From the 50's to Now: What It Was Like to Be a Teenager in Different Decades
What does it mean to be a teenager? It depends on when you’re asking. For most of history, being a “teenager” wasn’t a thing. You were a kid and then you became an adult when you had your bar mitzvah, got your period, or got a job — whether you were ready or not. Only in the past few generations has teen culture become a distinct entity and the teenage experience become a feature in American life. I’m going to write from an American perspective because I’m American, but these changes are applicable around much of the world. Ever wondered what it would be like to live in a different time period? Here’s what it was like to be a teenager in different decades.
The word “teenager” was invented in 1941 (spelled "teen-ager" — it would lose the hyphen later in the decade). The first major event to cause the invention of the “teenager” was the outlawing of child labor. In 1944, Life magazine wrote an exposé on the new phenomenon called “Teen-Age Girls: They Live in a Wonderful World of Their Own”. Being a teen in the ’40s was mostly about becoming an adult. Teens mostly dressed like their parents — teen style wasn’t quite a thing yet. Girls wore socks instead of stockings and lost the restrictive girdles their mothers squeezed into. Makeup wasn’t prevalent for teens yet, as it had an unflattering reputation.
During wartime, kids became adults very quickly. Teenage boys fought in World War II and teenage girls sometimes interrupted their educations to help the war effort by joining the workforce. Prom was invented in the ‘40s, and teens spent their free time going to the movies, getting sodas, and listening to Frank Sinatra. Nobody owned a TV in their home yet — radio was still king. The post-war growth of the middle class meant that teens with part-time jobs could spend their money on their own desires, and with teen spending power came the beginning of the teen market.
The Allies won World War II, and with that victory came prosperity and leisure unheard of for decades. The ‘50s is the time when teen culture developed independent of adult culture. ‘50s teen culture is still so unique and memorable that you can probably imagine it in your head right now, even if you don’t know that’s what it is. Grease was nostalgic for '50s teen culture only 20 years later; its bobby socks, poodle skirts, jukeboxes, diners, ponytails, Lover’s Lanes, and Pleasantvilles. LIFE Magazine in 1954 called teens of the time “The Luckiest Generation”, despite the fact that there were fewer teenagers than ever (very few people wanted to have babies during the Depression).
The post-war economic boom meant just about everyone who wanted a job could find one. Teens were buying their own cars, going to the drive-in, buying records — really flexing that economic muscle. In 1957, American Bandstand crystallized teen culture by putting dancing teenagers on TV every week. The second half of the decade saw rock ‘n roll hit the mainstream, and teen life was never the same. When Elvis gyrated to "Hound Dog" on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, he became one of the biggest celebrities the world had ever seen — the biggest phenomenon since Sinatra — and adults hated him for his provocative ways. And of course, the more their parents hated him, the more teens loved him.
The ‘60s represented another giant revolution and rejection of the past. Teen fashion and music became rebellious in a way that previous generations could barely imagine. By the second half of the decade, music had diversified so much that teens were listening to folk, rock, blues, RnB, and pop. And for the first time, teenagers were pushing a cultural change that started trickling up to older people. Woodstock was the defining moment for an entire generation. Perry Como was replaced by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. Hippie and psychedelic music and fashion started out subversive and became ubiquitous.
Also, the '60s saw young people become highly political, thanks to the widely detested Vietnam War and the massive changes coming with the Civil Rights Movement. Segregation came to an end and many teens went to integrated schools for the first time. In the '60s, young people dove into activism and embraced counter-culture music, style, and ideals.
The bohemian spirit of the ‘60s continued into the ‘70s, and the decade was defined in many ways by its huge leaps in social equality and environmental activism. ‘70s culture was defined by the teen passions of roller skating and disco. Clothing became flashy and sexy, as epitomized by silk shirts and bell-bottoms. At the same time, fashion was becoming more casual and sporty — the ‘70s were the death knell for the formal styles that made earlier decades look so squeaky clean.Disco was the most diverse music to ever gain popularity, and culture started reflecting the changing makeup of the U.S. Disco was made by African-Americans, Latinos, women, and LGBT people, and their style influenced teens of every social group. Women’s rights had a huge influence on ‘70s teens because for the first time, moms were joining the workforce in large numbers. Teens had a lot of freedom and helicopter parenting was unheard of.
As always, a new decade means a rejection of the past. The ‘80s were dominated by rock ‘n roll and punk — disco didn’t die so much as it was murdered. John Hughes captured the essence of ‘80s teen life in movies like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. ‘80s youth rebelled against the socially conscious, political attitude of the last generation and life was all about fun. MTV came on the air in 1981, starting a global obsession with music videos. Video games really took off — arcades became ubiquitous, setting the stage for the home gaming obsession of the following thirty years. And finally, fashion became certifiably insane as everyone wanted fluffier hair, bigger shoulder pads, and brighter colors.
The prosperity of the ’80s led to the malaise of the ‘90s. Life was good, so naturally, people were miserable. Grunge became the defining musical style and fashion sense of the decade, and every '90s teen knows exactly where they were when Kurt Cobain died. My So-Called Life, which starred Claire Danes and aired for one season in 1994, was a perfect time capsule of what it felt like to be a ‘90s teen.
The ‘90s also ushered in the idea that trying was bad. Not trying became the new trying. Whereas ‘80s girls would spend hours perming and blow-drying their hair, grunge girls let it lay limp. Baggy jeans, worn-out t-shirts, flannel, and Doc Martens let even the most privileged of teens look like their lives were headed nowhere. All of a sudden, the outcasts were the cool kids.
The post-grunge backlash came swift and preppy. Shows like Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks gave way to The OC and Gossip Girl. Midriff-baring stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera dominated MTV's call-in music video voting show Total Request Live. Hip hop became mainstream as Lil’ Jon, Nelly, and Three 6 Mafia played on top 40 radio alongside the Backstreet Boys and N*Sync.
In the 2000s, the teen years started to be highly regimented – teens’ schedules were packed with activities, sports, and clubs, focusing on what would look good for college applications. Mean Girls was based on a nonfiction book about teen life in the early 2000s, making that movie basically all you need to know. Cell phones allowed parents to stay in constant contact with their kids, and with constant contact came constant surveillance. By the end of the decade, parents who didn’t monitor their kids’ every move were seen as negligent and teen freedom was severely curtailed.
I probably don’t need to tell you too much about your own generation. but the biggest difference between the teen market now is that in previous decades, TV shows, movies, music, and fashion sought out a teen audience. With the rise of social media, the teen audience has anointed their own media stars. And now, teens are so important culturally that people stay in an “extended adolescence” well into their 20s. The 2010s have also seen the rise of social justice culture, increasing diversity in media, and, of course, Snapchat.
What will the next generation of teenagers be like? Maybe the next generation will want to go back to drinking milkshakes and wearing bobby socks? Who knows. Would you want to be a teenager in any other decade? Which one? Tweet me @erikaheidewald and let me know!