The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager

Financial Times, weekend section, September 4/5, 1999

The American teenager has long captured the imagination, not just in the US, but as an icon of rebellion and individuality for Europe, Asia and the rest of the world. But what has really been at work behind this image is more complex, and what that image may become in the 21st century is an even more open question. In The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine ventures down both of these avenues in his book, and what he finds there will fascinate anyone who has ever been seduced by blue-jeans and hot-rods, skateboards and hip-hop, or any of the myriad other emblems that have stood for the American teens throughout their fraught history.

The bulk of Hine’s study is devoted to a historical survey of the role of teenagers in American society, from their contributions to the economy of colonial Massachusetts through the sharp rise in high school enrolment in the middle of this century to the increased alienation that many teenagers seem to feel today—and which has contributed to such unthinkable events as the rash of school shootings in the past several years. In fact, it is in high school that Hine locates the essence of American teenagerhood. As he notes, the word “teenager” did not even come into widespread use until the 1940s, the first decade in which a majority of American teenagers were enrolled in high school. And it was in that removal of the demographic group from the mainstream of American society that our modern conception originates, Hine argues.More interesting than his historical pastiche, though, is Hine’s examination of society’s attitudes toward teens—and their attitudes toward themselves—over the last 500 years. In the days of colonialism, and into the years of America’s westward expansion, young men and women were far more closely integrated into the workings of everyday life, Hine points out, with families relying on their economic input at least as much as they did that of the “adults” of the household. It was only with the Depression that young Americans—who were seen to be driving down wages and putting older men and women out of work—began to be removed from the labour pool…

The result is an engaging study of the evolution of a stratum of society that is itself caught up in its most kaleidoscopic state, the years between childhood and adulthood. And where that evolution is now taking us, Hine argues, may be toward a reintegration of the teenager into the mainstream culture.