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The Rise And Decline of the Teenager
The word emerged during the Depression to define a new kind of American adolescence—one that prevailed for half a century and may now be ending
September 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 5
First came the country’s general economic collapse and a dramatic disappearance of jobs. As in previous panics and depressions, young people were among those thrown out of work. What was different was that after 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, virtually all young people were thrown out of work, as part of a public policy to reserve jobs for men trying to support families. Businesses could actually be fined if they kept childless young people on their payrolls. Also, for the first two years of the Depression, the Roosevelt administration essentially ignored the needs of the youths it had turned out of work, except in the effort of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was aimed at men in their late teens and early twenties.
There was, however, one very old and established institution available to young people who wanted to do something with their time and energy: high school. The first public high school had opened in Boston in 1821, but secondary education was very slow to win acceptance among working-class families that counted on their children’s incomes for survival. Not until 112 years after that first school opened were a majority of high-school-age Americans actually enrolled.
The depression was the worst possible time for high school to catch on. The American public education system was, then as now, supported primarily by local real estate taxes; these had plummeted along with real estate values. Schools were laying off teachers even as they enrolled unprecedented numbers of students. They were ill equipped to deal with their new, diverse clientele.
For many of these new students, high school was a stopgap, something one did to weather a bad time. But by 1940 an overwhelming majority of young people were enrolled, and perhaps more important, there was a new expectation that nearly everyone would go, and even graduate.
This change in standards was a radical departure in the way society imagined itself. Before the Depression finishing high school was a clear mark that a youth, particularly a male, belonged to the middle class or above. Dropping out in the first or second year indicated membership in the working class. Once a large majority started going to high school, all of them, regardless of their economic or social status, began to be seen as members of a single group. The word teenager appeared precisely at the moment that it seemed to be needed.
Not long before, many young people in their mid-teens had been considered virtually grown up. Now that they were students rather than workers, they came to seem younger than before. During the 1920s “youth” in the movies had meant sexually mature figures, such as Joan Crawford, whom F. Scott Fitzgerald himself called the definitive flapper. Late in the 1930s a new kind of youth emerged in the movies, personified above all by the bizarre boy-man Mickey Rooney and the Andy Hardy movies he began to make in 1937. His frequent co-star Judy Garland was part of the phenomenon too. As Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, Garland was clearly a woman, not the girl everyone pretended she was. The tension between the maturity she feels and the childishness others see in her helps make the film more than a children’s fantasy. It is an early, piquant expression of the predicament of the teenager.
During the 1920s “youth” in the meant sexually mature figures like Joan Crawford. By the late 1930s it meant Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
Another less profound but amazingly enduring model for the emerging idea of the teenager was that perennial high schooler Archie, who first appeared in a comic book in 1941. He was drawn by Bob Montana, a teenager himself, who was working for a living as a staff artist at a comic book company. For the last half-century Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, and their circle have appealed more to youngsters aspiring to become teenagers than to teenagers themselves.
Nevertheless, the early popularity of characters like Andy Hardy and Archie indicated that the view of high school students as essentially juvenile was catching on. A far stronger signal came when the draft was revived, shortly before the United States entered World War II. Although married men with families were eligible for induction, in many cases up to the age of forty, high school students were automatically deferred. Young men of seventeen, sixteen, and younger had been soldiers in all of America’s previous wars and, more than likely, in every war that had ever been fought. By 1941 they had come to seem too young.
Having identified the teenager as a Frankenstein monster formed in the thirties by high school, Mickey Rooney movies, child psychology, mass manufacturing, and the New Deal, I might well have traced the story through bobbysoxers, drive-in movies, Holden Caulfield, Elvis, the civil rights martyr Emmett Till, top-forty radio, Gidget, the Mustang, heavy metal, Nirvana. Instead I found myself drawn farther into the past. While the teenager was a new thing in 1940, it nevertheless was an idea with deep roots in our culture.