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Why are teenagers not what they used to be?

There’s childhood, adulthood, and the muddled middle. Here’s how we’ve defined adolescence throughout history – and why a new category is needed.

You know what the problem is with young people nowadays? The younkers believe they are superior to the rest of us, the ephebes are maturing too quickly, and the backfisch? They are, after all, far too precocious.

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You are not alone if you do not recognize these words. They are all outdated terms for adolescents that have fallen out of favor.

Pre-1900, a younker was a term derived from Dutch and German terms for a young nobleman – a little lord – and was also used to describe a junior sailor. In Ancient Greece, an ephebe was a young Athenian between the ages of 18 and 19, who was preparing to become a full citizen. And a backfisch – literally “baked fish” – is a German term that appears in coming-of-age stories. Age novels written around the turn of the twentieth century. It described a giddy, spontaneous, adventurous girl with the independence of an adult and the reckless approach to risk of a child.

Throughout history, the words and categories we use to describe young people have evolved significantly, owing to changes in culture, work, education, and scientific understanding. How have these factors influenced the terminology we use for adolescents today, such as “teenager”? And how might our categories for the young change in the future as societal norms shift and new discoveries are made?

The teenager was one of the most culturally significant inventions of the twentieth century. It’s difficult to imagine life without our adolescent years as we know them now, but if you could travel back in time a few centuries, people would find the modern concept of the teenager to be somewhat alien.

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According to Hugh Cunningham, a childhood historian at the University of Kent, most Western adolescents in the 1500s would have been workers, recruited into the world of adult labor as early as seven years old.

This may have included farm work to supplement the family’s agricultural income in rural economies, but as industrialisation spread in the 18th and 19th Centuries, this became less common. Many teenagers became factory workers, working alongside their adult counterparts. Cunningham writes that by the late 1800s, children in the United States were contributing roughly one-third of family income by the time their father was in his 50s. There was no universal education, and only the wealthy could draw on a “bank of mum and dad” for food and shelter.

However, as developed-world living standards and educational policies began to shift in the early twentieth century, young people were increasingly able to live fully under the wings of their parents or guardians for longer periods of time, financially and emotionally supported. Even then, the modern adolescent would not be invented overnight.

Before World War II, the term teenager (or teen-ager) was used on occasion, but it wasn’t until the late 1940s and 1950s that it became more common. A number of different forces converged around this time to make that happen.

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It became much more likely in rich countries for a young person to stay in school throughout their adolescence. Late in the 1940s, In the United Kingdom, schooling was made compulsory until the age of 15. In the United States, high school graduation rates increased from less than 10% at the beginning of the century to around 60% by the mid-1950s.

Historians also note that after WWII, social attitudes toward young people’s rights shifted in many Western nations: the sense that young people had a duty to serve their parents weakened, and their own wishes and values began to be heard more.

And which sector of society was most attentive to these needs? Commerce. Companies realized in the 1950s that teenagers could be influential as well. They could set trends and spread fashions, and thus could be marketed to for a large profit. “To some extent, the teenage market – and, indeed, the very notion of the teenager – has been created by the businessmen who exploit it,” a writer for the New Yorker observed in 1958.

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It was all about capitalizing on rebellion, hot rods, and rock ‘n’ roll back then. Today it’s TikTok and… well, I’m 41 years old, so I’m not sure. But the point is that the perception of teenagers as cool, trendsetting, and influential was – and continues to be – widespread. As much a product of commerce and media as it is a reflection of reality. Teenage music, fashion, and language spread throughout society, fueled by industries built to profit from them.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that cultural perceptions of teenagers as painfully adolescent were becoming more widely known around the 1950s, with complaints about the difficulties of parenting pubescent children. In 1955, for example, a woman named Mrs G complained about her son to Mary Brown, an agony aunt for the UK Daily Mirror newspaper: “He’s cheeky and sulky… why should a boy change like this?” she wrote. “Any questions irritate him. The best I get is a polite yes or no, and the worst I get is an angry look that tells me to mind my own business.”

All of this implies that the teenager as we know it is a 20th-century invention. The question is whether these cultural perceptions will change again in the future.

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