The Teen Commandments


An ex-student of mine once taught at an early-college high school. He was charmed by the gusto and ambition of his pupils, but saddened that the drive to cram prematurely and play educational leapfrog was depriving them of their youth. The kids had no time for teenage rites of passage—the sheer indolence of hanging out, the moody intensity of music fandom, the fly mastery of high-tech toys.

But this notion of a prolonged period of youth entitlement, as Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth Cuture shows, is a relatively recent phenomenon, indulged only in affluent societies where families are not faced with daily privation. Even in the West, the bittersweet years between childhood and adulthood have not always been viewed as a distinct stage of development. Once they were acknowledged as such, parental authorities did their utmost to ensure that this breathing space was filled up by one form or another of institutional discipline, including high school.

Scholars, journalists, and marketers have lionized the colorful antics of the youth subcultures that vied for attention on street corners and other public stages from the 1950s onward. In England’s Dreaming, his exhaustive chronicle of British punk, Savage himself contributed handsomely to that industry. The misleading title of his remarkable new book (one suspects the heavy hand of the publisher) preps the reader for yet another account of these storied postwar decades. But the book ends in 1945, when the establishment of a full-blown consumer youth market finally gets under way after several false starts. Cold War teenagers were encouraged to think of themselves as “absolute beginners,” but they were not. Savage’s capacious history of youth movements and groupings in the preceding century explains why.

The characters who populate Savage’s pages have never been linked before in a single story, if only because they span the entire class spectrum. The roll call of
adolescent groups includes abandoned vagrant youth; semi- organized urban gangs like New York’s Bowery Boys, Dead Rabbits, and the Montgomery Guards; the hobo children armies of the Depression; and the Wild Cliques of homeless youth in the outer rings of 1930s Vienna. Others were middle class and bohemian, like the neo- pagan ramblers who joined the Wandervogel in fin de siécle Germany, Woodcraft Indians in the U.S., and the Woodcraft Folk in England. Also making an appearance are upper-class factions like the Decadents, devotees of Oscar Wilde’s delicious aesthetics, the flappers (whom Zelda Fitzgerald decided were “merely applying business methods to being young”), and the Bright Young People of London’s 1920s gilded youth. The more familiar subcultures in Teenage include zoot suit–clad pachucos, Parisian zazous, British spivs, and American bobby-soxers. Savage details how the media, with tireless consistency, stoked moral panics about the threats to civilization posed by wayward youth, coining unsavory labels like “hooligans” and “scuttlers” (the more clinical term juvenile delinquent was in use by the 1810s), or more sensational ones like “the Apaches,” applied in 1900 to publicity-seeking French ruffians who adopted a form of Indian pidgin speech.

Even if some of these groups were part creations of the media, all vaunted their generational identity to express themselves—either for survival or gratification, or out of a belief their youth gave them special dispensation. In response, there was no end to patrician efforts to channel these energies into reforming institutions, such as the YMCA/YWCA, Boys Brigades/Girls Brigades, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Salvation Army, and the Cadet Corps.

But the real core of Savage’s story concerns the regimentation of youth into openly militarist or fascist movements, beginning with the cult of the English public schoolboy, whose athleticism was a model for imperial conduct, and ending with the mass induction of German teenagers into Hitler Youth (8 million at the outbreak of a war fought increasingly, on the Nazi side, by 15-year-olds). Mussolini’s rise to power was explicitly fueled by appeals to resentful youth who had been pushed by their elders into the generational holocaust of The Great War. The spirit of his blackshirts’ rallying cry—Giovinezza! Giovinezza! (Youth! Youth!)—became the centerpiece of the Nazi mobilization in the 1930s.

Savage dwells on the vast sacrifice of youth to two world wars—12 year-olds, as he observes, were “thrown to the flames” in the final defense of Berlin. Unfortunately, we hear little about the socialist youth movements and institutions of the period. Regimented in their own way, the pacifism and utopian humanitarianism they preached would have been a study in contrast to the militarism of their right-wing counterparts. Instead, Savage honors the youth groups—like the Edelweiss Pirates, the Kittelsbach Pirates, and the White Rose dissidents—who resisted the swaggering brutality of Hitler Youth in the cities of Nazi Germany. They are the real heroes of the book, and rightfully so. But their valiant conflict, which came at great costs to their lives, was mostly with their youth peers, not with their parents. This detail undermines one of the primary assumptions that runs through Teenage—that teenagers struggled long and hard to win recognition as a cohort, unified by a sense of generational difference. But it is often when they take issue with one another—over principles, tastes, or experiences—that youth, and youth culture, are most alive to the heady notion that another world is possible.