For most of the last year, I’ve been reveling in, and suffering through, some major life transitions. Primarily, the transition from girlfriend to fiancé and the transition from graduate student to “real-world” job holding adult (that came with it’s own set of new job transitions a couple of times). It’s left me feeling unstable, in more ways than one, and a bit aimless. So, I’ve returned to focus on some topics that I love. And this is where I approach the topic of the teenager.
It’s weird that when you say the word teenager or teen, most people feel like it means something very specific. There’s an idea that being a teen embodies more than an age range but also some aspect of identity. The word itself however, wasn’t used much before the early 1900’s and was originally popularized to sell clothing.
But if you’re a fan of pop culture, and I so am, you know that we are obsessed with teenagers. So it’s a fair question to ask: what really is a teenager? And why do we like them so damned much?
This is where I really think I get back to what I mentioned earlier about transitions. The thing about teens is that they are the go-to example of transitioning life. They are, to quote one of the most famous, “not a girl, not yet a woman,”
or boy, or whatever. The idea is that one day you’re a child and to smooth that transition into adult, we invented a time period that helps ease the way. This wasn’t always the case.
Ready for a vast simplification of American history? Really, ready? (And I mean this is how I remember it from previous research and I class I took a long time ago, so feel free to submit comments where I’m wrong.) Here goes: remember how once upon a time kids went to work in factories to support their families as soon as they were able? Child labor laws lead to more time in school and then, a few decades later, a growth in the middle class afforded us more time in school, and this all worked to prolong the space between childhood and adulthood until we have successfully created a group of youngsters with nothing to do expect wonder what they should do.
And yes, I recognize that there are actual years of age that end in teen but what I’m saying is that the “teen” as object, the “teen” as comodifiable, compartmentalized being that we idealize when we say “teens like” or “teens do this or that” is something that we, as a society, have created.
So, what does it matter? For me the “teen” as a market, as a sub-group, etc. has given birth to the teen as identity and ideology. Why is it that we have had so much “crossover” appeal for texts that are identified as “teen” or “young adult” markets? What is so important about retaining this distinction and how does it change how we approach them?
I’m not sure I know yet but I do know that I find it all very interesting and will likely have more to say on it and probably in the near future. Having said all of that, if you are interested in continuing to read what I have to say, you’ll at least know where I’m coming from.
Maybe I’ll end up going back for a Phd or maybe I’ll learn that what I love can let me learn about myself and help keep be grounded.