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Dec 1, 1999
12 Min read time
Would America be a better place without teenagers?
Author Thomas Hine thinks so, but he’s far from a crotchety misanthrope. He believes that the American teen is already an endangered species, a creature who may thrive in the popular imagination but has slowly been abandoned by the cultural forces that invented him. One proof of this abandonment is the stark contrast between the way teens view themselves and the way that they are viewed: Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the anthem of the early-nineties grunge movement, was, among other things, a full-throated refusal of "teens" to be labeled such.
Hine’s latest book, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, builds its argument from this basic premise–that the term "teenager" has become an insult used to mark distance and distaste, a way for adults to take revenge against a world of alternative and possibly baffling livelihoods. As Hine observes, the current generation of young people rivals the Baby Boom in size, and far outstrips it in ethnic diversity. And so we need to move quickly beyond what he calls, in a nod to Betty Friedan, our "teenage mystique." This mystique leads us to segregate young people, away from the world of work, in a playpen of consumer privilege. It teaches us, more generally, that teens are a "suspect class," expected to combust into violence or wallow in a sulk. And worst of all, Hine argues, it denies young people the chance to prove their maturity, while burdening them with the probationary sentence that they are a problem in the making.
The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager begins with this polemical depth charge–one already seconded by education reformer Leon Botstein–but the book is less an indictment of adult thick-headedness than a retrospective of young people in America. Hine sets out to prove that the teen experience, far from being predetermined by hormonal energy, is really driven by a "set of cultural expectations"–decisions about when and how people grow up, what role young people play in the larger adult world, and which resources should be devoted to them. And so the bulk of his incisive, if uneven, book traces the arc of these expectations from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when even young children were put to work, all the way through the arrival of universal high school education–America’s first comprehensive system of age-segregation–sixty years ago. The tour is eclectic, bouncing from Lowell "factory girls" to Joan Crawford’s flapper, from gem-like anecdotes to broad analysis of rifts in the national class structure, but it is held together by the strength of Hine’s conviction. Although The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager works best as a synoptic history, it is Hine’s message–Let kids be as grown up as they want!–that spikes the book with urgency and, it should be added, an uncertain politics.
The teenager, Hine points out, is a relative latecomer to the American scene. In 1834, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the absence of teen culture in early America, surmising that "In America there is, in truth, no adolescence. At the close of boyhood, [the young American] is a man and begins to trace out his own path." Tocqueville may have scanted the experience of girls, but his generalization had a truth for both sexes before the Industrial Revolution. Childhood in the colonies and early national period was a lengthy, nebulous period of dependence, marked by work on a family farm, then apprenticeship in "housewifery" (for girls) or artisanship (for boys); it ended only at the moment of marriage. Child labor, in Hine’s words, was "not a social horror but a simple fact of life," and the small fraction of young people who attended academies–the precursors of high school–fit their schooling around their work.
Young people didn’t yet have high school, but they seized other opportunities to prove themselves as adepts-at-large. Hine rightly notes that, on the eve of the American Revolution, half the population was under sixteen. The Revolution itself was fought for youthful ideals and, in large part, by youthful bodies. (The Boston Massacre, which began when an apprentice wigmaker harassed an English officer for defaulting on his bill, was an early instance of the politics of youthful disrespect.) In the antebellum period, youths were eagerly marching in village militias, demonstrating their prowess at quilting bees and barn-raisings, and preaching as prodigies of the Second Great Awakening, the antebellum religious revival that whipped through the Northeast. Yet these public displays of self-control and self-fabrication were integrated into the adult world of work and leisure, through the rituals of church, state, and society.
Hine sees the turn of the twentieth century as a crucial pivot: the coexistence of young and old was fatally upset by a new institution, the high school, and a new ideology, the developmental psychology of G. Stanley Hall. Hall revived the term Tocqueville had no use for–"adolescence"–at the very time that automation was pushing children out of the workforce and into public education. Both a gassy academic and a profound original, Hall was the first social scientist to isolate the period between twelve and seventeen years of age, describing it as a stage of glossy promise and uncertain menace. His developmental theory, like much turn-of-the-century talk about "civilization," was tinged by Social Darwinism and its faith in racial supremacy: Hall believed that the life-cycle of the individual recapitulated human evolution, from the lowest "pigmoid" type (say, eight to twelve years) to the higher Northern European races (adults, naturally). The recalcitrant adolescent was, psychically speaking, stuck in the jungles of Africa.
Hall’s psychology nicely dovetailed with the needs of a host of Progressive reformers: educators who wanted to protect immigrant children from the lure of street amusements; juvenile justice reformers who hoped that young people could be judged more leniently in return for a promise of corrected behavior; union leaders who wanted child labor laws to tighten the job market and raise prevailing wages. Each party argued that certain reforms were in the best interests of youth, who suddenly needed to be kept away from remunerative toil and its evil twin, unstructured play. The high school became the preferred controlled arena for youth’s renegade impulses, and when the Great Depression removed even working-class kids from the factory floor, it became a nearly universal experience, an entitlement parents came to expect for their children.
Yet for all the attempts to supervise youth, a distinct teen culture began to flourish, driven largely by the egalitarian principle that pleasure should be instantly, perhaps constantly, available. Youths were pioneers of consumer culture, and continue to thrill to its breakneck cycle of fashion and obsolescence–from the shimmy, Charleston, tango, and black bottom crazes of the 1920s to the hip-hop, trip-hop, and electronica waves of the 1990s. As Hine points out, adults have played a steady role in this alliance between teenhood and the taste market: the word "teenager," after all, was first adopted by postwar marketers and advertisers, who wanted to plumb the new demographic. (Teens now spend between $100 billion and $200 billion a year, depending on whether you count indirect as well as direct purchases.) But teens have always tugged in the direction of their own autonomy. The recent triumphs of heavy metal, rap, and ’zines with names like Puberty Strike and It Came from the Eighties are cases in point.
As Hine sets into this more familiar territory, the teen culture fabricated on celluloid, vinyl, and now the Internet, his book begins to coast. He announces provocatively that "dating" is an invention of the last eighty years, but drops the point after a brief summary of the Kinsey report findings on the matter. His reports on the recent rituals of teen life do little more than remind us of the iconic presences of Andy Hardy, Gidget, and Richie Cunningham. Moreover, since Hine considers the period between 1945 and 1965 as the "classic period" of the American teenager, he only skims the teen world of the seventies and eighties. The book loses steam at the exact moment when boomers like Hine turned twenty.
The greater challenge, however, comes at the book’s conclusion, when Hine sketches a "life after teenagers." He believes, rightly, that our current idea of adolescence–as a moratorium when young people explore themselves before committing to a career–was a byproduct of the corporate-labor truce of the postwar period and the economy it generated. The teenagers of 1955 expected to dedicate themselves to a job in a large, intricately managed corporation, and they expected their employer to dedicate itself to their well-being in return.
Nowadays, in the wake of factory relocations and workforce "flattenings," neither employee or employer count on a long term relationship, and young people in school suffer psychological whiplash as a result. They are told that they need to be highly skilled–but for what? Many job opportunities in the current economy (caring for the elderly, working in retail) require expertise but not necessarily much schooling; and the skills in demand may fluctuate with the fast-paced cycle of industry boom and bust.
To deal with this mess–an obsolescent concept of teenhood, an economy straining in new directions–Hine has little in the way of wonkish solutions. He’d like us to recognize that, while "adults want people in their teens to be perfect," teens themselves would "rather be grown up." And being "grown up" means, for Hine, escaping the strictures of high school, experimenting with adult pleasures, and finding fulfillment in community service and paid work. (Already 60 percent of American teens work, three times the average of other advanced industrialized countries.) Yet our current expectations for teens stymie them; young people "are exposed to all the violence and economic insecurity of the society at large, but, unlike their predecessors, they have few avenues for bearing real responsibility to improve their situation."
The very scope of these problems begs for large-scale solutions, and here Hine is held back by a confusion in his definition of "teen culture"–that chimerical beast that he would like us to vaporize once and for all. There is, on the one hand, the teen culture that adults see when they target the problems of youth. This is the teen culture lambasted by politicians of every stripe and investigated by social scientists of every persuasion–the teen culture that provokes campaigns against teen smoking and drug use, or hysteria about "wilding." Then there is the teen culture that is not an object of study but a breathing subject with a life of its own: the culture made by teens themselves, the "temporary autonomous zone" (as the name of a New London club has it) where young people collaborate on the rules of decorum, the hierarchies of taste, and the meaning of the community. In his brief for the "fall of the teenager," Hine is too mild on the harmful effects of the first phenomenon–our tendency to scapegoat young people–while underestimating the creative, even utopian, elements of the second.
The power of the adult-generated "teenage mystique," as sociologist Mike Males points out, is not simply metaphysical–adults distancing themselves from young people and vice versa. Previously in The Scapegoat Generation (1996), and now in Framing Youth, Males dissects both the much-hyped and the tacit campaigns against youth, describing as he goes the mystique’s more punishing side: how baby boomers and the elderly have not only blamed the young for larger social difficulties, but also systematically defunded them. We’ve plugged for late-adulthood benefits–Social Security, the mortgage-interest deduction, the slashing of property taxes–while divesting in schools, parks, job training centers, and other institutions that benefit young people. We take it as a given that poor neighborhoods will have poorly funded schools, and that "the poorer kids of the future will be employed in service jobs which are sporadic, temporary, advancement-doubtful and benefit-free."
The stark upshot of these priorities: Americans over age forty enjoy the highest real incomes in the nation’s history and the lightest tax burden of any developed nation; meanwhile child and youth poverty has risen by 60 percent in the last twenty years, so much so that the United States has the highest child and youth poverty rate in the industrial world. Since the elderly represent the future of individuals, while young people represent the future of society, it would be hard to find more compelling evidence of the creeping self-interestedness at the heart of American politics. Males ruefully notes that this antipathy to the young is driven by ideology, not by actual upturns in youth violence or drug abuse. According to FBI statistics, an older generation (those between thirty and fifty years old) is responsible for recent spikes in violent and drug-related crimes. And so dismantling the "teenage mystique" means tackling the cultural compulsions behind it–most strikingly, our society’s suspicion that the young and poor, who are disproportionately black and brown, will not repay our investment in them.
If teens are not, by and large, raping and pillaging, how are they wiling away their time inside and outside of high school? Hine believes that young people pursue those activities that give them a sense of competence–whether they are Lowell girls earning a living in the mills, hot-rodders souping up a new machine, or contemporary teens taking jobs in cafes. "Competency" is a generous word that stresses individual gain, self-possession, maturity; it carries a whiff of the Marxist sense that human beings fulfill themselves through their productive work. But at the same time that teens are building skills, they are also building tastes–and here Hine scants the aesthetic dimensions of the teen subcultures crystallizing now around such leisurely ephemera as ’zines, music, and clothes. Where Hine sees a divisiveness in the teen world’s vast menagerie of cliques and subcliques, many teens experience them, in cultural theorist Angela MacRobbie’s terms, as "modes of empowerment." Teens are attracted to the subcultures of, say, hip-hop or graffiti because they help them to figure out what they like–what friends, fashions, slang and spaces they want to adopt as their own–and, by consequence, who they are.
If we were more alert to this dimension of teen culture, we might see that those baggy-jeaned rappers, those spraycan crews, are not the problem but rather the makings of the solution. Partly, this is because these subcultures represent teens helping themselves–creating a community, learning to manage the considerable pressures of urban living, practicing arts of "styling" that bring pleasures, confidence and respect. Subcultures are the proving-grounds of extracurricular education.
Just as crucially, though, youth subcultures have for the rest of us a sneaky message: your work does not define you as much as your sensibility, your taste, your keenness, your cool. Acid-house ravers shy away from the ice-breaking question favored at cocktail parties–"What do you do?"–because it would represent an absolute break of decorum. This ethic is more than soft-mindedness, an evasion of the "awkwardness" of class difference; it is also a worthy attempt, however constrained, to model an open society. And so while we must answer the hard questions Hine and Males ask about education and tax policy, labor supply and technological change, we should also approach those questions informed by the spirit of rave, tagger, and goth subcultures, which have a higher aspiration than many policy analysts admit: not simply to make a living, but to have a good life.
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December 01, 1999
12 Min read time
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