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Birth of the Cool

The emergence of the teenager in mid-20th-century Europe

Sofie Taes (se deschide într-o fereastră nouă) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)

Puberty or adolescence, commonly situated between 12 and 20 years of age, is the time in which children start their road to self-sufficiency, gaining independence from the home in which they grew up. The appearance of public education options in the 20th century, providing a more affordable and more accessible alternative to private and church schooling, was a vital factor in this evolution.

While the earliest use of the word ‘teenager’ can be traced to the 1900s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the term was commonly used. This coincides with the postwar economic boom in Western Europe: parents had fewer kids and more money to spend, as a result of which youth was increasingly targeted as a consumer market.

At the same time, teenagers became the drivers of their own subcultures in music, clothing, film, games, television programmes, books and magazines. While the mid-century bobby socks and poodle skirts mainly exerted influence on how youngsters dressed, later fashion trends came to rule the entire market. T-shirts, mini-skirts and bell-bottom trousers thus became ubiquitous from the 1960s onward.

International contest for youth fashion, 1970. Polygoon-Profilti, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, CC BY-SA

The thriving economy of the 1980s and 1990s again allowed teens to indulge in their own fashion preferences, this time gravitating to clothing featuring names and logos that more clearly identified them as a separate, interconnected community.

As tomorrow’s adults, teenagers at the end of the century became trendsetters closely watched and serviced by all of society, giving rise to the notion of a ‘teenocracy’ as a replacement for the rule of the elders - the gerontocracy - that was in place previously.

The most surprising factor in the formation of distinct teen culture is the importance of emerging technologies. When cars became more prevalent in the postwar period, teens gained the independence to undertake adventures, establish networks and develop relationships away from home - leaving their parents with fears about the experiments, deviance or trouble they might get into.

From new population class, booming consumer market, and possible security threat, the teenager by the end of the 20th century had become a driver of trends and a benchmark for what’s cool or not.

This blog is part of the Europeana XX. A Century of Change project which focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.