Kids these days

Teenagers first emerged as a distinct group seventy years ago, sparking outrage and moral panic – as well as a rush by corporations to cash in on a new demographic. But adolescents have caused chaos, concern and confusion throughout history and in a variety of cultures.

Boys from the Yao people participating in circumcision and coming of age rites, 2005.
Boys from the Yao people participating in circumcision and coming of age rites, 2005. Credit: Steve Evans via Wikipedia Commons

The notion of the ‘teenager’, it is commonly believed, was invented in 1950s America. Prior to this, in the Western world at least, childhood stopped and adult life began the day someone joined the workforce, got married or eventually turned eighteen or twenty-one, depending on location, class, and gender. The strange no-man’s land of adolescence, history tells us, is a product of post-war economic expansion – as children were educated en masse for the first time, pushing back their entry to the workforce by a good few years, an adolescent-only sphere emerged, and with it a distinct culture.

Teenagers were now citizens of leisure, with time and money to spend. And in the US, the mass production of cars only magnified this freedom. Once corporations cottoned on to this, everybody from rock stars to retailers agonised over what young people liked so that they could sell it to them. Across the rest of the less affluent globe, American culture signalled the future and all things cool, groovy or awesome — depending on the decade. This led to moral panic among adults who were convinced teenagers would become the source of a range of social ills, with the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, warning of an ‘appalling increase in the number of crimes that will be committed by teenagers in the years ahead’ in 1953. Adolescents were thus simultaneously cursed by politicians and adored by consumerism, and have been ever since. Today, British teenagers add £1.7bn to the economy each year  – 84 per cent of which goes towards clothes, food, going out, and gaming.

But the idea that people between the ages of twelve and twenty behave strangely, and often irritatingly, is no twentieth-century development. An eleventh-century French priest, Peter the Hermit, allegedly preached: ‘The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint … As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behaviour and dress.’ In 1611, Shakespeare voiced the following complaints through a shepherd in A Winter’s Tale‘I would that there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.’

The word ‘hooligans’ first entered the English language in the 1890s as one of a handful of terms to describe troublesome gangs of boys living in urban areas. They were known for their heavy-set studded belts which spelt out their names or those of their girlfriends, and for sporting so-called donkey fringe hair-styles. They spent their time fighting, playing loud music on their harmonicas and shouting obscenities — more or less the same way some teenage boys spend their time today.

Equally, while bastions of youth culture, from denim jeans to prom night, might be American exports, teenagers are a source of confusion throughout societies. At a fundamental level, they look like adults (but not quite) but continue to behave like children (but not quite). This is where coming of age rites of passage are helpful, especially in societies that rely on a certain level of maturity amongst its members. Rural communities across Africa have long traditions of ceremonies during which boys become men — be it circumcision as seen in the Xhosa tribe, among many others, or jumping over a cow, the challenge faced by teenage boys of the Hamar people in Ethiopia.

Other societies deal with those undergoing puberty by getting rid of them for a bit – the Aboriginal tradition of Walkabout, for example. In Lossiemouth in Scotland, the town’s adolescents have traditionally lived in tents and fended for themselves over the summer as a rehearsal for leaving home. The Tucuna tribe in the Amazon seclude their pubescent girls away from the rest of the community in preparation for their initiation into womanhood, believing them to be more susceptible to supernatural powers that influence their behaviour and emotions. Nor is this messy period exclusive to humans. The book Wildhood by Professor Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers outlines the unusual behaviours that crop up during adolescence across species. Adolescent wolves, bears, and some species of bird, have all been found to be more inclined towards risky behaviour thanks to hormone levels and a changing brain structure — the majority of animals that end up as roadkill are adolescents. Similarly, accidents (predominantly road traffic ones) are the largest cause of death amongst human adolescents. The second is intentional self-harm or suicide.

There’s a lot of talk about kids these days, often centred around social media usage. In the same way that secondary education created an adolescent-only sphere, and cars granted unprecedented access to shops, entertainment, and socialising, the 15cm of technology the majority of teenagers carry around facilitates whatever the hyper-wired teenage brain wants.  But with social media monetising impulsive, insecure, and emotional behaviour, it encourages negative instincts in all its users, especially ones naturally more susceptible to hormonal outbursts. One of the main criticisms laid at Facebook’s feet by whistleblower Frances Haugen this week was that its platform Instagram exploits teenage girls’ mental health for profit. Adults may have tried to monetise girls’ concern for their appearance since time immemorial, but never have they been able to do it 24/7, invading their young customers’ minds and bedrooms alike.

Teenagers seem to be as they always were, despite exasperated cries to the contrary throughout the centuries, but the times they’re navigating are changing at a pace beyond recognition. Corporations are scrambling to catch up, eager to profit. But whether adolescents are so easily led by surveillance capitalism is up for debate. In this internet age, teenagers are famously digital natives. The best the rest of us can hope to be are the bumbling explorers trailing slowly behind.


Eve Webster