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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
He did not think that forging an identity in such a complex and confusing society as ours was easy for most people. He wanted adolescence to be what he termed “a psycho-social moratorium,” to allow people the time and space to get a sense of how they would deal with the world of which they would be a part. Among the results would be an occupational identity, a sense of how one would support and express oneself.
And so ideas about the nature of adolescence have shaped our image of teenagers. Reclassifying all people of secondary school age as teenagers wasn’t possible until nearly all had some period of adolescence before entering adult life. Still, teenager isn’t just another word for adolescent. Indeed, the teenager may be, as Edgar Z. Friedenberg argued in a 1959 book, a failed adolescent. Being a teenager is, he said, a false identity, meant to short-circuit the quest for a real one. By giving people superficial roles to play, advertising, the mass media, and even the schools confuse young people and leave them dissatisfied and thus open to sales pitches that promise a deepening of identity.
Whether you agree with that argument or not, it does seem evident that the challenges of adolescence have been changing rapidly in the last several decades, leaving the label “teenager” as little more than a lazy way of talking about young people. The term encompasses a contradictory grab bag of beliefs, prejudices, and expectations. It can allow us to build a wall around an age group and to assume that its members’ problems can safely be ignored.
The generation entering its teens today will be in sheer number, if not as a percentage of the population, the largest in our history. The people in this age group have already emerged as the most significant marketing phenomenon since the baby boom. They have spurred the opening of new teen-oriented clothing stores in malls and the launching of successful new magazines. They are helping make the Internet grow. They even have their own television network, the WB. They have their own money to spend, and they spend a lot of their families’ income too, partly because their mothers are too busy to shop.
But they do not represent any return to the teenage golden age of the 1950s and 1960s. This generation has grown up in a period of declining personal income and increasing inequality. A sizable percentage consists of the children of immigrants. Educational aspirations are very high, and no wonder: You need a college education today to make a salary equivalent to that of a high school graduate in 1970. The permanent occupational identity that was available in the post-World War II society of which Erikson wrote, one in which lifelong work for large corporations was the norm, has all but disappeared. Many see their parents still striving for the sort of stable identity Erikson thought could be resolved in youth. While it appears to be a great time to be a teenager, it seems a difficult one to be an adolescent.
Throughout history Americans in their teens have often played highly responsible roles in their society. They have helped their families survive. They have worked with new technologies and hastened their adoption. Young people became teenagers because we had nothing better for them to do. High schools became custodial institutions for the young. We stopped expecting young people to be productive members of the society and began to think of them as gullible consumers. We denned maturity primarily in terms of being permitted adult vices, and then were surprised when teenagers drank, smoked, or had promiscuous sex.
Young people became teenagers because we had nothing better for them to do. We began seeing them not as productive but as gullible consumers.
We can no longer go to Samoa to gain perspective on the shape of our lives at the dawn of the third millennium, nor can we go back in time to find a model for the future. What we learn from looking at the past is that there are many different ways in which Americans have been young. Young people and adults need to keep reinventing adolescence so that it serves us all. Sometimes what we think we know about teenagers gets in our way. But just as there was a time, not long ago, before there were teenagers, perhaps we will live to see a day when teenagers themselves will be history.