The Invention of the Teenager

The term “teenager” seems an obvious one, a way to describe the group of people between the ages of 13 and 19. So I was surprised to find that the word didn’t come into play until the 1940’s.

That wasn’t just because no one had really coined the word but because for most of our history, society didn’t recognize people in this age group as representing a distinct class of humanity. There is a tradition of numerous social and religious ceremonies marking the passage from childhood to adulthood. The Jewish Bar Mitzvah, for example, celebrates the transition of the 12-year-old boy into the 13-year-old man. It is only in the last 75 years that we concluded there is something in between.

Boy workingIn his book “The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager,” author Thomas Hine notes that “during most of the 19th century 14-year-olds were viewed as inexperienced adults.” You went from being a mouth to feed to a worker who farmed or worked to help support the family. Hine notes that young people were more likely judged by size than by age.

The first half of the 20th century was a tumultuous time, a global Depression sandwiched between two brutal world wars. The economic volatility combined with cultural changes eventually led us to the conclusion that there was a category of humans who were bigger, stronger and hornier than children, yet lacking some of the thought and behavioral attributes that we traditionally associate with maturity. They were teenagers.

Hine believes the first use of the word teenager was in Popular Sciemce magazine in 1941. With dollar signs flashing before their eyes it was quickly latched onto by marketers, people whose descendents are today lighting up the term millennials.

How were teenagers invented? A lot had to do with high school. In the 20’s high schools began to move beyond the traditional classic education of Latin and Greek and to offer courses that were of broader interest like typing, bookkeeping and home economics.  When the Depression hit and young people were closed out of job prospects, some responded by staying in school longer. Enrollment of teenagers in high school in the U.S. was 28% in 1920, 47% in 1930 and 80% in 1941. Other than temporary events like war, it is the most significant ongoing factor in moving adolescents out of the home.

Grouped together with people their own age and in a co-educational environment, high schoolers took control of their own social life. Peers, not parents, became their primary influencers, at least when it came to the music, clothes and cars. And that’s what interested the marketers. Jon Savage, author of Teenage, notes that by 1944, “American youth had a spending capacity of $750 million; untold riches awaited those who plugged into this virtually untapped market.”

What emerged was a teenage culture that looked neither like childhood nor adulthood. It was instead, in the words of Grace Paladino, author of Teenagers: An American History, “a high school world of dating, dancing and drugstore antics afterschool.” Part of it came from the bottom up as teenagers themselves dictated the styles that would be in vogue, the music they would listen to, and the movies they would watch. And while most adults were not that enamored by this development, those businesses who were ready to exploit it played their part in promoting teen culture. Paladino writes: “Advertisers began to address high school students as teenagers on the prowl for a good time, not earnest adolescents in training for adulthood.”

Frank SinatraTwo events are often cited as heralding the emergence of teenagers. One was Frank Sinatra’s appearances at the Paramount Theater in New York in 1942 and 1943. One show drew 25,000 kids who virtually closed off midtown Manhattan. All were characterized by a screaming, frenzied audience. And it seems marketers were at work here as well hiring a few screamers to get the party started.

 

The other was the founding of Seventeen magazine in 1944. It quickly became the chronicler of this emergent teen culture. But its attraction was not only for the young as its advertising department promoted and quantified the market for the makers of everything from cars to pimple cream.

Swing music and jitterbugging, bobby socks and saddle shoes, souped-up cars and dates in the back seat were not for children. But they weren’t exactly for adults either. The concept of the teenager was invented to fill that gap.

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19 Responses to The Invention of the Teenager

  1. Donna Janke says:

    Interesting look at the birth of try teenager culture. I remember Seventeen magazine from my own teenage years, which are a few decades behind me now. I didn’t realize how many years that magazine had been around.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting history on the word teenager. I never knew that the word teenager wasn’t used prior to the 1940s. I remember reading Seventeen magazine when I was a teen. I looked forward to the issue every month. It was so informative and helped me throughout my teen years. Thanks for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Those of us who grow up in more affluent parts of the world are fortunate enough to be able to experience being a teenager which is quite different than being considered a small, inexperienced adult. Adolescence is a marketing tool but it is also an outstandingly important time in our growth and development. A fascinating topic, Ken. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ken I love the title – didn’t realize teenagers had to ‘invented’. Cute. You brought back some great memories – bobby socks and saddle shoes, Seventeen magazine, even backseat dating. Wonder what will be remembered about teenagers today.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Phoenicia says:

    Well who would have known?!

    Teenagers have always been trying to find their place in society. They are deemed as too young to mingle with adults and too mature for hanging around children. Also they are under immense pressure to conform. I would not go back to that stage in life!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. patweber says:

    I had no idea that teenagers was a newer word than I am old! Hooray! I like it when I don’t know things like this. I wasn’t there among the first to hear Old Blue Eyes either. Love this history lesson Ken!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That is fascinating, Ken! I had no idea the concept of a teenager was one that wasn’t conceived until 1941! You, my friend, are a wealth of fascinating trivia and facts of life!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. And now we have tweens and new adults too. It’s a bit silly at times and makes me wonder what the next designation will be. Childhood as we currently have come to know it is largely a new concept as well. I have a journal article somewhere from college that discuss the evolution of childhood. If I start to look for it though I am sure to lose hours to the vortex otherwise known as the black binders I have not really opened much in more than a decade.

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  9. Ken Dowell says:

    It must all look pretty different if you look at from your mother’s perspective. I don’t think her situation was that unusual for the time. It’s an example of how people didn’t have a “teenage” sort of existence as we know it until fairly recently.

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  10. Had no idea teenager wasn’t a word until the 40’s. Learnt something new.

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  11. What a neat history of the term “teenager.” It makes a great deal of sense, given the way kids were a huge part of the workforce for so long. Frankie attracted the crowds forever!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Erica says:

    This is so interesting. I took a class in college called Sociology of the Family that talked a bit about the evolution of the teenager. But I didn’t know that it wasn’t the norm for kids to go to high school until the 1940s. I can’t imagine being an adult at 13. Or being married at 14 or 15. But I guess that was the reality for many of our predecessors. Really fascinating post.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This is interesting to think back in the day you just went from kid to adult… No in between. Back on the farms the kids would have to drop out in grade school to help keep the family farm going. There really was barely even time for childhood, much less a fun and frivolous teenage years. Things have really changed here in the US haven’t they?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Andy says:

    Let me give a shout-out to Archie Comics, which promoted the world of being a teenager as well as anything else that I’m aware of.
    http://archiecomics.com/
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archie_Comics

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great post.
    I know as for myself, even though I am part of the modern generation, I had in more common with the working teenager of the early 20th century.
    This brings up a point, about marketing. They invented this term, and those who were not, nor could be part of it, were excluded from it. It makes them feel apart from the others, who are being targeted by companies.
    Thanks for this post, and I am looking forward to the next one.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. heraldmarty says:

    I’ve always enjoyed reading about history but my interests are more geared toward Indigenous cultures and most have some type of right of passage, just never thought about it in terms of our own culture so this is quite interesting.

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  17. revelbos says:

    Really cool post Ken! I never thought much about the origin of the word teenagers. When I was a teen, we already had such a dominate presence in terms of marketing and buying power, that I figured that culture was long established. I too was a fan of reading Seventeen magazine because it felt like one of the only magazines that understood my age group without try to being the next Cosmo.

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  18. inesephoto says:

    The concept of teenager meant a new market. Just think how many industries are making money out of teenagers. Young people think that they are independent, but in fact they are manipulated and used. It is where all these disappointed and disillusioned adults come from.

    Liked by 1 person

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