When did teenagers come into their own?

Talking about this at work today after a friend brought it up on e-mail – when did teenagers get their own “identity” as “teenagers”?

My mom (now in her late 70’s) says her generation was never referred to as anything in particular, and definitely not ever as teenagers.

I think it started when teens became a market to cater to. Someone else said no, it started when teens became a problem, citing the “juvenile delinquents” of the 50’s.

Another person thought it started with public education, and schools splitting along age lines – grade school, junior high, high school.

I felt like a teenager when I bought my first 45 rpm record (Elvis, of course). I’m going with the marketing theory.

Is there a definitive answer?

I think the term teenager was mostly used in the '70s and '80s, preceeded by “Teeny Bopper” and followed by “Teen”.

We are the boomers.

When we were babies, babies became an industry, a social phenomenon. A field of study, a profession.

When we were children, schools sprouted like mushrooms, across the land. Education became a field of study. The PTA stopped having bake sales, and started holding political strategy meetings.

When we became teenagers, bobbysoxers, juvenile delinquents, and rebels without a cause, youth culture was created. Payola ruled the airwaves, and radio became an industry, DeeJay, a profession.

We got jobs, and Marketing became a field of study, and product design became a profession.

When we started voting, and got drafted, politics and protest became the force of social change. Folk singer and rock star became professions. Performance Art became a field of study.

Now we are getting old. Social Security, Viagra, and Rogaine are the issues of hour, Gerontology is a field of Medicine, and every one is pretty tired of us. Me too.

It really isn’t our fault that there are more of us than there are of anyone else. We were born that way. Be patient, it will all be over soon.


As far back as I’ve ever tracked the term is early 1950’s. We had “the kids” with “their music” before the war (at least back to the 1920’s), but my parents have told me they didn’t hear that term when they were that age. In the fifties the U.S. was the victor in the last great war and was making the transition from being a country with a large rural society, lots of industrial worker bees and a few of the rich to a country with a predominant middle class with disposable income. And the baby boom was in gear, although the teens of the fifties were born just before or during the war.

I’m inclined to think it was spawn of a combination of rapid growth of the urban middle class and the efforts of (what was then) Madison Avenue.

I believe there’s truth in all the previous posts. My own theory (based on the admittedly small sample of my parents) is that prior to the mid-'40s, kids were expected to start working and support their families around the age of 13 or 14 – be it the family farm, the family business, a sweat shop, etc. Thus, there was no long, leisurely transition period from childhood to adulthood; you pretty much became an adult when you entered your teens. (Any number of religious hold ceremonies at this point, indicating that this is not a recent or uniquely American phenomenon.)

This is also about the age one graduates from 8th grade. So increasing mandatory education to 16 probably had something to do with it as well.

According to the OED–

Phrases such as “in his/her teens” have been documented back to the 1630’s and meant a person (or relationship or idea) aged from 13 through 19. (The citations occasionally indicate a commentary on the immaturity of the subject, but the word was simply descriptive.) Tolkien called his twenty-something, less than grown-up, hobbits “tweens”–and was writing that portion of his books in the very late 1930’s and early 1940’s.

The earliest citation for teen (singular) to identify a member of a class of people with common characteristics dates to 1951. It is considered a truncation/back-formation from teenager that first appears in 1941 (as teen-ager), becoming teenager by 1960.

Teenybopper dates to 1966.

(Ironically, there is an unrelated word teen that predates all the aforementioned usages that means to vex, irritate, or trouble.)


So when I’m mad, I’m one of the Teening MIllions?

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. That’s my name too.
Wait, no it isn’t.

Unfortunately, teens do not have their “own identity”.

They merely have a label, & are targeted with marketing strategies.
They are denied the pleasures & rewards of both adulthood & childhood. They have a hybrid of the adult/child reponsibilities/disadvantages.

The only place for them to go is the mall, where they are only tolerated because they buy stuff.

Many of the problems teenagers have today exist only because they have no identity. Only a label.

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