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July 16, 2004

Adolescent Nation

Dear Vanessa --

A few of the big, general arts-life truths I've stumbled across over the years have been real godsends. They help me stay semi-oriented in an often-bewildering cultural world. A couple of examples:

  • The importance of the GI Bill. By funding college educations (and stays overseas) for many WWII vets, the GI Bill not only helped create postwar American art (of the higher-brow sort), it also helped create what one cynical arts prof I know calls "the academic art-appreciation racket."
  • The impact of movies on literary fiction. Not just as in what your English prof told you -- simultaneity, cinematic cutting, all that. But also in more down-to-earth terms, as in, "Good lord, now that movies are here, what are we gonna sell???" Movies after all offer an attractive, compact, intense, and accessible fiction-package that includes story, performers, visuals, and music. How can on-the-page fiction, mere ink and paper, compete? The response of certain writers to the advent of movies was to try selling something else entirely -- to abandon narrative and character in the conventional sense, and to try selling structure, pyrotechnics, experimentation, vision, poetry, whatever. The birth of movies, in other words, helped kick off Modernist literary writing.

Here's another one of these helpful truths:

  • The creation and triumph of the teenager. "The teenager" as a distinct category of person is of very recent vintage, yet teen values and teen experience have become central to our culture.

What would you say are some of the values that are considered desirable in today's America? Here are a few that I'd suggest: bustin' out; pleasing yourself; impact; excitement; grabbiness; hot-hot-hot; gimme gimme gimme; go, man, go; self-expression; rebellion; sexy sulkiness; instant gratification; loudness; brightness; poppiness.

Teen values, all of them. (These aren't values and attributes that a 60 year old is likely to value highly.) In fact, it's a historically bizarre thing that we make such a big deal of teenagehood. We treat adolescence as one of the biggest events in life. We speak endlessly about our teen traumas. We yearn for those sexy, free summers. We view life after adolescence as a slow downhill slide, unto the grave. Once we're done living our adolescence, we start re-living it. And our national ideal often seems to be ... being a happy teenager. Being someone who has all the bounce, resilience, and sunniness of childhood -- plus sex and a driver's license. What could be better?

Though we consider it normal to never quite get over having been a teen, in reality putting teen values at the center of a culture isn't a normal state of affairs. Making a big deal out of teenagerhood on a personal level isn't normal either.

Simple fact: as far as most people and most cultures have been concerned, there's no such thing as "teenagehood." Instead, there are "children," "adults," and -- OK, sure -- a brief and unfortunate period when children grow into adulthood. This stretch wasn't celebrated; no, it was thought to be something best endured and ignored.

The reason teenagerhood didn't exist was simple: because people used to go to work young, marry (or pair off) young, become parents young, and die young. Let's see how things were in the late 1800s. At that time, the typical 14-year-old boy lived on his father's farm. By 16, he was a working man, and was married to a local girl, who'd be between 13 and 16 herself. (Today, the average age when people marry in the U.S. is 23 for women and 25 for men.) Babies quickly followed.

This timetable, common to nearly all societies, began to change in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century. People were leaving the farm and moving to cities. Laws were being passed against child labor. High-school-level public education was beginning to become compulsory; although the first public high school didn't open until 1875, by 1900 31 states required 8-14 year olds to attend school. For the first time, teens started being seen as different than adults in a legal sense.

Some consequences of all this: young people started marrying later. They started work at a later age. They were stuck killing a lot of time in school. Surly, moody, and full of energy, they had time and space to act out, and to think about themselves. Not surprisingly, it was at this time that juvenile delinquency became a recognized problem -- and that the first juvenile courts were established.

A stretch of life that had previously been quickly done-with and not-much-taken-note-of became broken-off, extended, and distinct. It became something to recognize, think about, and contend with. G. Stanley Hall published a two-volume book entitled "Adolescence" in 1904. The publication of this book is generally taken to be the moment "adolescence" was born as a conceptual category.

Even so, the country was anything but overrun by adolescents, let alone adolescent values. Adolescence may have become a category and a problem, but it wasn't yet a societal standard. It can be hard for us to grasp, but those giddy flappers and their roguish boyfriends in the '20s? They were young adults, not adolescents. Through the '30s, the phenomenon of roving, unemployed teens with time on their hands and full of too much pep and too many hormones continued to grow, only to be interrupted by WWII.

Then, after the war, came the next big turning point in the story, one as big as the change circa 1900. There was the notorious population spurt that resulted in the Boomer generation, and there was the (government-subsidized, by the way) exodus from the cities to the new-style suburbs.

Suddenly -- and remember, nothing like this had ever occurred on anything like this scale anywhere on earth, ever before -- the country was full of loads of kids with lots of time on their hands, who were in charge of lots of money. Within a few years, the oldest of them reached their teen years. Rock music and the '60s weren't far away.

Even so, people looking back often forget that the advent of rock music and pop movies in the '50s took place in a country that was still adult-oriented. Though we often think of the '50s as the era of the rock-and-roll teenager, the teen market was just a-borning. For some perspective, I pulled together the top-selling music of 1951, 1961, and 1971.

  • 1951: The soundtrack for "Guys and Dolls." Mario Lanza. Yma Sumac. The Weavers. Les Paul. Tony Bennett.
  • 1961: Bert Kaempfert. The soundtrack for "Exodus." Lawrence Welk. Judy Garland. But also: Elvis, Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, and Paul Anka.
  • 1971: George Harrison. "Jesus Christ Superstar." Janis Joplin. Sly and the Family Stone. Michael Jackson. Carole King.

Teen tastes, in other words, weren't present on the 1951 charts at all; took up only half the list's space in 1961; and didn't triumph entirely until 1971.

Today, we take the importance of adolescence and teenagehood for granted. What's new these days, it seems to me, is the all-pervasiveness of teen taste and teen culture. The Boomers are probably responsible for this. The people who were once the very first generation of adolescents in all history to be a target-market -- who were made to feel special and catered-to culturally, whose narcissism ran rampant, and who learned to identify themselves as adolescent and proud of it -- are now running the country's cultural life. The culture is now being guided (to the extent it can be said to be guided at all) by people who know what it's like to be a ravished-by-commerce teen. They know what a teen wants, and how to sell to him or her.

After all, the adults who rode the teen-market wave in the '50s hadn't themselves had the experience of being a teenaged target-market. These culture entrepreneurs were pioneers, blundering their way in the dark. The people now in charge of popular culture, on the other hand, aren't pioneers. They're settlers, cultivators of an already-plowed field. Scary to think that today's teens will be even more expert at exploiting, er, serving the next generation of teens, isn't it?

These days -- what with our sentimentality about children, the PC educations we subject kids to, and the inescapability of media culture -- kids are stretching their adolescence out ever longer. Many move home to the parents' place after school; others enter into slumber-party-type living arrangments with other people their age. Few of them seem to know that there might be another phase of life (ie., "adulthood") to grow into. I find it a matter of cultural interest that many of these eternal-adolescents also have no interest in anything cultural that isn't based in the electronic media. Coincidence? Je ne pense pas. (Still recovering from my French-Carib vacation, evidently ...)

Another consequence of these developments, it seems to me, is what's become of adulthood. Adulthood now looks sad. Having been crowded off the stage, adulthood mills about disconsolate and lost. Given that we now live in a country whose central values are adolescent, we've lost track of even the best adult values -- wit, grace, perspective, depth, suaveness, conviction, knowledge. In any sane civilization, these would all be regarded as virtues. In our country these days, such virtues often seem the marks of losers and failures. They seem kinda ... sad. Boring. Square. Adulthood? Get outta the way. Go sit quietly in the corner with your copy of Modern Maturity.

When we visit foreign countries, Americans are often shocked to discover that there exist cultures that don't cater to adolescents in the same unquestioning way we do, and where adults (some of them, anyway) comport themselves with dignity, sex, and style.

A personal note: when I spent a year in France in the early '70s, one of the many things that surprised me was that the French didn't take teenagehood nearly as seriously as we did. In their eyes, teenagehood wasn't a lifestyle, let alone a destiny; it was just a brief fling, and one that was only grudgingly granted. The kids I lived among knew they were being accorded a year or two's grace to act out; not for a second did they imagine it would go on forever.

This may help explain why America's so great at pop culture and why a country like France is so bad at it, by the way. The French simply don't have our commitment to the pop dream, while we're rabid about it. For us, it's become a kind of religion, and when we sing its praises we really hallelujah. But the French? Where pop culture's concerned, the French are dabblers.

What to do about any of this? Who am I to say? Still, one thing I do strictly for myself and for the sake of my mental hygiene is to maintain a distinction in my mind between "pop" and "popular." Here's how it goes. I take "popular art" to mean commercial art of any kind. Popular art contrasts with, on the one hand, "folk art" (noncommercial art that people make for themselves), and on the other hand with "high art," whatever we take that to signify. Popular art covers a wide range of culture products. Popular art is Cary Grant, Billie Holiday, Cole Porter, Edith Piaf, Krazy Kat, and Fats Waller.

"Pop," on the other hand ... Though we think of pop these days as well-nigh all-engulfing, I take pop to be a specific subcategory of popular art. Pop art -- in my mind, if in no one else's -- is that popular art which is made specifically for teens: Elvis, rap, "Top Gun," "Spiderman," "Dodgeball," "Dawson's Creek," etc.

An aside: one of the bigger surprises of my culture-observin' life has been the continued existence of pop music. Is this true for anyone else? Back in the '60s and '70s, I fully expected that, being a Boomer thing, pop music would die off when the Boomers grew up. As it turns out, the tastes of many Boomers never did grow up. And it has also turned out that every succeeding wave of teens has demanded their very own version of pop music. So don't bet on the cultural horserace according to my advice.

Here's a musing I'm less sure about. OK: teenagehood can be characterized as a time when life seems limitless, when fantasies derange us, and when our moods are all over the place. It's a time of instability. Who are we going to turn out to be? One minute we feel like superheroes, the next we collapse under self-consciousness and anxiety. This state of deranged instability seems to me to bear some relationship to the opening-up of markets, to the splintering of the traditional family, to the spread of electronic culture. They all result in (or involve) disruption, they're all a matter of constant change.

I know I'm not being clear, but still ... I knit these phenomena together in this way: one thing liberal (ie., individualist) ideology and market forces share is that they want us to never settle down. They're forever grinding what they encounter into ever-finer powders. So -- although we often think of "liberalism" and "market forces" as being in conflict -- in fact both of them conspire to make it hard to attain adulthood.

In other words, we've been turned into -- we've turned ourselves into -- perpetual adolescents because perpetual adolescents have no defences against the market, and in America market values triumph.

Quick media-world fact: ad people pursue kids and youngsters because young people can be hoodwinked and pickpocketed, er, influenced. They're buying their first cars and sofas, they're vain and insecure, and they're trying to attract mates. So they spend money on silly products, on clothes, on fashion, and on style. (Older people aren't so open to being affected by ads.) Well, how great it would be for business if the entire population could be kept in a state of perpetual anxiety, yearning, and dissatisfaction -- in a state of teenagehood?

So, in a way, technological developments, the ever-expanding media, the opening-up of markets, liberal/PC educations and ideology, and pop culture aren't in conflict. They're all part of the same picture, and they all combine to promote adolescent values. The eternal-kids these forces help create are, essentially, effective and convenient cannon fodder for today's multicultural, media-centric, digitally-based commercial world.

Incidentally, I've found when I unfurl this line of thought that some people wave it away. They're skeptical -- how can something so major as the creation of the teenager have happened so recently? And besides, who is M.Blowhard to make such a grand point?

Good question! And glad to see a little healthy skepticism! So here's a little quick proof:

  • Juvenile courts had their origins only a hundred years ago.
  • There's no word for "adolescent" in many languages.
  • The word "teenager" didn't appear in a dictionary until 1942.
  • Teen magazines started in the 1950s.
  • Such teencentric movies of the '50s as "Rebel Without a Cause," "The Wild One," and "Blackboard Jungle" were inconceivable in previous decades.

If anyone wants to explore this topic more thoroughly, let me suggest starting with Grace Palladino's Teenagers, An American History (buyable here), Thomas Hines' The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager (here), and John Demos' Past, Present, and Personal: The Family and the Life Course in American History (here). I haven't been able to find any good web resources about this topic, darn it.

What are you feelings and thoughts about living in a culture as adolescent-centric as ours is?

Best,

Michael

CORRECTION: Thanks to Rich Rostrum and James Kabala, who pointed out an error in the above. In fact, the age at which people make their first marriages in the US today isn't much different today than it was in 1890. What's changed quite dramatically is at the other end of adolescence: the average age at which puberty hits, which (as far as I can tell from a quick Websweep) is 4-5 years earlier these days than it was in the mid-1800s. Some readers might enjoy a brief Economist article that's a history of the nuclear family here.

posted by Michael at July 16, 2004




Comments

What makes you think the soundtrack for "Guys and Dolls", Mario Lanza, Yma Sumac, The Weavers, Les Paul, and Tony Bennett weren't "teen tastes" in 1951?

Posted by: Glen Raphael on July 16, 2004 6:17 PM



God only knows what teens were listening to in 1951. What's clear, though, is that their tastes weren't defining popular culture, as they have come to since.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 16, 2004 6:32 PM



Why is that clear?

Okay, let me put it another way: What makes you think the soundtrack for "Guys and Dolls", Mario Lanza, Yma Sumac, The Weavers, Les Paul, and Tony Bennett were adult tastes, in 1951?

The null hypothesis is that then, as now, the young latched onto new music faster than did their parents. And wasn't jazz music in the '20s and '40s pretty youth-oriented?

Posted by: Glen Raphael on July 16, 2004 6:59 PM



Glen, did you read the posting? The "teen market" -- which is what we're really talking about when we talk about teenagerhood these days -- essentially didn't exist in 1951. Almost -- "The Wild One" came out in '53, Bill Haley and Elvis hit in 1954. But not quite.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 16, 2004 7:18 PM



"Adolescent" is an old, old word though: an authentic Latin artifact, not a psedo-Latinate neologism. Etymologically, it's the present participle of the inchoative verb "adulesco," whose perfect passive participle -- i.e., the adjective describing the state of concluding adolescing -- is "adultus." I.e., literally the word literally means "someone becoming adult." And the ancients certainly had their cult of youth, as culturally central as -- if very, very different from -- our own. If you're only looking back as far as the nineteenth century, it may seem novel, but all we're really seeing is the mercantilization/capitalization-- i.e., the modernizing -- of a recurrent phenomenon in human (at least western, which is all I'm qualified to comment on) history.

Posted by: Evan McElravy on July 16, 2004 8:23 PM



It took me several readings to realize that when you said "teen tastes" in the context of music you really meant "rock". That was what I found confusing. (Because when my parents were young "teen taste" for them and their peers was folk, and I'm sure there was some place and year for which "teen taste" was Lawrence Welk.)

As for the bulk of the essay, I have a very different perception, but it's all pretty subjective stuff so I can't say you're wrong (Well, other than in the claim that people used to "die young"; life expectancy of someone who survives childhood hasn't changed substantially in the last century or so).

You lost me right near the beginning. My own list of "values considered desirable in today's America" would also include safety, comfort, and security, and would leave off most of your suggested values. "bustin' out", "go, man, go" and "gimme gimme gimme" sound to me like an adult trying to imitate youth-talk from various past eras (and failing). And your list didn't include the values of anybody I knew when I was a teen, so there's some sort of selective perception going on.

But we're presumably from different eras. I was born in 1967.

I don't think your private definition of "pop" music is sustainable, but I'm confused. Since you expected "pop" would stop existing, what did you think was going to replace it? Opera? Jazz? Classical? Gathering around the family piano and conducting singalongs? Some new form of music as yet not invented that wouldn't fit your definition of "pop"?

Posted by: Glen Raphael on July 16, 2004 8:46 PM



A few thoughts while waiting for dinner...

I became a teenager in 1953 and turned 20 in '59, so I hope that's close enough to a couple of your dates to allow for first-hand observations.

Basically I think Michael is correct, though nits can be picked.

The early 50s were an odd time in our cultural history when there indeed wasn't much difference between tastes of the young and older populations regarding music. The pre-"Rock Around the Clock" stuff was largely novelty tunes ("Doggie in the Window") or slow, ballady stuff with really syrupy lyrics. Plus the hit show tunes, of course. I watched a lot of TV then because it was new and exciting (I had grown up with radio until about '51) and one show I suffered through was the Lucky Strike (cigarettes) "Hit Parade" with Snooky Lansen, et. al. Week upon week often the same tunes that the creative production staff had to sweat out to find ways to perform in a different setting from previous weeks. And I allowed myself to listen to the same sappy lyric phrases again and agin (when I wasn't doing the same thing via the radio). Unless you were young in those days you cannot believe what an impact Bill Haley made in this sappy setting. Sort of like "Star Wars" when it first came out.

But.

'Twas not ever thus.

Drop back to the late 1930s and early 40s and you find swing bands, crooners like Frank Sinatra Version 1.1, jitterbugging, bobbysocks and the zoot suit with the reet pleat. Tennage culture, Michael? (Better find some reader born in 1922 to help us out.)

Further back, in the 20s, you had Paul Whiteman playing stuff that probably had little appeal to the over-30 set. Plus faddy fashions such as guys wearing courduroys with their frat pin painted 6 inches wide on the legs.

The early 50s, then, were an oddly-quiet time in the generational wars of the 20th century. (True, we did stuff to irk our fossilized parents, as most teens do today.)

End of musings...

Posted by: Donald Pitttenger on July 16, 2004 9:03 PM



Evan -- There have always been adolescents, just as there have always been people aged, say, 14 or 15. And, as far as I've been able to tell, there have been brief stretches here and there when aristocratic circles prized this or that about adolescents. But most people in most cultures never had a chance to experience adolescence in anything like the way we expect to experience it today, as a separate and highly-valued (and highly catered-to) phase of life. When I was doing my research for this posting, I couldn't find a single culture that put adolescent values (ie., the things that adolescents themselves value) at the center of life, the way we do. But I'm an amateur, may have skipped a chapter or two, and am always eager to learn. What can you tell us about attitudes towards adolescence thru the ages?

Glen -- You write, "life expectancy of someone who survives childhood hasn't changed substantially in the last century or so." Right, and it's during the last century, as life expectancies began to truly lengthen, that teenagehood began to break out as a separate phase of life.

Donald -- As you write, Bill Haley had a tremendous impact. Although my dad was a huge swing fan in the '30s and '40s, he was happy to go on about how he'd never seen anything like what happened with teens in the '50s. But, as you point out, the story isn't about "teens" not existing until the '50s. It's about teens being broken out circa 1900; becoming a bigger deal over the next few decades; going on hold (mostly) during the '40s; becoming a full-on target market in the '50s; then taking over the center (and more) of the culture as the Boomers grew up. There were teens throughout the 20th century, but "teens" in the way that we're used to the phenom? And in the sense that much of the culture is devoted to servicing their cultural desires and needs? Largely 1954 on. These days we've got MTV, rap fashions, teen comedies, the WB, "Spiderman" -- an entire, elaborate, ongoing-and-never-ending mental universe that young people never need to leave. (And, judging from the younger 20somethings I run across in the city, it's a universe they have no desire to leave.)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 16, 2004 9:35 PM



On life expectancy: I'm saying the main way life expectancies lengthened last century was by virtue of wiping out death during childbirth and from childhood diseases. It wasn't until very very recently, well /after/ your alleged "invention of teens" that the life expectancy of old people grew to any significant degree.

And you're putting way too much emphasis on Spiderman. Comic books have been sexy, colorful, exciting and all the rest since at least the '30s with Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy. The first Superman was in 1938. This all predates your "invention of the teen" period by quite a bit.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on July 16, 2004 10:32 PM



Glen -- OK, replace "Spiderman" with "Anchorman," who cares? You've run across the fact that much of today's movie industry focuses on capturing the adolescent male market, right? Well, the overwhelming importance of the adolescent male market is a fairly recent phenomenon. Teens as a target market for the moviebiz -- that itself is of fairly recent vintage. Serials from the '30s were made for "kids," not teens specifically. Movies tailor-made for teens started up in the '50s, became a standard thing in the '60s and '70s, got a huge boost from "Star Wars," and are now at the center of the moviebiz.

As for your medical history, if women in 1900, for instance, began living longer thanks to advances in childbirth technology, that means their pre-childbearing stretch could begin to extend a few years beyond what it had been.

As I think I've said four or five times by now, "adolescence" in the modern sense was born circa 1900; the adolescent as a phenom grew some during the following decades, though without displacing adult culture; sorta went on hold in the '40s; caught fire in the '50s; and has since moved to the center of the culture.

None of this is controversial, Glen. If you're in a skeptical mood, though, I invite you to check out the books I cited and linked to.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 16, 2004 11:03 PM



Michael is raising an interesting idea. Are we fit? The increase in the human life span in the 20th Century is unprecedented. Where are the figures to back up the implausible idea that life expectancy increased primarily because people began surviving childhood at a higher rate? What does primarily mean: the largest percentage out of 100 or greater than 50%? Michael’s question is are we fit to endure such a long adolescence and life span as a species? Many assume an increased life span means progress. According to what theory? Elephants live longer now in the wild than humans did before the 20th Century; and don’t forget the extinct Wooly Mammoths? I can guarantee no one knows the solution because the laws of natural selection are inscrutable to modern man; shall anyone dare dispute this proposition? So a dismissal of Michael's idea is unsound.

Considering adolescence is at most 9% of the average American life span, why do we avert to it so much? Probably because we can; again, Michael’s new, long and comfortable life span indulges the romantic natures that were somehow selected for or endowed by our Creator. Michael is accurate also in that it is in part a wonderful time we are culturally, at a minimum, destined it seems to keep with us for a long time (at least in American culture, about which we are all expert). He also accurately hints at the anxiety and guilt (almost certainly if one were Catholic in the 1960’s). Homosexual priests were simply never, ever a remote idea, to contrast with modern knowledge. (Why are they still allowed to become and to remain priests to the faithful instead of serving as the rest of us humble folk?) I’ll just stop and give someone else a chance now. Thanks Michael.


Posted by: P Murgos on July 16, 2004 11:39 PM



Definitely no word for adolescent in Hindi. Could it be that eternal adolescence is synonymous with eternal dodging from responsibility?

Posted by: Neha on July 17, 2004 12:47 AM



Saving...

Some thoughts... Why is the adolescent male market so presumably sought after? The girls are the ones with access to daddy's credit card, from what I can see. It could merely be that the girls are already in thrall to the pop culture machine (—and a proposed why for that? That girls must compete more in cultural beauty signifiers to make themselves attractive) and that it simply wants to subsume boys just as wholly. Or perhaps it is that access to girls can be controlled through their boyfriends. My suspicion is that road runs the opposite way more often (girls dictating to boys). Boys might have more disposable income, though, as they are more likely to have a job in middle/high school.

Posted by: . on July 17, 2004 1:02 AM



I've found this phenomena fascinating for a long time. Yes, increases in average lifespan were initially from childbirth related medical improvements, but that has ceased to be the case in the US the last few decades.

The length of adolescence (i.e. immature 'acting out' behaviours after the onset of puberty and before mating) in different mammals is related to their lifespan. But it goes even deeper than that: the amount of learned behaviour a species exhibits (i.e. where the nature/nurture split lies) correlates to the length of adolescence too.

My theory for some time has been that the world is a more and more complex place, that there is indeed less tradition to stand on to guide us, and hence we NEED to be able to think about 'adolescent topics' for longer to figure out what the hell is right for us.

Blindly swallowing the dictates of authority, religious, cultural or otherwise, no longer serves the young sufficiently. Our lives are longer, our world is more complex, and hence none of this surprises me.

Once again, had I not consumed endless amounts of sci-fi in my youth and early adulthood, I might be more shocked at all of this. But once again these ideas are hashed out in many more than a few novels from the 50's and 60's.

That's the main reason that for quite a long time when getting the standard sneer from the literati about reading sci-fi, I've laughed inside.

Posted by: Davd Mercer on July 17, 2004 1:54 AM



Spencer Tracy. Jimmy Stewart. Gary Cooper. Clark Gable. Cary Grant. Katherine Hepburn. Carole Lombard. Joan Fontaine. Rosalind Russell. Maureen O'Hara. Susan Hayward. Claudette Colbert.

What jumps out at you is how adult they all were; how confidently adult.

Admittedly a list of rebellious, unsure of themselves types could be drawn up from Hollywood's golden era (Monty Clift, possibly Robert Mitchum, come to mind) but it would be short and peripheral.

There was a time when the young wanted to join the adult world; couldn't wait to take their place as responsible members of society. But the mere fact that that phrase - responsible members of society - is somehow embarrassing, square, unhip, tells you all you have to know about "the great change."

neha asked: Couldn't it be that eternal adolescence is synonymous with eternal dodging from responsibility?

I'd say the answer is, yes.

Posted by: ricpic on July 17, 2004 8:56 AM



I tend to think that adulthood has been pushed back by at least a decade, and I would, like you, define adulthood as exhibiting "wit, grace, perspective, depth, suaveness, conviction, knowledge."

In view of that, I think the targeting of the 18-24 year-old for service in the military is an instance of child abuse. Would it not be more humane to wait until one has reached at least the age of 30 (still physically viable) before approaching them to fulfill the role of cannon fodder? By then, a person might be of more sound mind to weigh the consequences of military service.

(slapping myself on the forehead) Of course, the military wouldn't wait for rationality and judgement to set in on their targets -- no one might join up and we couldn't have our corporatist wars.

Posted by: Tim B. on July 17, 2004 9:44 AM



P Murgos -- You write, "Considering adolescence is at most 9% of the average American life span, why do we avert to it so much? Probably because we can." That's very funny, and there's probably a lot to it, too. The way we've turned adolescent experience into our life's touchstone really does raise lots of interesting questions, doesn't it?

Neha -- Interesting to learn about the Hindi, thanks. Does Indian culture have as much of a case of Peter-Pan syndrome as American culture does? Provided, of course, that you don't mind being asked such questions ...

"." -- That's a really good question. The standard movie-biz response is that 3 out of 4 times, it's the boys who choose which movie to see, while what the girls are more interested in is simply having a boyfriend. So that way the girls get to have boyfriends (or boy acquiantances, anyway), and the boys get to pick the movies. But I think you're right to wonder whether these things really play out so straightforwardly. God knows the back-and-forth between the sexes can get to be a complicated thing. And who knows who's really making the decisions half the time ...

David -- That seems very shrewd to me, the idea that we may actually need longer adolescences, given the way our lives have evolved. Flop though I am where it comes to sci-fi, I also like your idea of sci-fi as a genre of lit that's especially good at enabling people to puzzle out their thinking and their lives. If only it worked that way for me ... But maybe I came to it too late. There seem to be certain kinds of art, certain artists, and certain works of art that you have to run into a specific age or else you lose 'em forever. I hate to think how "Jules & Jim" would hit me today, but when I was a college freshman it really spoke to me. Dostoevsky's another one. I don't respond at all to him (or rather I get him but he doesn't mean much to me) -- and the Wife tells me that's because I didn't read him at 15, when his work can apparently mean a lot. I wonder if sci-fi is one of those things -- stumble into it when you're a questing adolescent and you're hooked for life. But hold off 'till you're an adult, and chances are good it'll never work for you.

Ricpic -- We seem to be on the same wavelength. Like you, I wonder about how adult values might be made not just visible but sexy and desirable again. And how about manliness and heroism? They seemed to have a moment or two in the sun after 9/11, but we seem back to distancing ourselves from them again. I grew up an irreverent Boomer, thinking performers like Charlton Heston were a joke, for instance. All that squareness, that granite jaw, the posing ... It seemed to beg to be ridiculed and I was willing to do the ridiculing. These days, I find myself missing that kind of thing, and admiring the people who could once do it. The only kind of heroism we seem willing to swallow (in popcult, anyway) is cartoonish heroism, it's-all-a-big-joke-anyway heroism. Which I think is kind of tragic. These days I watch an early Heston movie thinking, Good lord, the fact that he was able to do that, with conviction, and put it over, and people were able to accept and enjoy it -- why, that's really great! There aren't many performers who can do that today. I don't like Costner much, but I do find myself cutting him some slack just because he seems determined to do squaresville heroism. Doesn't do it very well, but credit for trying. I wish some male performers would try giving the old adult-sexual-romantic male thing (Clark Gable, Cary Grant, etc) an earnest try. "Enjoying women in an appreciative way (without putting up with excessive narcissism) as part of the pleasure of being an adult male" -- what's become of that?

Tim B. -- LOL, that's pretty funny.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 17, 2004 12:28 PM



I think the fifties was the first time the country was affluent enough to be able to afford "teenagers". They could become more indulgent, people didn't need parttime jobs, they could go (away) to college, mom and dad could pay for it. My parents were teens in the forties: both had parttime jobs in high school, both went to college, but lived at home to do so.

I think you are right, that it created a time in life unlike any that had really gone before, where "kids" had money and time and began to believe (and why not? with the way they were treated) that they were legitimately the center of the universe. Having freedom and independence on daddy's dime---it allowed a whole huge group of people to live for just awhile like only "trust fund babies" had ever lived before. I mean---there's a lot to like about that existence!

But most weren't trust fund babies, and the crushing reality of "earning a living" and "paying the bills" caused many to feel like some terrible joke had been played on them. Better to re-visit a gloriously free time at least through one's music (hence, the failure of rock to die) and other culture than to face the glum truth that running around taking classes and waiting for the next tuition check from mom and dad wasn't going to come back!

John Lennon commented on this about the desperate wistfulness for a Beatles reunion, before his death. He said that people would be disappointed if the Beatles did get back together, because people didn't want it just to hear the music. They wanted it to be 1965 again, and to be 15 or 18 again. And he said, it isn't 1965, the Beatles aren't 25, and we can't make the listeners teenagers again. They'll be disappointed. He mighta been right!

Posted by: annette on July 17, 2004 2:19 PM



"Michael’s question is are we fit to endure such a long adolescence and life span as a species?"

A long life span does not require a long adolescence.

"Many assume an increased life span means progress. According to what theory?"

According to the widely held theory that long lives are generally better than short lives.

"My theory for some time has been that the world is a more and more complex place, that there is indeed less tradition to stand on to guide us, and hence we NEED to be able to think about 'adolescent topics' for longer to figure out what the hell is right for us."

Well, a lot of the "thinking about adolescent topics" seems to be to be a distraction from the process of figuring out what the hell is right for us. Teenagers and children seem to spend an awful lot of time getting into trouble or navigating (or being subjected to) truly dysfunctional, nasty little subcultures that hopefully will be left behind shortly.

The educational process, socially and academically, seems to be characterized by an awful lot of blatant stalling. By shortening our effective lifetimes, this does us all a disservice. Once our children spent enormous amounts of time working, and comparatively little on education. Now they spend almost no time working, but the extra time is mostly wasted, not spent turning them adults in a timely manner.

I wonder just how parents wound up taking on the idea that delaying the maturation of their children was a good idea, that "growing up too fast" was some sort of problem, that giving them loads of free time and money without concurrent responsibility was appropriate for any stage of life. Was it when grown children were no longer economically valuable, and the people having children then tended to be the ones that simply enjoyed having children around, and thus much less interest in having them actually grow up?

Posted by: Ken on July 17, 2004 3:18 PM



I graduated high school in 1950. My favorite radio program after school was "Make Believe Ballroom" on WNEW in NYC. In the evening there was "Music 'til Midnight" and "Milkman's Matinee." All of this was music aimed at people with children, not the children themselves. One Sunday evening program featured Wall Cox, and asked the question, "Whither Wally Cox, and why?" Wally Cox later went on to considerable success in TV. Dinah Shore could be heard on Sundays as hostess of a program called, "The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street." Jazz at its best. Jazzbeaux Collins held forth from the Purple Grotto several stroies beneath the sub basement of the NY Daily News building, playing cool tunes introduced by Urbie Green on trombone. Over on WQXR you could hear classical music all day and all night. Wherever you went, the people running the programming (and their advertisers) were aiming at a mature audience.

I had an after-school job assembling Transvision television sets. These were basically RCA 630 chassis in kit form. They weighed about a ton, and had thirty or so vacuum tubes. During the day TV programming consisted of a test pattern, either the one with an Indian (excuse me, Native American) in full regalia, or a boring set of concentric circles in different shades of gray. Later, you could watch "Howdy Doody," "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie," or "Shari Lewis" with Lamb Chop. One of the girls in my high school class was Judy Tyler, who played Princess Summerfallwinterspring on Howdy Doody, and later starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Pipe Dream." Even the kids' stuff was aimed higher then.

The Korean war started three weeks after I graduated. The econnomy took off big time after WWII was over, but Korea put the brakes on pretty hard. One of the reasons the teen phenomenon as we see it mow didn't take off earlier in the century was that from about 1940 through the mid 50's the thing most young men had to look forward to after high school was military service, followed by school on the GI Bill. I used the last GI Bill check of my freshman year ($110) to buy my wife's engagement ring.

One of the really dumb ideas that came out of the late 50's and early 60's was, "If they're old enough to fight, they're old enough to vote." I mean, really, REALLY dumb. One of the outstanding characteristics of adolescent boys and young men is their willingness to fight, often (mostly?) over nothing. My experience says that the rule should be, "If they are still young enough to want to fight, they're not old enough to vote." This would put the age of maturity for some at 18, others at 30. We got along fine for centuries by assuming that by the time a man reached 21 he had a trade, a wife, and several children, and was ready to assume some share of responsibility in community affairs.

Similarly, hearkening back to the life expectancy issue, by the time a woman reached 21 she had probably lost one or two children and nursed her others through whooping cough, diptheria or flu. She knew that life was real and life was earnest, and that all that stood between her family and disaster was G-d and hard work. This didn't change substantially until after the War (WWII), when "Wonder Drugs" that could actually cure diseases became widely available. Immunization helped, but there was no vaccine for polio, measles, mumps or flu until much later.

And then there's pennicilin and the pill, which had a lot to do with creating the modern Teen, too.

Posted by: JimT on July 17, 2004 3:26 PM



Kids are kids all over the world, methinks. As far as the fountain of youth goes, we're not allowed to drink from there. I'm 22 and half my class mates back home have been married off. They'll have kids by the time they're 24, own a house by 36, and have grandchildren by 55. So much for Peter Pan.

Posted by: Neha on July 17, 2004 3:55 PM



Tim B. - Have you seen the kids these days? 100 lb. 8-year-olds running around the supermarket asking Mom for more Cheetos™? Not sure waiting for 30 is 'physically viable' anymore.

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on July 17, 2004 6:08 PM



Annette -- What a shrewd analysis of how all this happened. Are you sure you aren't the author of one of the books I linked to?

Ken -- You write "I wonder just how parents wound up taking on the idea that delaying the maturation of their children was a good idea," Me too -- I wonder that too. Any hunches? Much of the country, in any case, seems to have become possessed of the idea of "If only my own childhood had been happy and I hadn't had to grow up ..." But why should people be so consumed by feeling this way? I think Annette's interpretation has a lot going for it.

JimT -- What a really lovely mini-memoir, thanks. Really brings the era and the experience of living through it to life. Be sure to copy and paste your comment into your own computer somewhere -- you won't want to lose it!

Neha -- It doesn't sound like the people you're describing are too sentimental about childhood, let alone adolescence. Or am I wrong? Do Americans seem more so?

Rob -- One of the more striking sights on coming back to the States was seeing Americans again. You could tell they were Americans (many of them, anyway) because they had food in their hands, always. And by the way they controlled/tranquilized/bribed/ narcotized their kids by giving them food. The kid cries? Hand it a candy bar. They kid's restless? Give it a Coke. I suppose I see Americans doing this all the time, but for a few minutes (after being away for a bit) it really stood out, the way we kind of self-medicate using food. There wasn't even a sense of enjoying the food, just of neurotically needing something, and the food filled in for that something. I've always seen that "something" that Americans feel they need and wondered what it was, exactly. But I'm not sure there is an exactness there. Maybe they just ... want to get ahead. Want to be stars. Want to be transformed. Are holding their breaths until life changes for the better. Or something. Until then, they're going to reach for ... food, I guess. James McMurtry has a terrific song about it with a title like "Home from Nowhere." All about these nowhere towns full of people heading places, "whereever it is they think they're going." Meanwhile they keep shopping for bargains, I guess.


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 18, 2004 2:42 PM



No Michael, that's not what I meant. They love their childhood. My point was that they accept ages and stages.

Posted by: Neha on July 18, 2004 6:13 PM



I doubt that any parents sat around the kitchen table and discussed what a good idea it would be to delay their children's maturation. It just evolved over a period of time as result of wars, changes in the economy, culture etc. I wasn't a teenager until 1957 but there wasn't any movement or anything like that to change the teen culture, it just sort of gradually happened as people adjusted to the realities of life at the time.

As far as life expectancy.. I haven't looked up the statistics but my great grandfather's death notice, hand written in a large book at the county courthouse, said he died of "the ravages of old age" at 46....

Posted by: Jerry on July 19, 2004 9:34 AM



While I'm impressed with the post, I was surprised at the exclusivity of it and the lack of credit given to the younger generation. Having lived over in Europe when I was growing up and shifting back to the states every so often, I was stunned at how long the kids in Europe were allowed to finish college. Back in the early '70's, it was rare for someone, over there, to finish in less than 6 years, occassionally extending this to 7-8 years. And I'm NOT counting grad school. This phenomenon didn't extend stateside in as big a way until the '80's and '90's. Although they may not have had a word for it, extended adolescence was practiced in a big way. And as far as living at home with the parents....that's a long and expected practice, aside from the reason that housing is sometimes hard to come by.
Back stateside, what are your thoughts on the economic transformation of the late '80's and '90's? A lot of it was driven by the boomers...using the talents and minds of the 18-25 year old wizards of that time, the first true PC (as in personal computer, not politically correct) generation. Without their ambition, hard work, and greed (unfortunately), we would not have had the financial success that we did. Now, while not all admirable, ambition, hard work, and greed sound like adult traits rather than adolescent ones. ps, I'm over 50, so it's not as if I'm a spokesperson for adolescence.

Posted by: DarkoV on July 19, 2004 9:46 AM



Ya'll are raising a lot of interesting questions, most of them well outside my competence, not that I don't have opinions. The posting, FWIW, is doing two things:

* Taking note of how remarkable it is that, not only do we have a permanent, ongoing teen culture (name me many other cultures in all history of which the same can be said), but that it has now become almost, if not genuinely, central to our general culture. Weird, no? And it's happened in an amazingly short period of time.

* Wondering out loud about what a few of the consequences of this seem to be, or may be. One is certainly that our teen culture has become so broad, rich and deep (as well as so inescapable) that today's teens and 20somethings (at least the ones I encounter) seem to have no idea that anything exists outside it, or if anything does exist outside it, it doesn't count. Well, part of what exists outside teen culture is ... adult culture. I'm also (much more tentatively) venturing the thought that there seems to be a connection between the kinds of shazaam-y values that electronic-media culture encourages (lotsa graphics, a reach-out-and-grab, I -want-it-know state of mind) and the triumph of teen culture. (Teens not being known for their subtlety or patience.)

Does anyone else find it as strange, trying to make an adult life in a culture as defined by adolescent values, as I do? I don't mean to whine or anything -- we get by, we make do. But I do find it peculiar that adult pleasures and values are so seldom acknowledged, let alone treated as attractive or desirable.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 19, 2004 10:38 AM



I am glad MB changed his view on this issue (if I recall correctly - and feel free to slap me if my memory's wrong), some time ago when I said Americans in general project themself in adolescent image, MB found that fact rather positive.
I think, however, while it is charming to find youthful enthusiasm and negligence of dangers in grown person, other adolescent features, listed by MB and others above, often responsible for widely-spread [abroad] cliche of Arrogant Americans. Among other things.

Straying from generalities a bit, I want to quote few lines from the brochure I was reading this morning. "Your student and university housing", UoM at Ann Arbor. (My son is a freshman)

"...added to [diversity] conflict [on campus] is the fact that many of the students are experiencing many common stresses accosiated with post-adolescence..." (italics are mine)

So along with University of Michigan guides (no doubt, scientists and scholars) I propose to refer to adulthood as post-adolescence. It imediately clears the confusion, don't you think? It removes those unreasonable responsibility requests from the agenda, since how much maturity can you expect from a child merely passing his adolescence? In fact, isn't it reasonable than to call ALL adults post-adolescents?

Strangely enough, after reading further, I discovered the following sentense:
"...keeping with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which precludes institutions from releasing confidential information to anyone, including parents, unless we first receive consent from a student..."

So, I don't get it: either the student is irresponsible child - therefore his/her parents act as adults in university' eyes (and pay bills, among other things) or he/she is a mature adult, whose privacy rights should be defended against intruding parents.

What do you think of this inconsistency? Could it be that this two-sided attitude is partially responsible for immature arrogance noted above?

Posted by: Tatyana on July 19, 2004 12:39 PM



Too young to really comment on the 50s scene, but I would seem to agree with this being a pivotal time. If I might just add a few points.

1. The dramatic increase in college enrollment with the advent of the GI Bill. College education has essentially delayed the transitoin from child to adult and even created the in-between stage referred to above. College has essentially raised the age of "adult" from 18 to 22, and with the current rise in post-graduate education, people sometimes don't enter the workforce for a couple of years after that.

2. Adolescents also have much more time to consume culture than most working-world type people. Time to follow trends, obsess over celebrity, and mimic fashion.

3. Some of this has to be related to ideas about aging and death. Might be a chicken/egg proposition, but is a "youth culture" the cause, or the effect, of wanted to live longer, and look younger? Is the behavior of middle-aged people wanting to "stay young" generated by, or does itself produce, a fixation on youthfulness?

Posted by: skip26 on July 19, 2004 3:08 PM



One thing that struck me reading "Catcher in the Rye" in 1973 was how much teenagers in 1949 tried to pretend they were adults in their tastes. It seemed like an entirely different world.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on July 19, 2004 3:28 PM



It doesn't seem to me that economic and social forces really tell the whole story. Nothing really happened that necessitated the lengthening of childhood. For the expansion of education deemed necessary or desirable, other responses were available, such as lengthening the school year. Increasing affluence didn't require that extra money be spent on children's pasttimes or on supporting children's living and entertainment expenses for longer periods and in more extravagant fashion; there were many other possible uses for this wealth.

It seems that somewhere along the way, perhaps before any visible changes in custom or law came about, people started believing that delayed adulthood was desirable, and then economic and social changes made it possible for adults to put this twisted ideal into practice. I guess it might be related to the observations of adults themselves trying to recreate an adolescent environment and "frame of mind" whenever they get the chance, although adults didn't seem to embrace adolescence in a really big way themselves until a couple of generations after it was seen as a desirable thing to impose on one's children. Although, come to think of it, while not particularly enjoying the lack of freedom, people who went through modern adolescence may remember fondly the low-stress, responsibility-free aspects of that existence, and may be keen on combining those desirable aspects with the liberty they now enjoy as they try to recreate the adolescent experience for themselves without the curfews, endless inquisitions, and arbitrary confinement and confiscation of their vehicles and other personal posessions.

But at any rate, I don't see how any of this could have started if the notion hadn't somehow gotten to be widespread that adolescence was an appropriate and beneficial thing to impose on what we would otherwise have considered our grown children. Putting it into practice was made possible, but not necessary, by those other factors.

Posted by: Ken on July 19, 2004 4:33 PM



"One thing that struck me reading "Catcher in the Rye" in 1973 was how much teenagers in 1949 tried to pretend they were adults in their tastes."

It's been a while since I've read it, but was that really pretense? Is it entirely inconceivable that teenagers in 1949 (or an any age) are capable of appreciating, enjoying, and assimilating adult culture and adult tastes?

Posted by: Ken on July 19, 2004 4:37 PM



This thread brings to mind Neil Postman's brilliant book "The Disappearance of Childhood."

This Amazon.com reviewer sums it up nicely:

[T]he postmodern world of hyper-communication has erased the passage of development we have hitherto called childhood and replaced the child with the little adult, with access to all the 'secrets' of sexuality, risk and pleasure that once were revealed in a series of steps over time as the young grew to maturity. Postman's message, that technology has not liberated but infantalized society, puts a frame around modern problems of education, child-raising, and loss of meaning."

Posted by: Ann on July 19, 2004 4:55 PM



An afterthought to my comment above.
The term "adult community" instead of "community of the elderly" that often puzzled and irritated me before totally makes sense now, if being used as part of the progression child - adolescent - post-adolescent - adult.

I can identify with Neha in a sense that I had similar experience: my classmates in Russia also had one or two children (and my best friend was already divorced mom) by the time I got married - in mature age of 22. That year, when I got to my 5 yr H.S. reunion, I found out that one popular guy in our class had died - was killed in Afganistan right after being promoted an officer. And I'm familiar with the "canon fodder" argument - just an hour ago I was reading in LJ recollection of somebody who remembers his friend, Afgan' veteran, bringing to pieces the liquor store because by Gorbachev's law at 19 he was old enough for draft but too young to be sold vodka.

There was also heated public discussions in the press and on TV at the time about immaturity of my generation and one of the examples was that at the time of Civil War (1918-20) 17y.o's were commanding divisions and 20 y.o.'s - brigades.

As if their hormone-induced adolescent violence didn't resulted in mass graves.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 19, 2004 5:27 PM



I think you are exaggerating a bit, in a couple of respects. The concept of "youths", who were neither children nor adults, existed in the classical world. Tudor England gave us the term "hobbledehoy" for a male aged 15-21. Also I don't agree with your depiction of frontier America. While there were many people who married in their later teens, at least as many postponed marriage into their 20s. Recall that marriage and children were a great responsibilities to take on, in an age where a lot of Americans still had to worry about having enough to eat; and that social constraints were much stronger than they are now.
Few 16-20 year olds had the resources for family life, or the recklessness to defy family and neighbors by marrying anyway.

Having said all that, I do think that the teen influence in recent America _is_ amazing and unprecedented.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 19, 2004 6:11 PM



Follow-up (belated) to JimT's comment.

Hmm. The Korean War (June 1950 to July 1953) diverting the focus of teen culture to more adult things. This didn't occur to me, but it might be the case.

I was nearly 14 when the war ended. (Actually, 1953 was when the "cease-fire" took place. I put quotes on that because a couple of GIs were killed by the North Koreans in 1963 about the time I was getting set to ship out to Korea.) The war had dragged on for 3 years and I recall beginning to wonder if it might still be on when I graduated from high school and face the draft: sobers one, that prospect does. Also interesting that Bill Haley didn't come on the scene until 53 or 54 (I forget).

So how to explain the comparative 1945-1950 lack of teen culture when there was no war? Dunno. Maybe the post-war shortages of stuff like houses and cars and such. Maybe the fear of another Great Depression. Possibly the fall of Eastern Europe to the Reds and ditto China. Unsettled, serious times.

And Vietnam? I suppose that can be rationalized by (a) teen/youth culture and the Boomers were already entrenched, and (b) that war likely had a proportionally--to the 18-24 generation--lesser military service impact than did Korea.

This deserves more thought.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 19, 2004 8:35 PM



1971: George Harrison. "Jesus Christ Superstar." Janis Joplin. Sly and the Family Stone. Michael Jackson. Carole King.

Obviously, you weren't around in 1971 and do know that this group of artists (save Jacko) were not made top artists by teenagers, but by 20-somethings.

Posted by: Stan on July 20, 2004 2:04 PM



I think it's interesting that you ascribe this phenomenon to over-permissiveness ("catering to") towards 15-21-year-olds rather than protectionist restrictions. It's important to remember that, as Rich Rostrum points out, not all 15-year-olds in frontier America were setting up housekeeping. The corollary is that those who were often chose to do so; you seem to think that "adolescents" today would never choose that path, and I think you're wrong. The fact is that it's damn near impossible today to set up housekeeping at that age: child labor laws make it a bitch to work, your inability to sign legally binding contracts means no one will rent to you, etc. Speaking as someone who was obsessed from my pre-teen years with adulthood and with being on my own, it can be done (I moved out at 16 and have supported myself since), but our society is structured in such a way as to discourage it at every turn.

Posted by: E. Naeher on July 20, 2004 2:44 PM



Rich -- Sure, but there was no "youth culture" in the sense we take for granted. People have always gone through adolescence in one way or another -- biologically necessary. And, as far as I could tell, there were a few moments when a few cultures dug this or that about adolescents. (Usually that they were cute, hot, full of idiot daredeviltry, and charming.) But that's not what we think of when we think of teenagehood. We think of having defined stretch of life that's of enormous, personality-shaping importance; we think of a self-sustaining youth culture that's an alternative to adulthood; we expect to have our adolescenet tastes and desires chased after and made a big fuss about commercially. Glad to hear from anyone if I'm wrong here, but my impression from some amateur history-and-anthro reading was that post-1950 American youth culture is quite unique. My (tediously-repeated, I suppose) small addition to this is to suggest that it's even weirder, now that it has become our de facto official culture. When has adult culture ever before handed over the reins to youth culture?

Ken -- Funny to think about how it all came about, isn't it? Was this desired? What was expected of it? Or did we kind of stumble our way into it? Beats me, and am, as ever, eager to learn more.

Stan -- I was a teen in 1971 actually, and remember listening to all this music. But my attempted point here isn't that teens specifically made this music, it's that teen tastes made pop music, and that by 1971 pop music had taken over popular-music-more-generally nearly entirely. These days pop music is so all-triumphant that many people seem to take pop music and popular music to be one and the same thing. Which, historically, isn't the case at all.

E Naeher -- I think we agree, actually. Our concept of adolescence seems to be largely the result of changes in legal status, child-labor laws, educational requirements, etc. I'd add only that what happened in the '50s (or one thing among many) is that "teens" became an ongoing target market, which (some outbreaks aside) they'd never been before. My guess is that being a target market at an impressionable age can have quite an impact on a person's, or a generation's, expectations. You expect the culture to pursue you; you expect your whims to be celebrated; you want things as you want them, you can't understand why the culture shouldn't be serving them up as such; and perhaps, having been catered to so very aggressively, you find it difficult to abandon being in the commercial spotlight and moving on into the next phase of life. Sounds like you made it through pretty unscathed.


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 20, 2004 4:00 PM



This was a great post, but like Rich Rostrum, I must disagree with the claim that the average American man of the late nineteenth century was married at sixteen to an even younger bride. In reality, the average age for marriage in the U.S. has hardly ever been younger than twenty or twenty-one for a man and eighteen for a woman. At some periods, such as in early nineteenth-century New England, the average age for marriage was almost as high as it is today. It was probably back down around twenty or so by the late nineteenth century, but still much higher than sixteen.

Posted by: James Kabala on July 20, 2004 4:04 PM



Rich, James -- Doublechecking myself I find that you're dead right about age-of-marriage. I wonder what my source was for my claim. Anyway, thanks for catching that, I'll drop a correction in the posting.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 20, 2004 4:27 PM



Michael: Yes, there does seem to be something going on with getting hooked on the idea-based scifi novel when young, or not. This is one reason why I like to keep my eyes peeled for scifi in media other than the novel that has decent exposition of ideas. It's much easier to turn people today onto a movie, graphic novel (didn't those used to be called comic books? :-) or multimedia site or game than it is to get them into a novel.

That's one of the reasons I actually like the popularity of movie versions of scifi stories I've read, even if I hate the movie myself (if I even see it, not a big movie person): it gives me an in to discussing the deeper ideas in the story that probably didn't make it across the chasm to film.

Posted by: David Mercer on July 23, 2004 8:58 AM






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