Youth is pasted on the young; The 'teen' wasn't always a product of marketing
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 9 October 2007)

Kingsley Amis's early novel, Take A Girl Like You, published in 1960, contains a 20-year-old heroine, Jenny, who mourns her failure to experience teenaged life. She spent eight years getting from 12 to 20 but somehow feels she missed the real thing, the thing she's read about in magazines, the self-conscious excitement and the delirious sexuality.

It's easy to see what she means. "Teenage" has never been just a matter of years. It's a state of mind. The teenager is a work of the imagination, the finest product of modern marketing. It was invented by advertising professionals with the enthusiastic collaboration of their target audience. The young wanted to be manipulated by the forces of commerce. It was fun being the centre of corporate attention, even if the corporations were interested only in grabbing the allowance money provided by parents.

The teen demographic category was only 15 years old when Jenny realized it had passed her by. But we are wrong if we think that youth culture was purely a contrivance of the 1940s. Jon Savage's recent book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture (Viking) makes the point that youth movements go back to the 19th century. Savage ends his story in 1945, before "teenage" became a popular word. He spends 549 fascinating (and carefully footnoted) pages demonstrating how history set the stage for a phenomenon that's now a part of everyday life.

Savage mostly avoids sociology, instead concentrating on extraordinary characters who vividly illustrate their eras. He begins with Marie Bashkirtseff, a Russian painter and self-obsessed adolescent whose posthumously published diary, I Am the Most Interesting Book of All, became an international best seller of the 1880s. When she died of tuberculosis at the age of 25, she left behind 106 notebooks that (even when brutally censored by her mother) showed a witty, irreverent, ambitious girl who was busy fashioning herself as The New Woman.

Savage, who admires teen rebellion in general, nevertheless reminds us that at times the young have proven susceptible to the perverse glamour of fascism. Implicitly, fascism urged the young to stop brooding about themselves and get involved in something large and grand. It was a way to replace youthful alienation with a satisfying commitment to world-shaking aggression.

Benito Mussolini, who was 39 when he became prime minister of Italy, advertised himself as a man of the future by flattering the young, the way people like Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda would do in the 1960s. On his way to becoming a dictator Mussolini denounced "the mildew of the old ideas" and emphasized instead the "impetuousness and faith" of the young.

A few years later, Adolf Hitler began organizing the Hitler Youth. He believed German adults were so heavily burdened by their humiliating past that they would be incapable of responding to his message. "But my magnificent youngsters! With them I can make a new world."

Anne Frank, as an unwilling conscript to his new world, turned out to be the most famous adolescent of the 20th century. During the long months she spent hiding in an attic in Amsterdam (now a museum and a kind of shrine), she wrote a diary that became a major document of the Holocaust and, at the same time, a portrait of a girl turning, under the pressure of history, into a woman.

Outside, across Europe, an army of monsters, including grown-up versions of the ecstatic Hitler Youth, yearned to claim her for their death cult. They succeeded, with the help of typhoid fever, at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, two months before the German surrender.

The most touching words she left behind deal not with the onrushing horror but with ordinary crises of adolescence: her discovery of her body, her first boyfriend, her rebellion against her parents. She tells her diary that "Girls my age feel very insecure about themselves and are just beginning to discover that they are individuals with their own ideas, thoughts and habits." In the most terrifying circumstances, she quietly and bravely analyzed her actions and inner thoughts, turning her last years into a period of self-discovery that later gave millions of readers a personal account of the modern world's most horrible crime.

Savage, who is respected for his writing on the punk scene, comes to this material with a mission: to reveal "the secret prehistory" of contemporary youth. He takes us on a lively, anecdote-crammed tour that runs from Arthur Rimbaud, the French symbolist poet who wrote most of his work before turning 20, to the street gangs of New York, London and Paris.

By 1945, Savage concludes, "the many possible interpretations of youth had been boiled down to just one: the adolescent consumer."

In the 1940s, the word "teenager" was installed so firmly in my own consciousness that, when I was writing a TV film about Picasso, many years later, I described his adolescence as "teenage" years. That was not only an anachronism, it was an insult, as both my producer and my director curtly informed me. Chastened, I changed it. My gaucherie brought back the period when I was a teenager -- or Teenager, perhaps, the capital T signifying quasi-professional status.

In adolescence I worked for Canadian High News, hosted a short-lived radio show called CHUM Teentime, and covered high school sports for The Globe and Mail. Looking back on those years reminded me how grateful I am for the finest attribute of youth: Eventually, it ends.

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