The Rise of the Teenager – 1

If we could have a time machine to go back and ask Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Richard Baxter or John Wesley the question, “How did you minister to the teenagers in your church?”, their blank expressions would be followed by the question, “What’s a teenager?”

The concept of a teenager is a fairly recent one. In fact, it was only in 1904 that psychologist G. Stanley Hall released a book called Adolescence, claiming that adolescents represent, or recapitulate, the primitive part of mankind approaching the ‘civilisation’ of adulthood. Quite standard fare, for the Darwinistic view of all the sciences, so popular at the time. That was followed up by an essay by Sigmund Freud, claiming (surprise) that teenagers’ developing sexuality makes them volatile, and prone to deviant behaviour. Soon, educators, psychologists and social workers were treating young people in adolescence as a formal, biological and even legal category – sometimes termed youth, and later, teenager – believing such people must of necessity be awkward and anxious, and would require specialised education and socialisation. 

One of Hall’s most devoted followers was John Dewey – the pioneer of the modern school system. He created the ‘high school’ to segregate adolescents from other children. The compulsory schooling now in force meant that more than ever, young people were with their peer group more than their parents. Educational reformers, feeding off Hall and Freud’s theories, developed more and more extracurricular activities to socialise these ‘teenagers’ – dances, sports events, clubs. In the meantime, the affluence of the West was creating numerous commercial entertainments – amusement parks, dance halls and movies.

These entertainments would come to define, exploit and create the youth culture as we know it. The youth loved the movies. When Rudolph Valentino died, over 150 000 people, mostly young women, came to his funeral. The dance halls meant boys and girls danced in close proximity, to the music that was reflecting the times. By the 20s, a strong youth culture was now developing, with dating replacing parent-supervised courting.

From the crooning of Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra into the 50s world of early Rock ‘n Roll, the youth culture was growing and becoming identified with its music. Presley, the Comets, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and others stood for this new culture – rebellious, defiant, promiscuous and materialistic.

The affluence of the 50s meant that this youth culture was also a consumer culture. Starting in this decade and exploding in the 60s, goods like soft drinks, music, clothing, cars, sports equipment, magazines, and toiletries, were specifically marketed to the youth, only underlining the supposed ‘generation gap’. Marketing experts realised that adolescents tended towards conformist attitudes, and made sure they sold goods that catered to their desires to dress, buy and look like their peers.

For the first time, teenagers began creating fads, clothing styles and generally distinctive appearances to go with their youth culture – Presley sideburns, suede shoes and so on. Saying you were ‘hip’, ‘in’, or ‘cool’ was simply another way of saying you identified with the youth culture of the time – and you did so outwardly.

Once the economic potential of this group was proven, it was unstoppable. It remains in the interest of multi-billion dollar companies to foster and maintain a ‘youth culture’. In fact, it is safe to say that the dominant culture is youth culture. Witness how all the media fawns over youth, disparages aging and considers the ‘prime’ age to be about eighteen.

Fifty years later, the ‘teenager’ is an established, distinct group, in society’s view. You apparently enter this group at around 12, and quietly exit around 18 or so. From a group that was unknown to exist previously, they certainly have made a splash in the last 100 years.

And what has been the church’s response to an artificially created category? Providing a transcendent alternative? Keeping families together? Emphasising unity across age groups?  Or fawningly assimilating?

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