07
May
15

historical context

Considering the degree to which adolescents now dominate popular culture, it’s hard to believe that the word “teenager” did not always exist. The idea of the teenager is a uniquely 20th-century invention, born out of advances in brain research and psychological theory, changes in child-labor laws, and developments in leisure-time activities for 10- to 24-year-olds.

Teenagers had to be invented. In the earliest days of the 20th century, there was no socially-acknowledged stage between childhood and adulthood. In the early 1900s, you were a kid, then you started working for a living and became a grown-up. There was no middle ground, no time to indulge in rebelling, no period in which it was expected that you would make mistakes and learn by trial-and-error. The conventional thinking goes that until World War II, society and scientists alike thought of life as two distinct stages, divided between children and adults. The former were patronized and sheltered up to a certain point, then shuffled off to work in factories at a young age. A chasm developed between adults and youth, the concept of a “new generation” took shape.

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s knows just how deep this chasm could become. Anyone who witnessed Kent State and Governor Jim Rhodes’ inflammatory statements is unsurprised by the “War on Crime” of the next decades and how it became a war on youth itself.

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This historical context is why the law is only now catching up with what we regard as the “givens” with regard to conditions of coming-of-age in the modern world… why, only in 2005, the Supreme Court found that the execution of persons under the age of 18 is unconstitutional, and why in 2012 the Court decided that sentences of juvenile life without parole violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said: “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”

These rulings were a long time in coming, and as yesterday’s post suggests, the changes in law continue.

The genesis of our modern sensibility about the condition of young people began between the years 1895-1901 with the formation of the Wandervogel Movement in Germany. Created in reaction to the materialism, hypocrisy, and stifling social conservatism of the Kaiser Reich, the Wandervogel movement is sometimes called the first hippie movement—but it was the first youth movement of any kind in the industrialized world (it wasn’t until 1906 and 1907 when Robert Baden-Powell, a lieutenant general in the British Army, wrote a book for boys about reconnaissance and scouting, and the Boy Scouts were founded in England in 1908, and in America in 1910).

The Wandervögel yearned for a simpler, more natural way of life based on folkish values very different from those which had shaped the Industrial Revolution and modern big-city life. The Wandervögel also called for a Jugendkultur—a culture of youth led by youth—in which the individual was truly valued. They believed they were creating a way of life which would provide something greater to believe in than the ways of their parents. Before the Great War and in the postwar years before the rise of the Nazis, thousands of young people in hiking shorts and colorful costumes could be seen hiking around the German countryside with banners flying, guitars and rucksacks slung on their backs, in search of a better way of life.

Whether in America, England, or Germany, whether from promiscuous, party-crazed “flappers,” “victory girls,” “sub-debs” or hip “swing kids,” to the ultra-organized, hyper-disciplined Boy Scouts and Hitlerjugend, it didn’t matter—this was a new idea of how young people come of age. They are all “Teenagers.”

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If you want to watch a documentary film on this subject, check out Teenage (2013), directed by Matt Wolf and based on the book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, 1875-1945 by Jon Savage. The film is a collage of rare archival material, filmed portraits, and voices lifted from early 20th century diary entries, and is available on Netflix.

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Groove of the Day

Listen to My Chemical Romance performing “Teenagers

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