THE RISE AND FALL OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER
By Thomas Hine
Bard. 314 pp. $24
Thomas Hine devotes more than 300 pages to the idea and history of the "teenager" in America, but the Dictionary of American Slang needs only a few words to get to the heart of the matter, in defining "teen": "An adolescent; a person between the ages of 13 and 19, but specif. a high-school student between the ages of 15 and 19. Colloq. since c1930; stand. since c1945. The U.S. is the only country having a word for members of this age group, and is the only country considering this age group as a separate entity whose influence, fads and fashions are worthy of discussion apart from the adult world. Before c1935 U.S. teenagers considered themselves as, and were considered, young adults and not a special group."
Truth to tell, Hine doesn't add a whole lot to that. Readers of his book may not use the word "teenager" quite so casually as in the past, but apart from alerting us to the essential artificiality of the idea -- as well as providing useful documentation of the ways in which our culture has prolonged the period of youth well past its natural limits -- The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager is a long journey over well-trod ground.
Still, it's worth making the trip if only because the place of teenagers in American society and culture is now so central that it always bears reflection and reconsideration. As Hine writes: "During the first decade of the 21st century, the United States will have the largest number of teenagers in its history, more even than when the baby boomers bought their first blue jeans. The early years of this new century will, in large part, be shaped by this new generation, the largest infusion of youth in the U.S. population in more than four decades." In other words, if you think teenagers are huge now, just wait until the coming of the millennium.
Hine's book ends, in fact, with a consideration of the state of the teenager at the end of the century and a few thoughts about what lies ahead as we enter this peculiar new world in which all dates will begin with a "2" instead of a "1." More on that in a moment. Before he gets there, Hine trots us through a once-over-fairly-lightly history of how the teenager came into being. "The word was coined during the early 1940s by some anonymous writer or editor to describe an age group that had suddenly become of great interest to marketers and social reformers," he writes, but ". . . The concept of the teenager rests . . . on the idea of the adolescent as a not quite competent person, beset by stress and hormones." Indeed, the history of teenagers since their invention a little more than half a century ago suggests that adults don't like them very much.
It's interesting that although dictionaries invariably trace the roots of the word to the numerical suffix "teen," it also is eerily close in both sound and spelling to "between," which is exactly what teenagers are now assumed to be: between childhood and adulthood. Hine is scarcely the first to point out that this is essentially a 20th-century invention, but it is useful to be reminded that, until perhaps the 1920s, people in their teen years inhabited no separate culture of their own but moved briskly into the adult world, often as apprentices or domestics, but usually paid and usually treated as adults, albeit young and inexperienced ones. Often by the age of 12 or 13 -- if not earlier -- a child's schooling was over, the needs of his or her family being such that an economic contribution to its well being was more important than an extended education.
It was not until the early 20th century that an organized and effective campaign against child labor made itself felt. It was substantially influenced, Hine argues, by Granville Stanley Hall, whose Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education (1904) argued that young people "grew up too quickly, expecting to make too many of their own choices, getting old before they had fully dealt with being young." Hall "offered an image of the adolescent as a figure at once beautiful and troubled, passionate and feckless," and gave "various groups an intellectual basis for campaigns to get young people off the streets, out of the factories, and into the schools."
We think of high school as an ancient institution, but in its present form it is very young. "Only during the 1930s was a majority of what we now term high-school-age youth enrolled," Hine writes, "mostly because the Depression had made jobs unavailable." Now "high school is the threshold through which every young American must pass," and "without high school, there are no teenagers," but it is sobering and instructive to bear in mind that if you were born in the 1930s, as I was, you are a member of only the second generation of Americans for whom high school was a mandatory rite of passage.
The child labor laws meant that "people stay younger longer," a change that high school institutionalized and that now extends into college and even beyond. The "struggle to extend immaturity has had a mixed legacy," Hine writes, arguing that not all youths are suited for secondary education, that some can lead happier and more productive lives if they take full-time jobs at what most of us would regard as a very young age. This rests on a somewhat conspiratorial view of universal secondary education -- that it serves "to shrink the workforce and maintain breadwinners' wages" -- but it is also true that teenagers are far more competent than most adults are willing to admit and far more eager to get on with their own adult lives. Hine has his finger on an important truth when he writes: "In order to make sense, lifetime learning must accompany lifetime doing. Most of the time, we don't allow our young people to do much of anything. . . . Teenagers are people of whom too much is asked and too little is expected."
Hine likes and sympathizes with teenagers, but his view of their situation as the millennium approaches is not sanguine. "Many of the issues that haunt teenagers' lives at the end of the 20th century," he says, have to do with "the alienation of teenagers from adult society, and equally about the alienation of that society from its teenagers." He mentions the "tribes of youth" into which teenagers have divided, "a range of youth subcultures, and clans, and coteries, and cliques within those," which reflect the fragmentation of the adult world. He believes that teenagers are pessimistic -- "They combine extreme libertarianism with a belief that nearly anything that could be done about whatever is wrong now will only make it worse" -- and that adult fear of teenagers, a constant throughout history, has intensified as teenagers have become an ever larger, more insistent and more discrete presence, with the result being," among other things, the enactment of laws that deny them, as minors, freedom to move, gather and express themselves, and of other laws that require states to prosecute them as adults for a wide variety of serious crimes."
There are other matters of interest at this moment in history that Hine either scants or ignores. Though he mentions the sense of entitlement of the baby boomers, he does not really dig into the even more pronounced sense of the same they have passed along to their own children; the effects of excessive affluence and instant gratification are potentially severe, but Hine does not really explore them. Nor does he go into the interesting question of the extent to which not merely American teen culture but also the very idea of "teenage" has been exported to the rest of the world.
It's too bad Hine didn't go into these and other issues, but -- as I hope the preceding paragraphs suggest -- he does offer a pretty generous serving of food for thought.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.