What is the place of youth in history? Most likely the first images conjured up are 1960ís antiwar protests, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the womenís liberation movement. But youth, particularly the teenager, existed long before the hippie.
Jon Savage explores the origins of the teenager in his witty, informative and engrossing book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. Savage is the perfect candidate to write this authoritative take on pop culture given his stellar writing in his previous work, the acclaimed Englandís Dreaming, the story of the Sex Pistols and 1970's British culture. With over 500 pages, Savage manages to cover American, British, French and German history from 1875-1945 through the perspective of youth.
In a way, Teenage reads like a revisionist historical reference. This history-from-below perspective on youth allows the reader to explore familiar historical events through the eyes of the teenager but also gives a prehistory to the 1960ís youth culture. Drugs, sex, rebellion against the older generations and underground subcultures all existed in various nations at various times.
The concept of the teenager began with C. Stanley Hallís 1904 published book Adolescence, in which Hall defines the adolescent (someone between 14 and 24 years old) and provides an early academic examination of this distinct group. The growth in academic scholarship regarding adolescence spurred on societyís need to control youth, particularly in Britain where the Boy Scouts organization was born in order to prepare boys for military service. Throughout the decades, youth is seen as both the hope of a nation and a danger to society. In France, Arthur Rimbaud became the voice of antimilitarism in the 1870s through his poetry and prose. He represented both the highly politicized youth who could serve his country and a dangerous radical who could incite a revolution.
The teenage influence on major happenings of the past is evident. In pre-WWI France, the youth rejected the former generationís liberalism and yearned to be a part of greater cause, preferably through military service. In Britain, the same phenomenon of anticipating war came about after years of preparation through government youth programs. This movement lead to millions of young people voluntarily joining the army in order to rewrite history. Savage poetically describes the harshness of war and, more importantly, how the youth were unprepared for the long, brutal battles. Much of WWI and WWII were fought by teenagers, as ďmillions of adolescents would be involved together in the surrender of their youth, if not their life (147).Ē
When Savage isnít talking about war, heís talking about pop culture. The rise of youth entertainment beginning in the late 19th century is thoroughly documented with discussions on books, music, movies and popular magazines. The world epicenter of teenage entertainment lies in the U.S., where jazz and film were born. The changing economic landscape due to the Industrial Revolution, rapid urbanization and a rise in technology gave teenagers unprecedented freedom to what they wanted, when they wanted.
Dance halls changed the way in which youth interacted with each other, including less formal dating rituals and greater opportunities for teenage girls to control their social lives. Different types of music, particularly swing music, allowed boys and girls to dance freely in close proximity. This scandalous activity went from ragtime to jazz to swing and arguably continues today with rock and rap music.
So much of modern youth culture came from the late 19th century/early 20th century. With literacy increasing in the British population and a growing youth workforce, comic books like the Boyís Own Paper and Comic Cuts appeared in the 1880s aimed toward the teenage hooligan. Movies became an instant sensation among teenagers. Rudolph Valentino arguably became the first American heartthrob. When he died in 1926, over 150,000 people, mostly young women, came to his funeral. Advertisers and movie executives saw potential in the publicís need to know about their movie stars, and thus the celebrity magazine was born with early favorites like Photoplay. Savage describes the 1944 launch of Seventeen magazine as the arrival of the teenager.
In no place was youth more important than in Nazi Germany. Here Savage takes his time in carefully explaining how the disillusioned Great Depression-era generation longed for political stability and sought it by any means necessary. The importance of the Nazi youth movement cannot be understated. With a nearly full participation rate, the Hitler Youth of the 1930s and 1940s were successfully indoctrinated to love the Third Reich and the Nazi state. Herein lies the true importance of youth: if you capture the hearts and minds of the young, you can hold onto them forever. ďThis was all part of Hitlerís vision for the new race of German supermen, to be forged in the Nazi crucible from childhood (269).Ē Because the young were trained to spy on their families and love the Fuhrer, the Nazi regime was able to stay in power for over a decade.
Not even in Germany could rebellion be suppressed. Savage describes a few distinct groups of adolescents that actively resisted the Nazi regime in the early 1940s, such as teenagers writing leaflets predicting the defeat of Germany in WWII. A group of college students also produced the White Rose leaflets in 1942, which caused a great stir at Munich University and eventually led to the authorsí deaths. These bursts of resistance again show the resilience of youth and how difficult it is to control this distinct group.
Important subcultures are not ignored in Teenage. The Black and Hispanic zoot-suiters in the U.S. during the WWII era rebelled against the discrimination placed upon them through their lavish clothes. The Black Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s is also touched upon, along with the importance of music in the U.S. black community. The bohemian Wandervogel movement in Germany during the pre-WWI era involved teenagers organizing outside of government intervention with communal campouts and hikes. The flappers of the 1920s and the political movements regarding fascism and communism of the 1930s are some of the other major topics briefly explored.
The cycles of one generation embracing an idea and the next generation rejecting it represents how a society changes its norms and values. Teenage not only describes the history of modern youth culture but how the U.S. and Western European societies came to be where they are today. Youth culture has its value. Itís for this reason that Teenage is a fascinating portrait of the teenager and provides a perfect viewpoint into world history.