I’m in the middle of reading Jon Savage’s Teenager (2007), a study of how youth was socially constructed between 1875 and 1945 in the USA, the UK, and some other European countries. We usually assume that ‘teenager’ appeared in Western culture in the 1950s but the first thing Savage’s volume teaches is that this word actually started being used in 1944, in the USA, as a sort of harbinger of what youth would be like after an Allied victory in WWII: a time to enjoy yourself, and all the new pleasures of total consumerism, no matter what class you belong to. I remain, in any case, puzzled and amused by how the English -teen suffix was used to create the age category 13-19 quite artificially. Today there is talk of ‘teens’ and ‘tweens’ (tweenager!) for 10-14 kids, though I’m not sure to which category the 20-29 young adults belong to anymore. I don’t hear the word ‘adultescent’ so often these days, perhaps because now everyone seems to be a ‘millennial’ up to 35 (and young up to 40!).

I would say that in Spain we use predominantly ‘pre-adolescente’ (10-14) and ‘adolescente’ up to 21, which agrees more or less with the old legal majority (this was changed down to 18 in 1978). As happens, the word ‘adolescence’ is also an American creation: the contribution to our essential vocabulary of psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924), a staunch admirer of Sigmund Freud. His book of 1904 (vol. 2, 1907), Adolescence: Its Psychology, and its Relation to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime and Religion is the first instance of the use of this key word.

Before the invention of adolescence, Savage explains, childhood just ended in adult age, around 18, when youth began (the Victorians did use the label ‘young adult’, now used for different purposes in YA fiction). For Hall, childhood ended, rather, at 13-14, with puberty, and adolescence between 21-25 (presumably when you were ready to marry). One thing that bothers me is that although Latin adolēscēns means ‘growing up, maturing’–hence its use by Hall to define the transitional period from childhood to adulthood–it also meant originally ‘lacking’, which is where the Spanish verb adolecer comes from. The RAE dictionary warns that this verb means “having some sort of defect or suffering from some malady” and not “lacking” but the point I’m making is still valid: an ‘adolescent’ is, whether Hall intended it or not, an individual missing an indefinite something–arguably maturity. I’ve never really liked the word for that reason: it seems awfully patronizing to me. Even ageist, in current parlance.

It must be recalled that childhood is actually a late 18th century invention, fully established in the Romantic period (or Regency period, if you prefer it) and that, of course, the cult of youth is a product of the same era. Before that time, basically the ages between 0 and 17 were seen as a long preparation for adulthood, which could start as early as 10 (or earlier) for working-class children employed full time, apprenticed in some cases already at 7. In the early 19th century adulthood, then, was assumed to begin as soon as an individual entered the marriage market: around 16 for the girls and 20 for the boys. Naturally, the possibility to enjoy childhood and youth would depend on each family’s income–in upper-class families, the girls would also be considered marriageable adults by 16 but the men enjoyed a far more prolonged youth, including a university education, travelling and perhaps professional training (in business, the law, the military, or politics) up to the age of 30.

From my constant repetition of the word ‘marriage’ and similar, you might get the impression that weddings used to be the main rite of passage into adulthood–or a specific age barrier in their absence: if, as a woman, you were not married by 30, and, as a man, you were still single by 40, then you became officially a spinster or a bachelor, that is to say, a celibate adult. But I digress. Actually, the factor that introduced all the changes in the way age is socially constructed is education.

It seems quite clear from Savage’s comments that childhood was invented when the need for a prolonged primary education was understood (first by upper-class families, eventually by the British state in the 1870s). Likewise, the invention of adolescence is a by-product of the American high school system. Obviously, the biological changes leading to puberty have been a constant in the life of Homo Sapiens for many thousands of years but how each culture reads them varies enormously. In American culture, puberty started to overlap with secondary education at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th and, so, Hall could come up with the idea that, in essence, an adolescent is someone being educated beyond primary school, and up to college graduation (even MA level).

Besides education, pleasure took centre stage. The four decades between 1904 and 1944 gradually established a new understanding of youth, based on a sense of entitlement to pleasure (for boys and girls), beginning with the upper classes. Young people were socially powerless, which is why (mostly the men) had to go through the generational massacre that was WWI; they reacted against this appalling patriarchal abuse by getting rid of their late Victorian and Edwardian shackles. I still marvel that couples courted up to the early 1920s in the presence of a chaperon or that parents could choose dates for their daughters when the concept was invented in America. We are not fully aware of what the 1920s supposed in terms of a youth revolution which was possibly deeper in many senses than the 1960s by comparison with what came before, though, of course, limited to a social elite. The post-1929 Depression decade of the 1930s seems sedate and conventional by comparison. I need not explain what WWII did to the young all over the world, specially the men.

The novelty of the late 1940s to mid 1950s is that the new ‘teenager’ could be found in any social class, whereas it seems to me that the adolescent is, in contrast, a middle- and upper-class figure. To be an adolescent you need a certain educated sensitivity and leisure to ponder in true post-Romantic fashion the unfairness of life and of the adults around you. If you’re young but busy working eight to ten hours a day, you may still possess that sensitivity but far less time to engage in self-centred adolescent thinking. What you do is reinvent the concept of leisure and transform it into the time when you enjoy your hard-earned wages, either in imitation of what richer kids do or generating your own working-class version of fun, quickly catered to by the entertainment industry. Hence, the teenager.

Savage hardly ever takes into account how different youth and adolescence has always been for boys and girls–this is my main complaint against his book. Yet, apart from the constant difficulties to fix age boundaries for each period of life since the late 19th century, Savage highlights a recurrent problem: society’s inability to control unruly young men, particularly of working-class background, whether they’re called teenagers or adolescents. Many complaints against the gangs of uncontrolled, second-generation, Irish or Italian youths in early 20th century America are a dead ringer for similar fears of non-white gangs in Britain now in the 21st century. This connects with my previous post about Dick Hobbs’ Lush Life: Constructing Organized Crime in the UK, a book in which he presented working-class male youth as a phase of unruliness before the acceptance of adulthood set in. Or boys will be boys, and the rest of us must put up with them, beginning with girls their own age.

What tends to be forgotten in most studies of youth is that the idea of youthful rebellion is specifically masculine: the late 18th century and early 19th century was a time of intense masculine revolt against patriarchy, in the most traditional sense of the rule of the father. The French Revolution of 1789 and the Napoleonic Civil Code of 1804 resulted in new legislation that, while still binding women closely to their male legal tutors (father, husband or even son), allowed young men much more leeway than in the past. Fathers used to have total authority over sons, including matters of career choice or even marriage. Young men of the Romantic period and later steadily eroded that authority at the cost of eventually having to accept a loss of their own patriarchal authority when they became fathers. This seems on the whole positive but has an underside.

In short: the unruliness of young men is the collective price we are paying for diminishing the total authority of the patriarchal father. Western society has failed to find a better replacement for that authority–or, found it but lost it. Gentlemanliness worked for a while as a desirable way of having young men stick to a positive masculine ideal that did not undermine their personal autonomy; yet, it was lost in WWI, and we don’t know how to appeal to unruly young men on the basis of principles that instil respect for others. Hence, the cycle of recurrent youth violence which Savage (and Hobbs) describes: the adult men who have become fathers after going themselves through a violent youth lack the authority to restrain their unruly sons–in the worst cases, they have never matured, do not participate in their sons’ education, or even celebrate the boys’ misbehaviour. This is why, I insist, we need to see adolescence and the teenager as heavily gendered social constructions, paying specific attention to how and why youth rebellion becomes anti-social criminality.

Youth, then, changed around the beginning of the 20th century to be re-invented by Hall, on the basis of the Romantic cult of youth, as adolescence–a time for personal introspection and the construction of the self in opposition to parents. It became next, Savage explains, beginning in the 1920s and culminating in the 1950s, a time for hedonism and the rise of the teenager. This was followed eventually in the 1960s and 1970s by sexual liberation. It seemed, then, with fourth-wave feminism demanding total equality, that the 1990s would be the beginning of the best of worlds for youth. Yet, the stories we tell in the 21st are either the sugary nonsense of John Green and company, or grim tales connected with social network horrors (do see Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian’s visually amazing film Searching… )

Perhaps adolescence and the teenager are no longer useful to understand how the young live and it is urgent to hear what they have to say about themselves. We just can’t wait to read about them in the History books written in the second half of the 21st century.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/