The problem is that much of this outcry is based on a very skewed comparison. Compared with the blissful, carefree childhood that baby boomers and Gen Xers remember, today’s childhoods look fraught. But that experience was historically unprecedented. And it existed only for white middle-class children and wasn’t without its own problems — something we’ve forgotten thanks to idealized depictions in cultural memory. A more careful consideration of the history of childhood reminds us that childhood is ever-changing. Instead of bemoaning what it has become, we ought to focus on how to improve it for all children and teens regardless of race, class, gender or sexual orientation.
For most of history, the majority of children worked. Before industrialization, children carried out agricultural labor within the family economy, taking on more demanding roles as they grew up. Access to formal education tended to be irregular and depended on race, gender, family economy and local conditions. With the spread of industrialization in the United States and Europe in the 19th century, children as young as 8 left the protection of the family to work in factories.
That prompted reformers in the United States to clamor for child labor legislation and for the expansion of public schooling. The spread of schooling began to remove children from the workplace and into age-segregated spaces. By the end of the 1920s, half of American children attended high school. While efforts to enact national child labor laws faltered for decades, the conditions of the Depression finally broke that logjam, leading to passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which severely curtailed the ability of children under 18 to work.
These developments began to change the experience of childhood, but it was only the post-World War II prosperity that allowed white middle-class children to experience what would come to be considered “modern childhood.” Without the obligation to work and support their families, these youngsters had the luxury of leisure time to spend with their friends. They also enjoyed access to a growing consumer culture aimed at them — first receiving toys as children and then buying the latest records as teens.
As this conception of childhood and young adulthood became the norm, it became enshrined in pop culture through the creation of a new genre of film: the teen movie. Two famous films of this era, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Breakfast Club,” which appeared in 1955 and 1985, respectively, exemplify the idealized second half of the 20th-century teen experience. Unlike youngsters of the early 20th century, their characters spent their days in school, they socialized almost entirely with peers rather than with adults and they had ample free time.
But these films depicted a rather narrow slice of the American teenage experience by focusing only on white, privileged youths. They excluded the experiences of African American children hosed down by police officers in Birmingham, Ala., as they protested for civil rights and of the Latino residents mysteriously absent from the Los Angeles of “Rebel.” Yet despite their selective representation of what teenage life was like, these films and other similar cultural touchstones have shaped our understanding of childhood.
Nor is that to say that teenagers in these films had idyllic lives. Instead, the movies depicted some of the darker aspects of postwar middle-class childhood. The teenage protagonists are often in trouble: “Rebel” starts in a police station, while “The Breakfast Club” traces the experiences of students being punished and in detention. These movie teens get in lethal fights, have sex and do drugs — perhaps reflecting postwar anxieties held by adults about youth sexuality, new forms of music and radical political views.
The idealized childhood portrayed in these (and countless other) films and remembered by white baby boomers and Gen Xers is also problematic in that it represented a crucial, perhaps perilous acceleration in the “islanding of childhood”— the removal of children from mixed-age spaces to spaces exclusively for young people. That process had begun in the late 19th century with the expansion of age-specific schools, but in the early 20th century, for example, children still played in the street, where they were likely to encounter neighbors and relatives of all ages. By contrast, by the late 20th century, children were more likely to spend nearly all of their time with age mates in distinct grades at school and spend afternoons and summers, if they could afford it, at organized after-school programs and summer camps.
Some islanding of children into age-appropriate spaces makes sense — after all, young children are probably safer in preschools than on the street. However, islanding children often reinforces gender, class or racial divides. Children who can afford enrichment activities like Girl Scouts or soccer practice wind up spending more time with other children who can afford these activities. Islanding hinders children’s ability to learn how to relate to and empathize with people who may be different from them in age or otherwise. While sending children to work in factories isn’t good for them, either, holding up the postwar era as ideal may limit the ability to address the harms that stem from islanding.
Which brings us to Gen Z.
We still cling to the ideal of postwar childhood, in large measure because white middle- and upper-middle-class baby boomers and Gen Xers recall their childhoods fondly, even as their generations have erased the conditions that made it attainable. Today’s young adults have grown up in an era of fierce competition and instability. They were in elementary school during the 2008 financial crisis, they have been subject to an unrelenting testing regime in school under No Child Left Behind and the country has been at war for their entire lives.
Their hesitation to major in the humanities, their insistence on achieving concrete outcomes and their fear of failure are almost certainly due to the pressures of being assessed constantly and the climate of financial anxiety in which they came of age. While children of every generation face a unique set of challenges, these youngsters have learned from an early age that there are a limited number of resources — whether economic, environmental or spots in an elite college — to go around. And it is this awareness that shapes Gen Z youths as they look ahead to their future careers.
The good news: Childhood has evolved and will continue to evolve. That means there is space to craft a better experience for children, to address the harms of competition and anxiety while discouraging islanding and the isolation that came with the abundance of free time in the postwar period. Instead of holding up that brief postwar window as an ideal, we should recognize its flaws and limits and strive to ensure that the benefits of childhood are more equally distributed for the children who follow Gen Z in the future.