Young folks today consider themselves entirely modern, forward-thinking, and unique. They also love to dismiss adults for being exactly the opposite (and maybe they have a point–how much patience can you have for parents who want advice on “how to Twitter”?). And if you ask someone outside the demographic, you’ll hear today’s youth described as enlightened saviors of the planet, endowed with a whole new kind of intelligence, or as entitled, tech-addled whiners who lack the intestinal fortitude of their forebears. It was ever thus.
Teenage, a new documentary from the producers of Beasts of the Southern Wild and Jason Schwartzman (serving as executive producer), premiering in theaters on March 14, shows that the teens of yesteryear–i.e., our parents, grandparents and great grandparents–are more like today’s young people than anyone would like to admit. “Adults are always condemning young people, are obsessed with them and idealize them,” says the film’s director Matt Wolf. “Everyone wants to look and stay young.”
The film takes a looks at the lives of early teenagers–a group that didn’t exist as we know it before the early 20th century. So what is the essence of “teenagerness”? Since Wolf is now a veritable expert on the subject, he offered up the five enduring truths of what it means to be young.
“Young people define themselves around certain terms,” says Wolf. “They use music, fashion, and pop culture to make their identities clear. We need to understand them and their needs.” The film chronicles the hardships faced by youngsters in the days before child labor labs and the exploitation of young adults which led to youth movements and the whole concept of the “teenager.” Wolf points to the youth manifesto called the “Teen-Age Bill of Rights,” published in the New York Times in 1945. The document called for such reforms as “the right to struggle toward an individual philosophy of life,” “the right to professional help whenever necessary” (calling all unpaid interns), and “the right to question ideas.”
“Adults will always try to control teenagers, because teens represent the future,” says Wolf. “It’s in that conflict between the generations that things change and evolve.” It was partly because of adults that teens came to see themselves as a distinct group. Before WWI, the term “teenager” didn’t exist. “There were only kids and adults,” says Wolf. But after child labor laws went into effect, there were suddenly lots of young people running amok (i.e. not in the factory.) They were seen as a societal problem that needed to be fixed. And to fix a problem, you have to define it–hence leveling the term “teenager” upon American youth. Little did the adults know that teens would embrace and champion their new status.
Wolf says adults typically dismiss teens as being apolitical, which is unfair. “Look at Depression-era activism and labor riots,” he says. “That unrest, which was lead by young people, helped create government programs.” Wolf also points to youth movements including pro and anti Nazi groups during the second world war and the civil rights and anti-war protests in the 1960s. Even seemingly non-political activities ultimately effected political change. The film profiles “jitterbug” teens of the 1930s, who integrated long before it was acceptable to do so. “They were precursors to other rebels like punk, hard rockers, skaters, and ravers,” says Wolf.
“It’s really hard to identify meaningful strands of youth culture as it’s happening,” says Wolf. The jitterbugs, for example, had no idea that they were “proto punks.” Even so, “they were transforming African American music into mass culture.” Moreover, Riot Girls of the 1990s had no idea that “young girls today would be embracing aesthetics of ’90s.” Neither teens nor adults have any idea what the legacy of today’s young people will be.
When adults turned teens into a distinct social group, they unintentionally gave young people a voice. They also created a community that could be manipulated toward adult ends. Teenage shows how well Hitler played upon adolescent rebellion in order recruit a young army of Nazi supporters. “That was the genius of Hitler’s plan; he encouraged them to rebel against their parents’ generation and values,” says Wolf. Today, corporations eagerly target young people for their purchasing power. Wolf believes that some teens will always be co-opted by adult forces, both benign and evil, just as others will refuse to fall in line. What’s certain, says Wolf, is that adults will always attempt “to speak the language of adolescence, communicate on the same platforms, and want to be equals.”
So, now, about teaching your parents how to Twitter…