The United States did invent teenagers. That is a historic fact, just as Americans invented the telegraph, telephone, PC, and atomic bomb. While much progress has been made over time with many inventions, less so with teenagers. By the 1920s, they were populating the United States, doing the same things as teenagers do today. Then as now, teenagers wanted to borrow the keys to the family car, had part-time jobs to generate money to support their social lives, and as American households obtained telephones, yes, guess who used them a great deal? Apparently the initial invention of teenagers must have been good enough if they behaved the same way over the next century, even if they stayed out too late at night, dominated tastes in clothes and music, and worried their parents.
They became a common commodity, sharing a profoundly influencing uniform experience for them and the nation: they attended high school. By the middle of the 1920s, high school experience had become relatively homogenized across the nation. A graduate from the Class of ’25 would have recognized what was going on in a high school in 1985, or later. Public high schools were part of a universal school system, one that supported sports teams, art appreciation, music programs, and 4-H, and that encouraged kids to go on into the military and to college.
How did more schooling and parenting lead to the invention of teenagers? First, as the nation industrialized, beginning largely after the Civil War (1861-1865), millions of people left their farms and went to work in factories. By World War I, labor movements and unions were forming all over the nation. To keep their employment high, unions and other labor groups advocated for young people not to take away their jobs through lower wages, but rather to stay out of the labor market entirely so that adult workers could be paid higher wages. But there were a lot of young people ages 11 through 18 at a time when the nation had a young population, due to the formation of families producing many babies, and tens of millions of young immigrants entering the country before World War I. What was the nation to do with all these youngsters?
Keep them in school! The logic for that solution was perfect. As the economy industrialized, future workers needed to know new things: mathematics, physics, how to operate machinery, to show up on time, to take instructions, to be able to read, to follow an operating manual, and to read a blueprint. High schools could teach these subjects, so labor supported states mandating that young potential workers stay in school. First it was through eighth grade, later to at least ages 16 or 17, and even later to graduate from high school, all paid for with property taxes. It worked. By the 1930s, the majority of teenagers entered high school and by the end of World War II most graduated.
The need to keep them out of the labor market and to equip them with new information to succeed in the New Economy led to a new class of people cleverly named teenagers. Before they were teenagers, they had been young workers in workshops, factories, and, of course, down on the farm.
But just having something new is not enough; it has to have a name, an identity, a brand. The PC was a tiny computational machine of some sort until IBM gave it a name: Personal Computer. Data transmission over dial-up phone lines needed a name for it to work. It got one—Internet. So, young workers now in school got theirs—Teenagers.
And that leads to the second way teenagers were invented. Beginning in the late 1800s, doctors began specializing in various sub-fields of medicine, like surgery or children. That trend led to the invention of pediatricians and psychologists—two new information-based specialties—who then began to point out that people under and over the age of 10 had different physical and mental circumstances. The latter, for example, experienced puberty and were interested in, dare we say it, sex. With Sigmund Freud a fashionable source of information about how humans behaved in the 1920s and 1930s, experts began advising parents about their older children—teenagers.
Experts were counseling parents on how to deal with new problems surfacing from these children: rebellion against authority, their urge for independence, resistance to supervision, and sexual liberation. Parents and schools developed school sports, Scouting, 4-H, and other activities to consume a teenager’s interests and to burn up their physical energy. Articles in popular magazines and books began appearing in the 1920s, a type of publication that continues to this day. Parents turned to these, because many in the 1920s and 1930s had not been teenagers, they had worked. This was new to them.
After World War II, it seemed every parent became exposed to Dr. Benjamin Spock and the “latest thinking” about how to raise children. He became the best-selling author in the United States from the late 1940s through the 1960s, outpacing even sales of the Bible, which in the 1800s had been the best seller in the United States. Tens of thousands of articles were published about teenagers in the second half of the twentieth century, ensuring that they would remain a fixture of American society.
Teenagers were invented by the rising tide of information that called for a new type of worker. It provided something for these older children to do, and assisted parents in dealing with this new type of person. Today almost every country on Earth has teenagers. With helicopter parents and the push to go to college, Americans may be expanding teenage-hood to the mid-20s. Is this 2.0 for teenagers, another contribution of the American Information Age?
Featured Image Credit: Lincoln High School by David Sawyer. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.