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.
In 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.”
Two 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.