The Rise And Decline of the Teenager

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This all sounds familiar, but this high school crowd still accounted for less than 10 percent of the secondary-school-age population. Nearly all the rest were working, most of them with their families on farms, but also in factories, mines, and department stores, in the “street trades” (as newspaper hawkers or delivery boys), in the home doing piecework, or even as prostitutes. If early high school students are obvious predecessors to today’s teenagers, their working contemporaries also helped create the youth culture.

One thing the working-class young shared with high school students and with today’s teenagers is that they were emissaries of the new. Parents wanted their children to be prepared for the future. Among the working class, a substantially immigrant population, newness was America itself. Throughout the nineteenth century settlement workers and journalists repeatedly observed the way immigrant parents depended on their children to teach them the way things worked in their new country. They also noted a generation gap, as parents tried to cling to traditions and values from the old country while their children learned and invented other ways to live. Parents both applauded and deplored their children’s participation in a new world. Youth became, in itself, a source of authority. When contemporary parents look to their children to fix the computer, program the VCR, or tell them what’s new in the culture, they continue a long American tradition.

For laboring purposes one ceased to be a child no later than the age of ten. In many states schooling was required until twelve or thirteen, but compulsory attendance laws were rarely strictly enforced. In Philadelphia in the 1880s the standard bribe to free one’s child from schooling was twenty-five cents. This was an excellent investment, considering how dependent many families were on their children. In Fall River, Massachusetts, some mill owners hired only men who had able-bodied sons who could also work. In Scranton, Pennsylvania, children’s incomes usually added up to more than their fathers’.

The working teenager is, of course, hardly extinct. American high school students are far more likely to have part-time jobs than are their counterparts in other developed countries, and their work hours are on average substantially longer. The difference is that families don’t often depend on their wages for their livelihood. Teenagers today spend most of what they earn on their own cars, clothing, and amusement. Indeed, they largely carry such industries as music, film, and footwear, in which the United States is a world leader. Their economic might sustains the powerful youth culture that so many find threatening, violent, and crude.

We can see the origins of this youth culture and of its ability to horrify in the young urban workers of the late nineteenth century. Young people, especially the rootless entrepreneurs of the street trades, were among the chief patrons of cheap theaters featuring music and melodrama that sprang up by the hundreds in the largest cities. (In Horatio Alger’s hugely popular novels, the first stage of the hero’s reform is often the decision to stay away from the theater and use the admission price to open a savings account.) They also helped support public dance halls, which promoted wild new forms of dancing and, many thought, easy virtue.

Adults are perennially shocked by the sexuality and the physical vitality of the young. There is nevertheless a real difference between the surprise and fear parents feel when they see their babies grow strong and independent and the mistrust of young people as a class. One is timeless. The other dates from 1904 and the publication of G. Stanley Hall’s fourteen-hundred-page Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education.

The twenty-five-year period following World War II was the classic era of the teenager. At the same time, though, teenagers were provoking a lot of anxiety.
 

With this book Hall, a psychologist and the president of Clark University, invented the field of adolescent psychology. He defined adolescence as a universal, unavoidable, and extremely precarious stage of human development. He asserted that behavior that would indicate insanity in an adult should be considered normal in an adolescent. (This has long since been proved untrue, but it is still widely believed.) He provided a basis for dealing with adolescents as neither children nor adults but as distinctive, beautiful, dangerous creatures. That people in their teens should be considered separately from others, which seems obvious to us today, was Hall’s boldest, most original, and most influential idea.