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What is a teenager?

by Kathleen Knight Abowitz, with Richard Rees

An essay on the cultural construction of adolescence in the Western world since industrialization, focusing on American cultural, economic, and political contexts which shape how society views and helps shape the experience of youth. References, additional readings, and assignments follow the essay.

Adolescence, youth, and teenager are cultural constructions, or socially constructed categories, that have evolved in meaning and common usage in the last century. Only in the last fifty years has the term teenager, introduced by merchandisers and advertisers in the 1940s, meant anything at all to the U.S. public. Today we typically think of teenagers as people aged 13-19. Youth emerged as a category in the 1920s in sociological and ethnographic research studies of deviancy. While the term youth originated in scholarly circles of urban teen deviancy, the term adolescence refers more to a biological and psychological category of development. The beginning of adolescence is marked by the onset of puberty, and refers to biological (growth, sexual development) and social (independence from parents) factors that mark the period in our culture. How has this period of life come to generate so many terms, and so many evolving meanings?

[Pieter Bruegel's The Peasant Dance (1568). Children seem to be represented as miniature adults.]

With industrialization, or the modern period of Western history, a great number of changes transpired that would slowly change the social structure of American society. Prior to the modern period, the transition between childhood and adulthood was relatively quick and unremarkable. As Ackland states:

The in-between stage of youth did not always exist as it does today. Philippe Ariès (1962) has shown that in medieval Europe, the movement from child to adult was instantaneous. 'Once he had passed the age of five or seven, the child was immediately absorbed into the world of adults: this concept of a brief childhood lasted for a long time in the lower classes' (p. 329). In the seventeenth century, 'by the age of ten, girls were already little women: a precocity due in part to an upbringing which taught girls to behave very early in life like grown-ups' (p. 332). (Ackland, 1995, p. 26)

In most homes today, we do not expect ten-year-olds to act like twenty-year-olds. In fact, our common-sense beliefs about adolescence are usually based chiefly in how we understand the biological aspects of adolescence, namely, puberty. Puberty is the biological beginning of adolescence, and begins at around 10 years of age for girls and 12 for boys in the U.S. (Christenson and Roberts, 1998), extending into a person's early to mid-twenties (marked by changes such as establishing one's own home and taking on permanent employment). We connect the physical changes of puberty with accompanying emotional changes, including rage, hysteria, distress, depression, and mood swings. But if 11- to 14-year old humans have been experiencing puberty since the beginning of time, why have we only created a special category of youth or adolescence, with all its moods and shifts, in the relatively recent past? What else besides biology is going on here?

As Western economies changed, industrialization lessened the need for child laborers in factories and farms. The social movements of compulsory education, child labor legislation, and special legal institutions for "juveniles" developed as a result of the economic and other social changes. The category of youth was stabilized by a wide array of institutions that arose to deal with this newly found phase of human development:

The middle-class view that adolescence was a distinct period of life led to a substantial reworking of the social system to deal with the young - rich or poor - differently from adults. The period saw the emergence of parallel institutions of prisons, courts, welfare agencies, protective legislation, and universal education designed to accommodate the specific needs of youth. (Ackland, 1995 p. 26)

Child labor laws meant that youth, many of who had worked straight through their teenage years in prior generations, had much more leisure time than in the past. In America, the growing access to universal, public education and the accompanying compulsory education laws meant that huge numbers of youth were involved in a common system of discipline, regulation, and socialization. As market capitalism grew in scope and influence, additional leisure time gained by youth was increasingly commercialized, dominated by the products, services, and teen lifestyle aimed at youth. Moreover, the population of America was increasing through record-breaking immigration waves. In sum, around the turn of the twentieth-century, the category and culture of youth was poised to take shape.


"They live in a Jolly World of Gangs, Games Movies and Music They speak a curious lingo adore chocolate milk shakes wear moccasins everywhere and drive like bats out of hell."
-Life magazine, 1941.

By the 1930s, compulsory education laws and changes in the economy - especially the Great Depression, "had finally pushed teenage youth out of the workplace and into the classroom." In 1920, 28 percent of American youths between the ages of fourteen and seventeen were in high school; by 1930, 47 percent of this age group was attending high school (Spring 1994) . Because schooling was no longer reserved for the upper classes, a generation of youth began to be recognized in their common experiences as students. Palladino explains how high school attendance continued to grow and influence an entire generation of young people:

By 1936, 65 percent [of teens] were high school students, the highest proportion to date. In the process, adolescence had become an age group and not just a wealthy social class, a shift that helped to create the idea of a separate, teenage generation. When a teenage majority spent the better part of their day in high school, they learned to look to one another and not to adults for advice, information, and approval. And when they got a glimpse of the freedom and social life that the high school 'crowd' enjoyed, they revolutionized the very concept of growing up. (Palladino,1996, p. 5)

Adolescents became a "generation," recognized more by their common experiences of age than by the class, racial, or ethnicity-based differences that separated them. In this process, a youth culture began to form in America that grew out of all these developments, including: intensification of market capitalism, technological developments, population increases, and the expansion of compulsory education and other institutions designed to protect, regulate, socialize, or just keep an eye on American youth (especially working class youth).

The term "teenager" came into common usage in the 1940s, as Palladino describes:

The fact that the population of fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds was larger than usual (9,720,419 in 1940) also gave high school students new visibility. Advertisers and merchandisers were beginning to recognize an attractive new market in the making, one that was not necessarily bound by adult standards or tastes. Celebrating the notion of carefree, high school bobby soxers (whose only concern in life was to have a good time and dance), they began to promote a new social type they dubbed 'teeners,' 'teensters,' and, in 1941, 'teenagers.' Like bobby soxers, teenagers were tied to the new high school world of dating, driving, music, and enjoyment. Although it would take a few years for the term 'teenager' to catch on in the popular mind, the concept was spreading rapidly, particularly as a marketing tool. (Palladino, 1996, p. 52)

An explosion of goods and services were aimed at this new teenage market. Magazines, record shops, clothing, new dances, foods, and cars were specifically and carefully aimed to appeal to the new market of teens. An important ideology embedded in teenage marketing during this period is "youth as fun," the notion that being young in twentieth-century American culture was a carefree, independent, happy existence (Hebdige, 1988). This ideology appealed not only to America's growing middle class youth, but also to working class youth that aspired to the "fun" of being a teenager. The ideology of "youth as fun" was especially well developed for the post-World War II generation, the baby boomers who were born into an affluent economy at the dawn of the TV generation.

"Between 1946 and 1951, a record 22 million kids had been born in the United States, forming the first bulge of that demographic goiter in the population known as the baby boom" (Douglas 1994, p. 22). Baby boomers were an important step in the development of American youth culture, coming into the world during a booming post-war economy, growing media technology (e.g., development of TV and FM radio), and unprecedented amounts of leisure time for both youth and adults. Teenagers had more independence from their families than in previous generations, and as peer groups and market advertising both became as influential as families once were, the ideology of "youth as fun" also began to be read by many adults as "youth as trouble."

"Youth as trouble" was also a popular reading, particularly among middle class adults, of teenagers. Adult fears of juvenile delinquency have fed public debate since the late 18th century in Westernized nations (Hebdige, 1997, p. 396). Particularly vulnerable to being read as "delinquents" were working class and poor youth. By the twentieth century in American, however, a whole generation was more vulnerable to being understood as "trouble." Palladino describes the mood of such debates:

"By 1943, women's clubs, church groups, PTAs, and community agencies were thrashing out the problem at public forums. Expert witnesses were testifying at congressional hearings. And the popular press was making juvenile delinquency a household concern - during the first six months of 1943 alone, twelve hundred magazine articles appeared on the subject. Radio was not far behind. Programs like "Here's to Youth' offered special segments on 'Young America in Crisis,' 'What Price Violence,' and 'The Lost Parent" (an especially popular theme)." (Palladino, 1996, p. 82)

Young America in moral crisis has continued to be an extremely popular reading of youth culture. Although working class and racial and ethnic minority youths have been especially vulnerable to being represented as "trouble," American youth culture in general has been a source of moral panics since the idea of adolescence came into being at the turn of the century. In contemporary times, we can see a similar pattern with juvenile violence and the perception, among adults, about the extent of the problem. Public perception of youth violence, fed by media hype, is wildly exaggerated, as this 1994 Gallup Poll report suggests: "Official crime statistics show that juveniles commit only about 13 percent of all violent crimes. But the average estimate of that statistic by Americans in the recent poll is more than three times that high, at about 43 percent" (from Males 1996, p. 102). This is not to suggest, of course, that current statistics for youth violence are acceptable, or that we should not be concerned about these trends. The point here, however, is that these moral panics - affective or felt more than actual crises, invested with values disproportionate to their actual worth -have been associated with youth culture since adolescence was "discovered" in the wake of the industrial revolution in the West (Ackland, 1995). Moral panics are significant not only for the perception of youth people that they help create and perpetuate, but because moral panics often increase the level of social control upon youth. Judicial, legislative, and administrativer reponses to moral panics over youth are quite common.

Whether American adolescence represents trouble, or fun, or both, there is little doubt that this time period produces a certain amount of alienation for young people. Alienation is the state of being in which one has withdrawn or been separated from an object or group, and it represents both isolation and a loss of status for the alienated group. Youth, in-between childhood and adulthood, occupy an uneasy position in our culture. As young people grow up in Western societies, Côté and Allahar argue, they face

Circumstances [that] include the long wait adolescents must face between the time when they become physically mature and when they are considered to be socially mature, or 'adult.' The delay is characterized by economic and social marginality, sequestration into age-segregated groups, and extended financial and emotional dependence on parents. The young are also subject to manipulation and control by a variety of groups formed by adults who are out to protect their own interests. (Côté and Allahar,1994, p. xv)

Alienation can be viewed in at least two ways (Epstein, 1998). The first is the structural view, in which we look at the structural issues of alienation, or those issues of importance to the individual's relationship to the social structure. Alienation, in the structural view, is caused by a group being set apart by virtue of that group's structural position in a society. According to Marx (1968), youth are often alienated from larger society because they occupy a marginal position in terms of capital. Teens rarely own the businesses at which they work, or control their own production. Today, with many youth employed in the service industries (food prep, retail), teens have little attachment to society through their relatively meaningless, mind-numbing work. The popular expression, "You want fries with that?" signifies the emptiness of many jobs held by teens.

Under the structural view of alienation, youth are progressively estranged from the important aspects of their social existence due to the social and economic organization of society. Work and school, the settings in which youth labor and produce, are increasingly meaningless and unfulfilling, demanding little intelligence and creativity. The products of work and school, produced not for the inherent worth of the products but as commodities for profit or simple progression through the system of school, are not for the benefit of youth themselves for the perpetuation of class hierarchy. (Image credit: Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, by Max Goldstein, from Lycos Image Gallery,

According to Durkheim (1968), alienation is caused by the absence or confusion of a normative structure in which alienated individuals were once located. Durkheim uses the term anomie to refer to the experience of normlessness and meaninglessness that results from living in a world that is fragmented. Individuals and groups can experience anomie when they are excluded or separated from the norms of a society, or when a society has few meaningful norms to guide conduct.

In many senses the term is used to describe the social experience of powerlessness, and disorientation. It was extended in the work of Merton (1957) to explain deviance. He suggested that anomie characterized certain groups who experienced a conflict between the goals defined by the wider society (that is, material success) and their likelihood or means of achieving such goals. Deviance (for example, robbing a bank) is therefore viewed as a result of anomic tension or 'strain.' (O'Sullivan et. al., p. 14)

The second view of alienation, following from the first, is found in social psychology and refers "to the internal feeling of detachment felt by the individual" in a given situation (Epstein, 1998, p. 5). Scholars who study this perspective of alienation attempt to understand the human feelings of powerlessness and meaninglessness, for example, among isolated groups. From the point of view of social psychology, we can think of alienation as

The opposite of 'sense of coherence,' [or] the extent to which a lack of confidence about the manageability, meaningfulness, and comprehensibility of life permeates one's orientation to life. In terms of the experiences of adolescent alienation, meaningfulness is the most critical of these three components of alienation because it is the search for meaning in the life of adolescents that creates, or allows for, the creation of youth subcultures. (Epstein, 1998, p. 6)

Both views of alientation - structural and psychological - are important to understanding both how youth are positioned within society, and how youth may respond to their position within society. As you move through this site, examining different aspects of youth culture and subcultures, keep the concept of alienation in mind.

As children progress into adulthood in our culture, they unwittingly become part of an historical, cultural, and economic construction we call adolescence, youth or the teenage years. As part of this category, adults view them through certain ideological lenses. Further, they are faced with a confusing array of choices, pressures, regulations, and social groupings. Youth culture, in America, has developed into a global influence and industry, spawning everything from Elvis to MTV, but has it made teenage lives more meaningful and coherent? This is one question we will take up in the next essay on this site, "Youth Cultures and Subcultures."



Ackland, C. R. (1995). Youth, murder, spectacle: The Cultural politics of "youth in crisis". Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Côté, J. E., & Allahar, A. L. (1994). Generation on hold: Coming of age in the late twentieth century. New York: New York University Press.

Christenson, P. G., & Roberts, D. F. (1998). It's not only rock & roll: Popular music in the lives of adolescents. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Douglas, S. J. (1994). Where the girls are: Growing up female with the mass media. New York, NY: Random House.

Durkheim, E. (1947). The Division of labor in society. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Epstein, J. S. (1998). Introduction: Generation X, youth culture, and identity. In J. S. Epstein (Ed.), Youth culture: Identity in a postmodern world, (pp. 1-23). Malden: Blackwell.

Hebdige, D. (1988). Hiding in the light. London: Routledge.

Hebdige, D. (1997). Posing ... threats, Striking ... poses: Youth, surveillance, and display. In K. Gelder & S. Thornton (Eds.), The Subcultures reader, (pp. 393-405). New York: Routledge.

Males, M. A. (1996). The Scapegoat generation: America's war on adolescents. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.

Marx, K. (1968). Marxist social thought. (ed. R. Freedman). New York: Harvest.

Palladino, G. (1996). Teenagers: An American history. New York: Basic Books.

Spring, J. (1994). The American School, 1642-1993. (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

For further reading

Austin, J., & Willard, M. (Eds.). (1997). Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth Century America. New York: New York University Press.

Gaines, D. (1998). Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Weinstein, D. (1994). Expendable youth: The Rise and fall of youth culture. In J. S. Epstein (Ed.), Adolescents and their music: If it's too loud, you're too old, (pp. 67-85). New York: Garland.



1. Ideological analysis in sites marketing to youth on the Web

Visit several sites that are designed to market products to youth (see below). Are these sites utilizing an ideology of youth as trouble or youth as fun, or neither, or both? Choose 1-2 sites on which to focus. Using the essay above, describe the ideological components you notice in these sites, and cite the evidence for your analysis.

MTV on-line
Disney home page

Essential Media Counterculture Catalogue
Spice Girls merchandise
Aaron's video games for boys
Delia's shopping for girls

Urban Decay cosmetics


2. Reflection paper on "moral panics"

Write a 1-2 page reflection paper on the phenomenon of "moral panics" as they relate to American teenagers. What is a moral panic, and are we currently experiencing one? Why do you think so? Describe.


3. How youth perceive their world: Gallup Poll analysis

Visit the Gallup Poll site about youth perceptions of their current world: <>. React to the following questions:
(a) how do youth perceive their world, according to this poll? Describe trends and patterns. (b) how do these poll results intersect with the idea that youth make up an alienated sub-group within American society?


4. Magazine ad analysis

Find a magazine ad that represents "youth" or teenage life. What values, ideas, attitudes is it attaching to youth and the youth experience? That is, is the ad coming out of the tradition of youth as fun, youth as trouble, or something else? Use the information in the essay above to historicize the ad.