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A Brief History of the Teen

How two world wars and the industrial revolution created the modern teenager

Most people point to Rebel Without a Cause, the seminal 1955 James Dean movie about youth rebelling against their parents, as the introduction of the modern teenager. But the teenager began long before that. The history of the teen begins at the turn of the 20th century. In 1900, much like flight or motion pictures, the teenager wasn’t a relevant category. You were a child, then you got a job and you were an adult. Much of what defines the modern teen — listlessness, dissatisfaction and rebellion against the inadequacies of the previous generation, and an obsession with freedom, especially as it relates to automobiles — didn’t exist, because the freedom to have those dissatisfactions wasn’t available to the adolescents of the day.

But the concept of a “teen” was actually born when The New York Times published its monumental 1945 article “A ‘Teen-Age Bill of Rights,” which outlined a 10-point set of rights each teen ought to have in the immediate aftermath of World War II, with the influx of American teenagers back from war and into civilian society. The piece, a serious one aimed at providing something of an instructional manual for parents, was the first important use of the term “teenager,” though the word was first employed in a July 1936 review of G. Stanley Hall’s Adolescence. (The term “the teens” had been used since the 17th century, but wasn’t expressed as teenager or teen-ager until the 20th century.)

“In our current debate over ‘teen-agers, the pendulum has swung between ‘What is wrong with our children?’ and ‘What is wrong with us?’ One result is that the average parent often finds himself bewildered,” author Elliot E. Cohen began.

The rights outlined include “the right to make mistakes, to find out for himself,” “the right to have fun and companions,” and “the right to question ideas.” While we largely take those things for granted today — especially the right to have fun, a particularly modern invention — they were revolutionary at the time. Previously, teenagers were a part of the workforce. School often stopped when they became old enough to work on the farm or in a factory. Higher education existed, especially as a feeder into white-collar professions (lawyers, doctors, accountants, priests and the like), but it was exclusively the province of the middle and upper classes.

Matt Wolf, the director of Teenage, a documentary about the early history of the teenager, told Collectors Weekly that the labor movement is partially to thank for the invention of adolescence. “We also felt like the Industrial Revolution and the advent of child labor was a good way to bracket the story, since once you went to work, you were no longer considered a kid,” Wolf says. “When they started to make child labor illegal, this second stage of life emerged, and it needed a name. It was called adolescence.”

The invention of adolescence, the more catholic umbrella category from which teendom sprung, is traceable back to G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association and author of the two-part turn-of-the-20th-century opus entitled Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime and Religion. In his twin volumes, Hall hoped to categorize and explain the emergent youth and leisure class. His efforts mirror modern parenting manuals, although with a slightly more sinister bent. Hall believed in Darwinism and popularized the phrase “storm and stress” with reference to adolescence. Translated from the German Sturm und Drang, Hall believed that the stress brought on by risky behavior, moodiness and fighting with parents helped to develop the mind as we grow into adulthood. The Sturm movement emphasized strong emotions and relativity over fully objective thought.

Strangely enough, the phrase “Sturm und Drang” first appeared a little less than a century before the movement inspired, in the title of a German play about the then-ongoing American Revolution. Johann Wolfgang Goethe was a major figure in the movement, particularly with his early literary sensation, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel about young obsession and suicide that became basically the Harry Potter of its time. (Since he was an early-20th-century evolutionary psychologist, it only makes sense that Hall also believed that he could create a super-race through forced breeding and involuntary sterilization.)

Jon Savage, author of the book that inspired Wolf’s documentary, says that Hall’s work was prophetic of the ways in which teenagers would shape the American identity even though it came out four decades before the term reached true popularity. “It was published in 1904, and what he did at the end of the book, which really struck me, is say that youth is part of American nationalization,” Savage told The Washington Post in 2014. “And I thought that was really powerful, because obviously from a British standpoint, the 20th century was an American century, and after the Second World War, America was the great ideal.”

Of course, Hall’s manifesto also coincided with the Industrial Revolution and a pushback on child labor more generally. Or better put, a moral pushback — e.g., the National Child Labor Committee formed in 1904, focusing mainly on state legislation to gradually outlaw child workers — that struggled to gain legal traction. So while Congress passed laws restricting child workers, the Supreme Court overturned them. Like the Court’s 1918 ruling in Hammer v. Dagenhart, which declared such laws unconstitutional. Similarly, a constitutional amendment passed Congress in 1924 that would’ve banned the practice, but states refused to ratify it, partially due to the conservative climate at the time. It finally ended (more or less) with the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, a piece of legislation that mandated a minimum wage and maximum hour standards, effectively removing children from the labor pool for the manufacturing and mining industries.

“A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling worker’s wages or stretching workers’ hours,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Congress while introducing the act.

His opponents derided it as creeping socialism, arguing that American business would struggle to “find any time left to provide jobs if we are to persist in loading upon it these everlastingly multiplying governmental mandates and delivering it to the mercies of multiplying and hampering Federal bureaucracy.” Only after a series of resounding progressive victories in special elections, showcasing the level of public sentiment for the bill, did it pass over Southern protests.

A ground of young British soldiers during World War I

Meanwhile, World War I nearly wiped out Europe’s teen populace, largely because of a massive demographic gap between Germany and the rest of the powers arrayed against it. At the war’s outbreak in 1914, for instance, Germany had 3.7 million soldiers in its wartime army; Britain, on the other hand, had just 700,000 available men. A campaign to recruit volunteers attracted hundreds of thousands of willing recruits, including 250,000 under the legal fighting age of 19. And while the enlistment of young men dropped sharply after the institution of a draft in 1916, many still fought and died on the battlefield. John Condon, just one of the approximately 18 million to die during the war, was just 14 years old when he died fighting for Britain. Overall, the Great War claimed between 1.61 percent and 1.92 percent of Europe’s total population, including a disproportionate number of teenagers and young adults.

In America, the war’s despair ushered in a live-like-there’s-no-tomorrow sensibility and began a decade-long export of silent films, jazz and the jitterbug to Europe. “The annihilation of a generation of young men in World War I led to the despair of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land, which showed high culture in ruins,” legendary social critic Camille Paglia wrote in her New York Times review of Savage’s book. “But it also set off the manic pleasure-seeking of the Roaring Twenties, energized by populist jazz. Savage’s account of that decade’s international party scene is electrifying. The Bright Young People, typified by socialites like Brenda Dean Paul and Nancy Cunard, amazingly prefigure the carousing celebs who saturate our own media.”

But as war faded, a burgeoning new class of person burst into prominence — the teen-ager, as the Times might have written it back then. They came with both promise and a seemingly boundless capacity for savagery. In Britain, teenage gangs called hooligans ran rampant. And the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 were an excellent example of the violent, often racist character of early American teens. These clashes were sparked when a group of young white soldiers claimed they’d been jumped and beaten by a group of Mexican-Americans in zoot suits. What followed was essentially an all-out war between them, with the police on (shocker) the white people’s side.

“The question goes deeper than just [zoot] suits,” Eleanor Roosevelt said at the time. “It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should.”

So the youth needed to be controlled.

An early remedy: the Boy Scouts. The Scouts were founded in 1911, but didn’t come to prominence until the 1930s, when their membership surpassed 1 million.

“In 1908, a British man named [Robert] Baden-Powell said that he found a solution to the problem of youth,” Matt Wolf, the documentarian, told HuffPo. “He wrote a military training manual for the young called Scouting for Boys, and it became a manifesto for the Boy Scout movement. In the Scouts, young boys transformed from hooligans into fit and healthy soldiers, primed for war.”

By training teenagers as warriors, the Scouts were able to conscript young people into society. Rather than the dissolute swing kids or the wild Victory Girls, American youth would be easily controllable and disciplined. Essentially, Boy Scouts were nerds, but nerds who wouldn’t do things like incite race riots.

One of the paradigms of such militarized adolescence was the Hitler Youth. Though Germany was certainly home to examples of young people resisting the Nazi movement — the Kittlebach Pirates, in particular, were a thorn for the Hitler Youth and Nazis in general — many were swept up into its teeth. Savage says a key slogan was “Youth will be led by you.”

Their ultimate demise then came mostly because of the massive and heroic sacrifice on the part of millions of American, British, French, Russian, Spanish and Chinese teenagers. Each of them went to war as teens but came back as adults. And by beating back the militaristic tide of fascism, they created the opening for the truly modern teenager to develop — the 1950s teeny bopper seen in everything from Back to the Future to Rebel Without A Cause.

“Young people 16 to 20 are the beneficiaries of the very economic collapse that brought chaos almost a generation ago,” Life wrote in a June 1954 article called “The Luckiest Generation.” “The Depression tumbled the nation’s birth rate to an all-time low in 1933, and today’s teenage group is proportionately a smaller part of the total population than in more than 70 years. Since there are fewer of them, each — in the most prosperous time in U.S. history — gets a bigger piece of the nation’s economic pie than any previous generation ever got.”

Life obviously failed to mention that this pie was only for a specific type of teen — namely white suburban ones. Latinos and African Americans were largely excluded from portraits of teen life because of the deep racism of the time and because they worked longer hours at a much higher rate than their more affluent white counterparts.

But otherwise, the teens of the late 1950s and early 1960s were fairly close to the teens we know today. They’re also the teens that gave birth to the generation that became hippies, the first to engage in a modern multimedia protest against a war and government they considered unjust. They’re the teens currently controlling our government, looking to return us to the mythic America described in that Life article. But they, like our teens, were once a serious threat to America with their party phone lines, their insistence on modern dance music like Elvis, and their seemingly bullheaded insistence on identity politics. Civil rights? Who had heard of those? So too will our teens one day go, from the vanguard of a shining future to the blackguards of a misremembered past.