobody wants to send young people off to the coal mines, as was done a century ago, or rent them out to neighboring households as servants, as seventeenth-century New Englanders did. Nevertheless, history can be our Samoa, a window into very different ways of thinking and behaving that can throw our own attitudes into sharp relief and highlight assumptions that we don’t even know we’re making.

Like Mead, who freely admitted that her research in Samoa was shaped by what she viewed as a problem in the American culture of her own time, I have set out on historical explorations spurred by a suspicion that something is deeply wrong with the way we think about youth. Many members of my generation, the baby boomers, have moved seamlessly from blaming our parents for the ills of society to blaming our children. Teenage villains, unwed mothers, new smokers, reckless drivers, and criminal predators are familiar figures in the media, even when the problems they represent are more common among other age groups. Cities and suburbs enact curfews and other laws that only young people need obey, while Congress and state legislatures find new ways to punish young offenders as adults.

The way we think about teenagers is most contradictory. We assume that they should be somehow protected from the world of work, yet many high school students work as much as twenty hours a week. Teenagers form the core of our low-wage retail and restaurant work force, the local equivalent of the even lower-wage overseas manufacturing work force that makes the footwear and other items teens covet.

After 1933 virtually all young people were thrown out of work, and for the first time a majority of high-school-age Americans were actually enrolled.

Yet at the same time as our economy depends on the young, we tend to view teenagers as less than trustworthy. This is a hangover from the attitudes Mead was trying to fight, though nowadays we’re likely to ascribe young people’s perceived quirks to “raging hormones.” Most adults seem to view this conflicted, contradictory figure of the teenager as inevitable, part of the growth of a human being. Yet many people now living came of age before there was anything called a teenager. This creature is a mid-twentieth century phenomenon. And almost everything has changed since the early 1940s, when it emerged. Are teenagers still necessary?

The word teenager initially saw print in 1941. It isn’t known who thought up the word; its appearance, in an article in Popular Science, was not likely its first use. People had been speaking of someone in his or her teens for centuries, but that was a description of an individual. To speak of someone as a teenager is to make that person a member of a very large group, one defined only by age but presumed to have a lot in common. The word arose when it did because it described something new.

The teenager was a product of the Great Depression. Like other massive projects of the New Deal—the Hoover Dam, the TVA—it represented an immense channeling and redirection of energy. Unlike such public works, however, it was a more or less inadvertent invention. It happened in several steps.