Culture  /  Etymology

Teenagers Didn't Always Exist

So where were those angsty kids?

Humanity’s Pre-Teen Years

From music to movies, the idea of being a teenager is so baked into youth culture that it’s easy to imagine a 14-year-old Neanderthal complaining to his parents about how they won’t let him leave the cave after dark. That said, the idea that the ages from 13 to 19 connote a distinct phase of life is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary notes that the word “teenager” was not used in its modern sense until 1913. That’s the same year “jazz,” “touch football,” and “Federal Reserve Bank” were each used for the first time.

Google also has a tool that allows you to see the relative occurrences of a word across a giant corpus of text between 1800 and 2019. Using this data, we can again get a sense for how new teenagers are.

In the 1940s, we see some usage of the term “teen-ager.” That is quickly supplanted by the non-hyphenated (and more contemporary) “teenager” during the 1950s and 1960s. This suggests an important question: Why weren’t there teenagers before 1900?

Of course, there are a few reasons. Some people point to the post-WWII economic boom that left young people with more disposable income. Others point to the proliferation of the automobile, which gave young people additional freedom. But I don’t think either of these is the most important factor.

In Kelly Schrum’s book Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergency of Teenage Girls’ Culture, 1920-1945, she notes that despite the fact that the term “teenager” became commonplace after WWII, the seeds of the concept were sown during the 1920s and 1930s. Furthermore, according to the paper “Household Appliances and the Use of Time: The United States and Britain Since the 1920s,” it took until 1960 for 75% of U.S. households to have an automobile. That’s a bit too late to account for the teenage boom. Given these facts, I think it mostly comes down to compulsory education.

In 1890, less than 10% of Americans aged 14-17 were enrolled in high school. By 1930, that percentage had risen to 50%. By 1950, it was closing in on 80%. Because of this, people in their teen years were now spending more time together than ever before. This made it possible for teens to develop their own language and culture. It also made it possible for businesses to make music, movies, and products specifically for teens.