New film documents ‘birth’ of teenagers

Looking into the future: A collage of early 20th century teenage faces.

We all take our definition of teenage years for granted these days: a drawn-out transition to adulthood. But a new documentary film says adolescence and youth culture are a modern invention.

They are society’s inbetweeners, neither children nor fully mature and responsible. As such, teenagers have their rights to things like voting and getting married limited. And they must progress towards being full and independent members of the community.

But it was not always this way. And now a new film, ‘Teenage’, sets out to explore how and why the idea of being a teenager took hold.

In 1904 an American psychologist called G Stanley Hall published a book called Adolescence, which changed the way people thought about young adults.

Hall changed the ill-defined zone between childhood and maturity into a separate and special time. He invented the concept which became known as the teenage years, ‘sheltered, shaped and guided to avoid the stresses of puberty.’

Hall believed teenagers were going through what was ‘inherently a time of storm and stress.’ But it was only after the upheavals of two world wars that Western society seemed to agree.

As the 1950s turned into an economic boom and more pressing problems – war, food shortages and mass unemployment – receded, the teenager became the source of much anxiety and even fear. James Dean, the tearful, violent yet sensitive teenage hero of ‘Rebel Without A Cause’, epitomised this new, worrying semi-member of society.

A psychologist writing today says that old Hollywood version might now seem dated, but the themes are still relevant: ‘The original badass depressive teenager from hell, Dean seems quaintly tame by today’s standards. But the fear and loathing he set in motion among adults is a powerful legacy today’s teens are still struggling to live down.’

Jon Savage, the writer and music critic whose book about teenagers inspired the documentary released this week, says once the 1960s and 1970s arrived, the James Dean types had an outlet for their feelings of injustice: the civil rights movement, and the push for equality for women and gay people.

Since then, however, Savage sees youth culture degenerating into a channel for marketing products which may have the whiff of rebellion about them, but are actually part of mainstream consumerism.

Born to be wild?

In the film, archive footage from the early 20th century gives the audience a moving, talking collage: some of those proto-teenagers struggle to be free, even temporarily, from the rules by which adults are controlled. Others have their energies channelled into youth movements that represent the competing political ideologies of their time – one is a member of the Hitler Youth.

But what should today’s teenagers become? Are they still best served by using their general feeling of discontent to campaign for social change? Or is it enough to be what Savage calls the ‘product-hungry, democratic, pleasure-loving individual’ of our more materialistic times?

You Decide

  1. Is being a teenager really a separate stage of life, different to childhood and adulthood?
  2. ‘The idea of the teenager was invented by people who wanted to sell them things.’ Discuss.


  1. In groups, think of some teenagers who make a positive impact on the world.
  2. Write a 300 word article about your favourite fictional teenage character or characters.

Some People Say...

“Adolescents represent and embody the future.’G Stanley Hall”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why can’t I be both these things?
Good question! You can of course. And the internet means there is a close relationship between products and branding, and campaigning. This is often seen in advertising campaigns or product lines that are part of an attempt to change minds and demand action on a big issue of the time – think of the anti-poverty group One and the Red clothing range.
So it’s all a big mish-mash?
Often. But there are less glamorous, less media-friendly forms of activism, that you may decide are more worthy of your efforts. And of course, plenty of teenagers become neither a rebel nor a frenzied buyer of all the latest cool stuff. It’s all part of the journey towards working out your own individual nature and where you fit in.

Word Watch

G Stanley Hall
(1844-1924) An eminent American and the first president of the USA’s psychological association, Hall was mainly interested in childhood development and education.
The physical and hormonal changes in the body when a child begins the process of maturing into an adult capable of sexual reproduction.
Hitler Youth
The Nazi party’s equivalent of the Scouts or Guides. All young Germans from age ten to 18 had to belong and to take part in activities that Adolf Hitler’s followers believed would make the boys into perfect soldiers and the girls into perfect mothers of soldiers. It was made compulsory in 1939.

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