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The origin of the concept “Teenagers”

The word “teenager” is actually a relatively recent term and did not really establish as such before the early 1940’s.

It is said that, before there were teenagers, there were teenagers, but they did not go by that name.

The main forces behind the establishment of a teenage culture in its own right, were the social and industrial changes.

Before World War 2, most children between the ages of 13-19, had worked for a living on farms, in factories, or at home and helped their parents provide for the younger children in the family. They had little choice in the matter and they did whatever their families required of them. In the process, they fulfilled their roles until they got married.

The transition between childhood and adulthood had no separate teenage culture through which young people had to pass on their way to adulthood.

There were no teenage movies, music or fashions, because there were no “teenagers”.

However, the Great Depression of 1930 challenged all of that when most of the available jobs evaporated when the economy collapsed.

The few jobs that were available, were allocated to the fathers of the families and left the young people in the lurch. In their attempt to financially contribute to their families, they flocked to the cities or neighbouring villages. The infrastructure could not support them and they started living and sleeping in alleys and parks and also started to beg for food.

Eventually, this turned into a major social dilemma and led President Franklin Roosevelt to address the issue via the National Youth Administration (NYA). The NYA had been designated to provide training - and job opportunities for the disenchanted youth and to provide an environment where they would discover their talents, develop personal goals, establish good working habits, and upon graduation, become constructive citizens.

Up until this point in time, High School attendance was not compulsory for the youth and only a minority attended. When the NYA made attendance compulsory, the migration of vast numbers of young people from the unemployment lines to public high schools created the social backdrop for developing a separate “teenage culture”. This was the first teenage generation where the majority went to high school. As noted by Palladino, these young people were uncovering a much more immediate, exciting world – a world of radio, music, dancing and fun.

Eventually, in the late 1930’s the economy began to recover and high school students were developing a public identity that had little to do with family life or adult responsibilities. By 1938, this group of young people were making name for themselves as “bobbysoxers” who seemed to live to dance to the swinging beat of big band music.

Although they were not “teenagers” yet in their own mind, or anyone else’s mind, the idea of a separate, teenage generation was beginning to grow.

They discovered a unique beat and a language that was all their own (which only their friends could understand) and they established an architype that was later described by the term “teenagers”.

They developed a new cultural lifestyle featuring unique fashions, music, dance and trends. They were distinguished by their saddle oxford shoes, gored skirts and Angora sweaters and it became the new character of high school life.

Advertisers for the retail market began to see potential in these carefree high school students whose main concern in life was to have a good time and dance. They then coined the term “teeners” and it later morphed into the term “teensters” and in 1941, they were referred to as teenagers. “teenagers”

Like the previous generation bobbysoxers, teenagers were identified with the high school students’ world of dating, driving, dancing, music and fun.

At that time, Life magazine offered this picture of the teenager: “They live in a jolly world of gangs, games, movies and music. They speak a curious lingo, adore chocolate milkshakes, wear moccasins everywhere and drive like bats out of hell”.

One cannot help but to ponder the similarities between our teenagers of today and the picture that Life Magazine sketched in the early days. It makes you wonder if future generation teenagers would be dramatically different from these images?...

(Article Based on the work of Gary Chapman – 5 Love Languages of Teenagers)

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