When Teenagers Had Hyphens (1955)

The first teenagers emerged in the 1950s when mothers gave their offspring pocket money. In an audio article I listened to this weekend, it was parents reacting to the stiff regime of their war-torn youth which led them to encourage their own children to enjoy themselves, to express themselves. According to this documentary, it was those same children who supported and thereby facilitated rock and roll and the market for 45″ records. Back then, the documentary says, teen-agers had hyphens.

What is interesting to think about is the reciprocal relationship between market economies and teenage-hood. The categories become self-referential, as kids start buying their own clothes, choosing their own haircuts, style becomes emblematic of cultural positioning. The rebel defines himself by purchasable signs that enable a distinction between the self and the rest of a conservative world. This isn’t new of course–it’s all part of what followed punk rock conversations in the 80s: when Converse got bought out by Nike or when the GAP made Kerouac their poster child for khaki pants.

Nevertheless, I started thinking about how the age of the teenager seems perpetually pushed back. Teenagers get older and older, as more and more young adults resist or put off conventional responsibilities–mortgages and children for instance. The artist seems right in the eye of this storm: while traditionally poor, we still exercise an expendable income, save up money for periods of leisure (the artist-residency, for instance) which while integral to the production of creative work nevertheless defies conventional uses of time. As individuals so often peripheral to real economic power, it is curious to recognize how we might inadvertently continue to support they very systems of capital that subjugate us.

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