People think the 1950s birthed the rise of the teenager as a highly visible demographic group of economic and political influence, but the term was used earlier.
At the time of Federation, very few children continued schooling into secondary level, and there were only four universities in the nation. By 1910 it was reported that most children left school at the age of 14, before entering apprenticeships, trades, service, etc, so that childhood transitioned straight into wage earning and/or marriage. As the years of education increased, and with increasing mobility provided by private car ownership, a period of life of semi-adulthood started to emerge.
In 1920 the Y.W.C.A. ran program for adolescent girls between 14 to 20 years as “the ‘teen age is the period when the battle for an honest, pure, clear, righteous type of womanhood must be waged and won.”
From 1920 the title was often written as ” ‘teen agers”, with an apostrophe, and as two words. From 1930 it was also written ” ‘teener” as well as ‘teens’. It referred to a school leaver, someone who would experiment in fashionable clothes, make-up, and attend tennis parties and dances.
In 1928 United studios made a film called ‘Harold Teen’ about the adventures of a high school student. It can’t have been at all risque, as it was described as a ‘perfect picture for children’. From 1937-1941 a cartoon of the same name ran in the Philippines, and from 1949-50 in Sydney, about a lazy, soda drinking, banana-split eating young man.
Fashions for teens were originally simplified adult fashions, or still a little juvenile.
By 1946 some adults in America were decrying the “leggy, spotty adolescents known as teenagers” for their increasing rates of delinquency, with crime rates rising and increasing venereal disease. Apparently Australian teens were comparatively well-behaved, even if “harassed parent were constantly under the impression that their offspring are skidding rapidly down the road to perdition”, according to an article in the Daily Telegraph, Sydney, in March 1946.
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