Say the word “teenager” to anyone over 21, and they’re liable to recoil in horror—especially if they’re parents of teens. The word has changed over the past century from its origin as a category in advertising demographics to its current meaning, something like “a mystifying, hormone-addled person, no longer a child, but not yet an adult.”
Now comes New York Times writer Thomas Hine to attempt a dismantling of this misbegotten mystique. The author of the classic history of post-WWII design and marketing, Populuxe, Hine embarked on his latest book when he grew “exasperated” with his fellow Boomers’ attitudes towards today’s teenagers. “We seem to have moved, without skipping a beat, from blaming our parents for the ills of society to blaming our children,” he notes in his introduction.
Indeed, American adults seem to view their high school-age progeny as near-aliens. “A tribe apart,” journalist Patricia Hersch dubbed them in her book of the same name (a book that, ironically, aims to prove how similar ’90s teens are to their parents’ generation). Hine, on the other hand, sees today’s teens both as part of a historical continuum and as a unique group, and his sympathies clearly lie with the kids. American adolescence, he argues, has become increasingly problematic since the standardized high school curriculum collided with widespread emphasis on college preparation in the 1950s. Now all teenagers are expected to share the goal of a university education, regardless of their individual talents or inclinations. They’re also expected to postpone adulthood—a.k.a. sex, marriage, work, pregnancy—until well into their 20s. (In the late 1800s, Hine points out, the age of consent was 12 or 13 in most states except Delaware, where it was seven). Biology, meanwhile, is speeding up what culture is slowing down: The average female begins menstruation several years earlier than her 19th-century ancestress.
With admirable clarity, Hine examines how American society transferred its emphasis from family ties to generational ones. The recent high school shooting incidents never appear by name, but Hine’s analysis explains how today’s adolescents could easily detach from any stabilizing influence. From the Puritan era until well into the 1920s, family members commonly worked alongside each other on a farm or in a mine or mill. This situation obviously had its own drawbacks, but it did foster familial connections. In addition, a fully employed teenager in the late 1800s enjoyed many of the privileges of maturity, including being able to marry and have children without negative legal or social repercussions. The teenage years were not seen as a separate phase of life but as part of the youthful progression that began in childhood and lasted into the twenties.
Hine backs his lively, anecdotal history with well-digested research, covering much ground in just 300 pages. One notable omission, though, will distress those of us who experienced adolescence in the 1980s: We’re not here. Hine’s analysis jumps from 1970s teens to today’s teens, as though nothing happened in Reagan’s heyday—politically, socially, or culturally—that would impact future generations. Teens of the 1980s get little more than one line in the book’s final chapter, and then only in comparison with those who will become teenagers in the first decade of the 21st century. Marketing pros believe that teens then won’t be “as depressive or angry as their Gen-X grungy forebears,” Hine notes, “and will be shapers and consumers of fashion, not simply recyclers.”
It’s always distressing when an entire generation is boiled down to three words (“depressive, angry recyclers,” for example), but Hine is careful to emphasize that he’s painting his portrait of American teens with a broad brush. For those wondering how we got from Plymouth Rock to Littleton, Colorado, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager provides plenty of answers.
The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager by Thomas Hine (Bard Books, $24)