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The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager

Here is an excerpt from the first chapter,
"The Teenage Mystique"

America created the teenager in its own image--brash, unfinished, ebullient, idealistic, crude, energetic, innocent, greedy, changing in all sorts of unsettling ways. A messy, sometimes loutish character who is nonetheless capable of performing heroically when necessary, the teenager embodies endless potential not yet hobbled by the defeats and compromises of life. The American teenager is the noble savage in blue jeans, the future in your face.

Teenagers occupy a special place in the society. They are envied and sold to, studied and deplored. They are expected to break some rules, but there are other restrictions that apply only to them. They are at a golden moment in life--and not to be trusted.

Ours is a culture that is perpetually adolescent: always becoming but never mature, incessantly losing its none-too-evident innocence. We don't want to admit that we're grown, mature and responsible. We admire people like Ronald Reagan, James Stewart, or David Letterman,who maintain a charmingly awkward, fresh-faced teenage style into middle age and beyond. We like freshman legislators and suspect the experience of professional politicians.

We are besotted with youth--it's nature's Viagra. Teenagers are filled with new powers and the ability to use them. We respond with wonder, envy--and alarm. We know we can't keep up with these kids. We wonder if they will be able to keep their energies under control. We worry that they will run roughshod over everything that's worthwhile.

What was new about the idea of the teenager at the time the word first appeared during World War II was the assumption that all young people, regardless of their class, location, or ethnicity, should have essentially the same experience, spent with people exactly their age, in an environment defined by high school and pop culture.

The teen years have become defined not as an interlude but rather as something central to life, a period of preparation and self-definition, a period of indulgence and unfocused energy.

From the start, the word teenager has embodied extreme ambivalence about the people it described. Teenagers embrace the latest dances and the latest fashions. Adults fear that teenagers will go totally out of control. The teenage years have been defined as, at once, the best and freest of life and a time of near madness and despair.

Our beliefs, about teenagers are deeply contradictory: They should be free to become themselves. They need many years of training and study. They know more about the future than adults do. They know hardly anything at all. They ought to know the value of a dollar. They should be protected from the world of work. They are frail, vulnerable creatures. They are children. They are sex fiends. They are the death of culture. They are the hope of us all.

We love the idea of youth, but are prone to panic about the young. The very qualities that adults find exciting and attractive about teenagers are entangled with those we find terrifying. Their energy threatens anarchy. Their physical beauty and budding sexuality menaces moral standards. Their assertion of physical and intellectual power makes their parents at once proud and painfully aware of their own mortality.

These qualities--the things we love, fear, and think we know about the basic nature of young people--constitute a teenage mystique: a seductive but damaging way of understanding young people. This mystique encourages adults to see teenagers (and young people to see themselves) not as individuals but as potential problems. Such a pessimistic view of the young can easily lead adults to feel that they are powerless to help young people make better lives for themselves. Thus, the teenage mystique can serve as an excuse for elders to neglect the coming generation and, ultimately, to see their worst fears realized.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, America can anticipate the largest generation of teenagers in its history, one even larger than the baby boomer generation that entered its teens four decades ago. Some see these young people as barbarians at the gates, and others look forward greedily to large numbers of new consumers. But all seem to agree that having so many teenagers around will mean something important for the country. That's why this is a crucial moment to question the teenage mystique and look for more useful ways to think about the young.

I'm going to begin with a horror story, one that is not at all typical of young people's experience today. It does, however, illustrate how the teenage mystique provokes us to draw spurious generalizations from a singular abhorrent act and how it can lead to strange and destructive forms of denial.

On the night of June 6, 1997, an eighteen-year-old woman from Fork River, New Jersey, gave birth to a six-pound-six-ounce baby boy in the women's rest room of the catering hall where her high school senior prom was taking place. Her son was found dead, tied in a plastic bag in a trash can in the lavatory where he was born. His mother, meanwhile, was dancing, smiling, and to all outward appearances, enjoying what's supposed to be a magical night.

This story excited tremendous public interest, as true horrors do. Always there are questions. How could she not have known that she was pregnant? Didn't her parents, with whom she was living, know?

And how about her boyfriend of two years, the presumed father? The explanation that she had taken to wearing baggy clothes didn't seem convincing.

The bigger, more fundamental question was how she could have done it. She said she believed the baby was born dead. (Prosecutors felt otherwise, and in the end, she pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to a fifteen-year jail term.) But even a miscarriage spurs more emotion than this young woman displayed. According to one account, she touched up her makeup at the bathroom mirror after discarding her child, then emerged smiling and animated, mingling with her classmates as if absolutely nothing had happened. When faced with shocking events, people search for reasons and meanings.

In this case, an explanation was close at hand: She was a contemporary teenager, a member of a generation that's out of control.