In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world - 14. The teenager

The concept of teenagerhood is a relatively modern invention that quickly took centre stage in mainstream culture

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the spotlight is on the teenager:

The teenager in 60 seconds

The idea of teenagerhood as a distinct stage of life between childhood and adulthood was first popularised in the 1940s.

Not to be confused with the biological process of adolescence, the cultural phenomenon of the teenager - anyone aged between 13 and 19 -  developed in response to a booming economy that provided more money, time and freedom for young people to build their identities.

Teenagers are seen as too old and developed to be considered children, but have not yet fully developed physically, mentally or culturally into adults. This in-between state generally means teenagers have more rights and freedoms than their younger peers, but fewer than adults, with only older teens usually allowed privileges such as the right to vote, buy alcohol, or drive a car.

British teenagers are said to be some of the unhappiest in the world, with this malaise blamed on factors including social media pressure and competitive parenting.

How did the concept develop?

The notion of teenagerhood as we now know it is widely viewed as having originated in the US.

In 1945, The New York Times published an article titled “A teen-age bill of rights” laying out a ten-point set of freedoms that US teenagers ought to have in the aftermath of the Second World War, as many youngsters struggled to reintegrate into society after fighting in the conflict. These rights included having “a say in his own life” and “to struggle toward his own philosophy in life”.

In the following years, rapid economic growth in the US meant many households were better off than ever before. More people were able to buy houses, resulting in more space and privacy for many teens.

Birth rates declined and parents began spending more money on their offspring, while teens found it much easier to get part-time work. And rather than needing to contribute to the household, teens could keep the money they earned.

The result was a new demographic of consumers with disposable incomes - and little idea how to spend it. Advertisers were quick to react, marketing a new culture aimed at high-school age youths.

The growth of the concept of teenagerhood was further boosted by new rules that made public education compulsory across the US. This meant young people spent more time at school, away from the adult world and with more space to develop their own identities, customs and rules.

“The abolition of child labour and the lengthening span of formal education have given us a huge leisure class of the young, with animal energies never absorbed by tasks of production,” wrote a New York Times commentator in 1957.

The increasing number of households with cars brought young people further freedom, and fed the growth of the high-school subculture. 

“The privacy that a car afforded also encouraged sexuality, certainly ‘petting’ and sometimes ‘going all the way’,” says Encyclopedia.com.

This more sexualised subculture was greeted with concern by many commentators, who viewed teenagers as a volatile and unknown quantity.

In 1953, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) published a report warning that “the nation can expect an appalling increase in the number of crimes that will be committed by teenagers in the years ahead”.

And in 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower used his State of the Union address to call for a national legislation to “assist the states in dealing with this nationwide problem”.

Just months later, Rebel Without a Cause hit US cinemas. Starring 20-something rising star James Dean as teen rebel Jim Stark, the movie “helped start a revolution that gave society the modern teenager”, says journalist Alex Bauer in an article on online publishing platform Medium.

The film is often credited as having defined what it meant to be a teenager. However, as The New Yorker says: “It is difficult, if not impossible, to say to what extent the press, the movies, and other mass media have reflected the teenager and to what extent they have moulded him.” 

How did it change the world?

Teenage culture has had a major effect on almost every money-making industry.

Fashion retailers sell their clothes using teenage models; many blockbuster films are made with teenage casts for teenage audiences; and music, cars, games, food and drinks are all often marketed towards teens.

This young subgroup of society now injects around £1.7bn into the UK economy each year, with 84% of teens’ money going on clothes, socialising with friends, food and gaming, according to the BBC.

And then there’s the marketing aimed at parents of teens. 

“Since the 1970s, the richest 20% households have more than doubled their spending on childhood “enrichment”, such as summer camps, sports and tutors,” says US magazine The Saturday Evening Post.

But the evolution of the teenager isn’t limited to their consumer identity.

The arrival of the vocal teenager turned many young people into activists for social justice, with thousands campaigning for civil rights and against the Vietnam War back in the 1960s, and against gun crime and climate change today.

Teenagers are also influencing each other to make social change. Swedish activist Greta Thunberg told the Democracy Now! news site that she launched the school strike for climate after seeing young people refusing to return to school during the March for Our Lives demonstrations in support of legislation to prevent gun violence in the US.

As The Saturday Evening Post concludes: “For adults, especially those with power and money, the rules are what keep you safe. When you’re young, every rule is illegitimate until proven otherwise.

 “It is precisely because they have so little to lose from the way things are that young people will continue to be the inexhaustible motor of culture.”

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