During 1944, Americans started to use the word ‘teenager’ to describe the place of youth in their society. From the very beginning, it was a marketing term that recognised the spending power of adolescents.
Within a culture that thought of business in terms of national identity and individual freedom, the fact that youth had become a market also meant that it had become a discrete, separate age group with its own peer-generated rituals, rights and demands.
The coining of the word ‘teenager’ marked the emancipation of adolescence. It also resolved a deep-seated problem within America and Northern Europe. Youth had been seen both as an enigma and a threat ever since the dawn of civilisation, but the political, economic and cultural upheavals of the late 18th century gave the discussion of its status a new urgency. It was during this period that the romantic idea of youth as a separate, stormy, rebellious stage of life began.
Within the instability created by the beginnings of the mass society, the revolutionary nature of youth threatened to have dire consequences. These were played out during the next one hundred years, with anarchist uprisings and an upsurge in juvenile delinquency. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the whole nature of Western society was coming under review: as the clash of empires loomed, youth was charged with a new importance. It appeared to offer the key to the future. Would it be dream or nightmare?
Between 1875 and 1945, there were many attempts to envisage and define the status of youth within the mass age. Many adults, concerned about what they saw as a savage, wild stage of life, made concerted efforts to regiment adolescents through national policies. Others tried to capture and redefine the potential of youth, in artistic and prophetic visions that reflected the wish of the young to live life on their own terms. These were the beginnings of what became known in the early 1940’s as youth culture.
Within all these definitions, there was a distinction between biological and cultural age. Puberty had long been recognised as a physical state, but those undergoing its rigours were routinely called ‘children’ well into the 20th century. In the same way, adults in their twenties and thirties actively participated in the youth culture of the 1910’s and 1920’s, and were still thought to be young. Until the invention of the teenager in 1944, most discussions of youth offered fluid definitions of both age and name.
The first person to propose a coherent redefinition of puberty was the American psychologist G.Stanley Hall. In 1898, he proposed that the life stage that he called ‘adolescence’ should cover the years between 15-24. Although the first definitions of the Teenager in 1944 were aimed at seventeen year olds – who were then the most visible consumers – the age range would expand upwards after the Second World War. When the term became an international buzzword during the mid 1950’s, it enshrined Hall’s original definition.
America’s victory in the Second World War created the empire that still holds sway in the 21st century. The invention of the Teenager coincided with this victory, and indeed the definition of youth as a consumer offered a new ideal within a devastated Europe. For the last sixty years, it has dominated the way that the West sees the young, and has been successfully exported around the world. Like the new world order that it heralded, it is in need of some redefinition.