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The Rise and Decline of the Teenager

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Continued from The Rise and Decline of the Teenager

DESPITE ENDURING POPULAR INTEREST in Mead’s findings, Hall’s notion that adolescence is an inevitable crisis of the individual has, over the years, been more potent. (Perhaps it speaks more forcefully to our individualistic culture than does Mead’s emphasis on shared challenges and values.) Certainly, during the post-World War II era, when the teenager grew to be a major cultural and economic phenomenon, the psychoanalytic approach dominated. J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, literature’s most famous teenager, has an unforgettable voice and great charm, but it is difficult to read Catcher in the Rye today without feeling that Holden’s problems are not, as he hopes, a phase he’s going through but truly pathological. While Salinger doesn’t make a judgment in the book, 1950s readers would most likely have thought Holden just another troubled adolescent, albeit an uncommonly interesting one.
When Hall was writing, at the turn of the twentieth century, he generalized about adolescents from a group that was still a small minority, middle-class youths whose main occupation was schooling. In all of his fourteen hundred pages, he never mentioned the large number of young people who still had to work to help support their families. Half a century later American society was more or less as Hall had described it, and just about everyone could afford to have an adolescence.
The twenty-five-year period following the end of World War II was the classic era of the teenager. Family incomes were growing, which meant that more could be spent on each child and educational aspirations could rise. Declining industries, such as radio and the movies, both of which were threatened by television, re-made themselves to appeal to the youth market. Teenage culture gave rise to rock ’n’ roll. Young people acquired automobiles of their own and invented a whole new car culture.
At the same time, though, teenagers were provoking a lot of anxiety. Congressional committees investigated juvenile delinquency for a decade. High schools and police forces took action against a rising wave of youth crime, a phenomenon that really didn’t exist. Moreover, there were indications that not all teenagers were happy in their presumed immaturity. Many, if not most, of the pop icons of the time, from Elvis on down, were working-class outsiders who embodied a style very different from that of the suburban teen.
And many teenagers were escaping from their status in a more substantive way, by getting married. The general prosperity meant that there were jobs available in which the high school dropout or graduate could make enough to support a family. In 1960 about half of all brides were under twenty. In 1959 teenage pregnancy reached its all-time peak, but nearly all the mothers were married.
This post–World War II era brought forth the third key thinker on American adolescence, the psychologist Erik Erikson. He assumed, like Hall, that adolescence was inherent to human development and that an identity crisis, a term he invented, was necessarily a part of it. But he also acknowledged that this identity must be found in the context of a culture and of history. He argued that not only does adolescence change over the course of history but it also is the time when individuals learn to adapt themselves to their historical moment. “The identity problem changes with the historical period,” he wrote. “That is, in fact, its job.” While earlier thinkers on adolescence had made much of youthful idealism, Erikson argued that one of the tasks of adolescence was to be fiercely realistic about one’s society and time.
He did not think that forging an identity in such a complex and confusing society as ours was easy for most people. He wanted adolescence to be what he termed “a psycho-social moratorium,” to allow people the time and space to get a sense of how they would deal with the world of which they would be a part. Among the results would be an occupational identity, a sense of how one would support and express oneself.
And so ideas about the nature of adolescence have shaped our image of teenagers. Reclassifying all people of secondary school age as teenagers wasn’t possible until nearly all had some period of adolescence before entering adult life. Still, teenager isn’t just another word for adolescent. Indeed, the teenager may be, as Edgar Z. Friedenberg argued in a 1959 book, a failed adolescent. Being a teenager is, he said, a false identity, meant to short-circuit the quest for a real one. By giving people superficial roles to play, advertising, the mass media, and even the schools confuse young people and leave them dissatisfied and thus open to sales pitches that promise a deepening of identity.
Whether you agree with that argument or not, it does seem evident that the challenges of adolescence have been changing rapidly in the last several decades, leaving the label “teenager” as little more than a lazy way of talking about young people. The term encompasses a contradictory grab bag of beliefs, prejudices, and expectations. It can allow us to build a wall around an age group and to assume that its members’ problems can safely be ignored.
The generation entering its teens today will be in sheer number, if not as a percentage of the population, the largest in our history. The people in this age group have already emerged as the most significant marketing phenomenon since the baby boom. They have spurred the opening of new teen-oriented clothing stores in malls and the launching of successful new magazines. They are helping make the Internet grow. They even have their own television network, the WB. They have their own money to spend, and they spend a lot of their families’ income too, partly because their mothers are too busy to shop.

Young people became teenagers because we had nothing better for them to do. We began seeing them not as productive but as gullible consumers.

BUT THEY DO NOT REPRESENT ANY RETURN TO THE teenage golden age of the 1950s and 1960s. This generation has grown up in a period of declining personal income and increasing inequality. A sizable percentage consists of the children of immigrants. Educational aspirations are very high, and no wonder: You need a college education today to make a salary equivalent to that of a high school graduate in 1970. The permanent occupational identity that was available in the post–World War II society of which Erikson wrote, one in which lifelong work for large corporations was the norm, has all but disappeared. Many see their parents still striving for the sort of stable identity Erikson thought could be resolved in youth. While it appears to be a great time to be a teenager, it seems a difficult one to be an adolescent.
Throughout history Americans in their teens have often played highly responsible roles in their society. They have helped their families survive. They have worked with new technologies and hastened their adoption. Young people became teenagers because we had nothing better for them to do. High schools became custodial institutions for the young. We stopped expecting young people to be productive members of the society and began to think of them as gullible consumers. We defined maturity primarily in terms of being permitted adult vices, and then were surprised when teenagers drank, smoked, or had promiscuous sex.
We can no longer go to Samoa to gain perspective on the shape of our lives at the dawn of the third millennium, nor can we go back in time to find a model for the future. What we learn from looking at the past is that there are many different ways in which Americans have been young. Young people and adults need to keep reinventing adolescence so that it serves us all. Sometimes what we think we know about teenagers gets in our way. But just as there was a time, not long ago, before there were teenagers, perhaps we will live to see a day when teenagers themselves will be history.

Thomas Hine’s book The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager is being published this month by Bard.


Sidebar: Teenagers and Crime

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