Final Word

Teenagers turned 75 this year


Teenagers as a human species was only ‘discovered’ in 1941. Before then only children and adults were recognised, although socio-economic developments over the preceding two decades saw the development of this new species.

My grandson, Corné, had his 13th birthday the weekend before last. In view of the fact that it marked the day on which he ‘officially’ became a teenager, the celebration developed into a proper family fest. Also aware that the turning 13 of a boy is always a very special occasion for my Jewish friends, I became curious about the whole matter.

The shorter version of ‘teenager’, describing someone as being in his ‘teens’, in English dates back to the period 1595 to 1605 – extracted from numbers with ‘-teen’ as final element or suffix. In Middle- and Old English it was ‘-tēne’; cognate with Dutch -tien, German -zehn.

‘Teenager’ appeared for the first time in written English in April 1921 in the Canadian publication Daily Colonist, in quotation marks, indicating the own, and probably first, ‘coining’ of the term.

It was only two decades later that the term gained ‘official’ recognition. According to some sources it was the Popular Science Monthly that first used it in 1941, when it wrote: “I never knew teen-agers could be so serious.” In a 1948 article teenage was dubbed the “Age of Anxiety”.

However, according to other sources it was Life magazine which in 1944 introduced its readers to a strange and fascinating new breed of American citizen: the ‘teenager’. Yet another source places the term as having made its first appearance in a Reader’s Digest article in 1941. 

Historians and sociologists differ about the timeline, but most agree that the advent of ‘teenagers’ resulted from profound socio-economic changes during the early 20th century. Before then childhood passed over directly adulthood. At most there was a life phase of adolescence.

The 1944 Life article discussed “teen-age” (then written with a hyphen) as a “phenomenon,” fast becoming a target market for consumerism. 

During the early days of the 20th century the goal of the child was to grow up as quickly as possible to exploit labour opportunities and contribute to the wellbeing of the family as a whole.

It happened to my father, the second eldest son of a poor farm labourer, who, after his first year of high school – standard six in those days – at the age of 14 had to return to the farm to help provide for the eldest son’s high school education during the depression years of the 1930s.

A new ‘species’ is born

The early 20th century and, especially the depression years, was also a period of reform that would see the banning of child labour and the introduction of compulsory education until at least the age of 16-years. This increased the pre-adult years.

As one article puts it: “Depending on your point of view, these years were either to be savoured as the best of times, combining childhood freedom with adult physical maturity, or endured as years of hazard, combining childish irresponsibility with adult urges.”

Those years also coincide with other profound changes in the life cycle of human beings – puberty and all the hormonal and psychological changes that go with it.

Small wonder then that an article on the blog of the Oxford Dictionaries states: “The teenager remade our world. The concept is profoundly democratic by right of chronology: every child, regardless of wealth or merit, can look forward to an age of vigor and independence. And it is subversive: why should any teenager enjoying freedom submit to the authority of adults? With the discovery of this new age, ours has been the century of the teenager ever since.”

And, as most parents can testify, living with a teenager or two can make for testing times. As the NPR website tells us: “If you're the parent of a young teen with intense mood swings, researchers have good news. Those emotions are probably normal and should calm down as your child moves through adolescence.”

Quotes about teenagers

To what extent the reality of teenagers as a recognised group, with their own distinct characteristics, needs and quirks, has impacted on societies and parenthood as a responsibility, is reflected in a treasure trove of quotes about them. One website alone assembled nearly 400 of them.

Here is a just few of the best ones I could find:

  • “The young always have the same problem - how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.” – Quentin Crips, author, actor and raconteur;
  • “The beginning of wisdom, as they say. When you're seventeen you know everything. When you're twenty-seven if you still know everything you're still seventeen.” – Unknown;
  • “I hated high school. I don’t trust anybody who looks back on the years from 14 to 18 with any enjoyment. If you liked being a teenager, there’s something wrong with you.” ― Stephen King;
  • “Heredity is what sets the parents of a teenager wondering about each other.” – Laurence J. Peter;
  • Adolescence is a period of rapid changes. Between the ages of 12 and 17, for example, a parent ages as much as 20 years.” – Author Unknown;
  • Telling a teenager the facts of life is like giving a fish a bath.” – Arnold H. Glasow
  • “Mother Nature is providential. She gives us twelve years to develop a love for our children before turning them into teenagers.” – William Galvin; and
  • “When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.” – Author Unknown.     

Final word

At my age, however, I think the final word should go to Doug Larson, who once said: “Few things are more satisfying than seeing your children have teenagers of their own.”

by Piet Coetzer

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