Thursday, April 11, 2013

Forever Young

The first known appearance of the word “teenager” is in a Popular Science article published in 1941. It caught on immediately, and by 1945 the word was everywhere. People recognized the existence of the teen years prior to 1941, of course, just as we recognized the 30s as a distinct age span before “thirtysomething” entered the language in the 1980s with the TV show Thirtysomething. (For those who don’t remember it, Boomers in the show were, as usual, obsessing about themselves; one hopes we’ll be spared a show called Sixtysomething.) Labels like “teenager” and “thirtysomething,” each evoking a particular image, crop up when they fill a need.

In 1920 the need hadn’t yet arisen. There was a brash and defiant youth culture, to be sure, but it was called precisely that: youth culture. The participants were “youths” (plus such older folks who tried to be youths). “Youth” was a broader term than “teenager” would be. Teens were indeed counted among the youths, but so were college-age people. The termination age for youth was fuzzy and flexible but generally was in the mid-to-late-20s somewhere. The 1920s still grab our attention, for the age-of-the-flapper was the first time a full-blown modern youth-oriented pop culture took center stage. All the basic elements (pop music, pop fashion, dance fads, movie idols, etc.) were there. From all appearances, it was a grand party. It ended with a Crash.

By 1941 youth culture was back, but with a difference. I don’t mean the idealized (and unrealistic) wholesomeness served up by Hollywood in the likes of Andy Hardy and Nancy Drew, so much less worrying to their parents than the flappers and sheiks of the 20s. (Even the Dead End Kids, Hollywood told us, were fundamentally decent and just needed a little guidance.) I mean the more restricted notion of youth: the teenager. The reason for the revised standard was high school. In 1900 only 5% of American teens attended high school. In 1920, 26% attended. Only in the 1930s when attendance became compulsory (less as a measure to further learning than as a Depression-era attempt to influence wages by reducing the labor supply) did a majority of teens attend high school. High school created a near-universal experience; even those who left school early were shaped and identified by it, becoming high school dropouts. High school created a vast distinct cadre who needed a word: teenagers. Ever since they were labeled, adults have worried that something is wrong with them. They are right, there is. There always is. There always is something wrong with adult perception and response, too. Putting that point aside for now, youth culture was very largely teenage culture in the decades following WW2.

A shift in the 21st century, however, may call for a revival of the more expansive 1920s way of looking at youth, and perhaps of the term “youths.” As big a percentage of Americans attend college today as attended high school in the 1930s, and there isn’t as much difference between college and high school as there once was. When I was in school (in ancient days) all the trends were to lowering the age of adulthood: the voting age dropped to 18, legal drinking ages dropped to 18, and curfew ordinances disappeared. Even in high school the trend was to open campuses and reduced control. No more. The drinking age is back up to 21, driver’s licenses have become staged, curfews are back, and campuses are on lockdown. Nor does graduating college confer adulthood, as graduates face a sour job market and more time (possibly years) living with parent(s).

So, youth once again stretches toward 30 … or past 30, at least in the minds of over-30s. (Not so much in the minds of under 30s.) Way past. What’s more, we’re OK with it. We’re proud to be Peter Pan and Wendy. What brought all this to mind, in fact, was a article in The Atlantic by Elizabeth Wurtzel titled I Refuse to Be a Grown-up ( Ms. Wurtzel acknowledges her refusal to be a grown-up and celebrates it. I acknowledge my own refusal, too, by the way, though I don’t celebrate it so much as worry about it.

Have we finally become a land where there are no adults? Well, that would explain a lot.

Teenagers run wild in Teenage Doll (1957).

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