When we were young: The milestones of youth and rebellion

From rock'n'roll to warehouse raves, teenage culture has shaped society for half a century. But now, numbers of adolescents are in decline.

Britain is facing a teen shortage. According to a recent Office for National Statistics survey, the number of teenagers – defined as the 15-24 age group – is set to decrease by 5 per cent during the next five years. This is one result of the mini "baby slump" that occurred towards the end of the Seventies – caused by more widespread family planning and poor economic conditions.

Born around the turn of the millennium, the children of the late 1970s slumpers are now entering adolescence. Although the likely impact on crime statistics and the educational system are noted, it is the effect on commerce that receives more attention: this is, according to some reports, "a demographic shift that carries huge implications for businesses and economic policy".

For this is the age group that, according to Maureen Hinton, a retail analyst at Verdict Research, is "most likely to be most influenced by fashion trends, are lovers of brands, and will buy across the price spectrum". Adding in other factors such as high youth unemployment and higher tuition fees, this cohort decrease could spell trouble for "teen magazines and clothing retailers".

This is a story that could have been written at any time during the last fifty years. The intimate yoking of adolescence with consumerism – marked by the creation of that now familiar figure, the teenager – has been a major part of the British economy since the late 1950s, when the market researcher Mark Abrams published his influential report, "The Teenage Consumer".

Abrams was responding to the first flush of the post-war baby boom: a period that saw high youth wages and the first wave of rock'n'roll. Itemising a range of products – including records, magazines, drinks, cosmetics and clothing – he concluded that "this is a distinctive teenage spending for distinctive teenage ends in a distinctive teenage world".

The teenager was the visible spearhead of the new, American-style consumerism that was beginning to pervade British life. But the term had already been in popular coinage in the US since the later Thirties, in a variety of forms: teener, teenster, teenager. This was a response to demographics – the baby boomers of the 1920s reaching adolescence – as well as developments in youth culture.

During the Thirties, young Americans were seen as a problem rather than a market. Mindful of the political polarisation caused by the Depression in Europe, Roosevelt's Democratic government instituted programs to keep adolescents in school or in federal projects. One result was the furtherance of a peer group culture that began to coalesce around the nation-wide popularity of swing.

A return to the excitement of 1920s hot jazz, swing came with its own negro-derived culture (as black Americans were then called): dances such as the lindy hop, the shag and the suzie Q; clothes, including variants on the zoot suit, and language – the jive talk popularised by musicians like Cab Calloway. It was what would now be called a complete lifestyle package.

Before the war, swing travelled to Europe, in particular France, England, even Nazi Germany, and was seen by its early adopters as a progressive American import. This new style of democratic consumerism, with its heightened emotions and exciting, visceral music, offered a third way for those caught between the polarisations of Fascism and Communism.

This American influence was given added weight by the mass influx of GI's on to European soil that happened from 1942 onwards. The image of war starved young Britons bowled over by American culture is almost over familiar, but nonetheless real: one young Londoner remembered how "they opened up (my) horizons. It was so exciting. I thought anything was possible".

War unleashes primal emotions, however, and back in the US the authorities found themselves facing a wave of juvenile delinquency during 1943: whether the zoot suit riots in Los Angeles, the Detroit race riots, or the activities of Victory Girls – "khaki-whacky" young women – street gangs or thrill killers, American youth seemed to be going crazy.

Some of this was a media hype, stoked by the opportunistic Edgar J Hoover, but it reflected a situation where many teenagers, below the call-up age of 18, were badly affected by the convulsive changes occurring within the US: after Pearl Harbour, well over 20 million people were either mobilised or emigrating to join the war industries.

Despite the FBI's dire warnings, a more enlightened solution was found in the shape of the Teen Canteen. The Teen Canteens were federally sponsored youth clubs, created in consultation with youth workers and the kids themselves. The war was being fought, after all, for Democracy, and there was enough idealism within the system to work with rather than against adolescents.

The longer-term solution was to bring the continent's adolescents firmly within the mainstream of consumerist American life. The idea of a nationwide, cross-class youth market had been floated as early as the 1920s – centred around the peppy, emancipated flapper: a recognisable media type with her bobbed hair and, as Zelda Fitzgerald put it, "audacity and rouge". It gathered pace after the later 1930's with the formation of strong high-school peer groups.

The key wartime events were the frenzied scenes at Frank Sinatra concerts and the instant success of an innovative young women's magazine, launched in September 1944. Edited by Helen Valentine, Seventeen talked directly, rather than down to, its target readership and carried a wide variety of adverts for teen products as well as articles about democracy and how to deal with parents.

It was at this point, in autumn 1944, that the term "teenager" became general currency. It was this model of youth – committed consumers who helped to dictate the market, pleasure seekers who lived in the moment – that travelled to a devastated Europe in the years immediately after 1945. For many young, it was the only thing that gave them hope for the future.

This is where the idea of youth culture – a term coined by the American sociologist Talcott Parsons in 1942 – began: in the New World Order. In the seven decades since, there has been an extraordinary flourishing of youth types and teenage creativity: an explosion of cultural products that now drive the global expansion of Western, consumerist democracy.

The teenager was once firmly defined by age – classically, 15-24 – as well as the favoured transient, quick turnover products aimed at youth. What has happened since the mid 1980s is the teenage mode of consumption has spread upwards, to the point now that it can encompass up to the 1960s (the age of the very first boomers) and down to early childhood.

To some extent, we are all teenagers now. Pop culture – once considered marginal – is now fully integrated into all levels of society. This has worked both for and against real-time teenagers: they may well have lost their exclusivity, but then the relationship between the generations is often easier than it was in the Sixties and Seventies.

Today's teens are treated by the media like they always have been: either idealised as exciting early adopters or demonised as homicidal nightmares. They have to suffer, if they ever think about it, from being compared to vital teenages past. There is a considerable amount of media space devoted to generational nostalgia: wait for the imminent return of rave.

Indeed, trying to isolate a golden age of teendom is almost pointless. The existential answer is that it's always now. Today's teens are simultaneously catered to like almost never before, and in some crucial ways, undervalued. But it was ever thus. They will deal with it, because that is the way of their world. Unlike adults, they don't know any better, and that is a source of strength.

There is always a distinction between the social construction and the biological state of adolescence. It is the time when the young break away from their family and begin to enter the world, which is not one that they made. They see its rights and wrongs very clearly, and some of them begin to form inventive solutions so that changes are made and their future assured.

In our society, the definition of adolescence is consumerist: the teenage. Originating in the terrible vacuum of 1945, it has proved a highly workable way to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. Whether or not it continues to be the adolescent ritual in the 21st century depends on the status of consumerism itself. If people can't shop, what are they going to do?

Teenage: The Creation of Youth – 1875-1945 by Jon Savage is published by Pimlico (£12.99). To order a copy for the special price of £11.69 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit Independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Teenage kicks: the archive

The history of the hipster since 1945 has been recorded religiously by writers and photographers, and now there's an online destination for anyone interested in teen trend-setters from every decade since. The website PYMCA.com (Photographic Youth Music Culture Archive) recently launched a cultural research section, which contains a uniquely extensive collection of images of youth culture, categorised by decade, as well as research texts from experts such as Ted Polhemus, author of the seminal Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk. "PYMCA putting this on to the internet offers worldwide reach at a time when street style and youth culture is going 100 per cent global," says Polhemus. "Youth culture is historically seen as British and American with the rest of the world catching up, but today there are fantastic street style blogs coming from places like Helsinki, Tehran, Jakarta. The site will reflect that." Ind.pn/cEDyLI

TIM WALKER

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