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Adolescence and Youth

Adolescence and Youth

The term adolescence derives from the Latin adolescere, "to grow up." The Random House Dictionary defines adolescence as "the process or condition of growing up; the growing age of human beings; the period which extends from childhood to manhood or womanhood; ordinarily considered as extending from fourteen to twenty-five in males, and from twelve to twenty-one in females." As a concept, adolescence has evolved in its biological, social, and psychological implications, but its most consequential evolution has occurred in adult perceptions of the norms and behavior of young people.

Throughout most of history, adolescence was unknown as a stage of life. Native societies have observed rites of passage signifying the emergence of young people from childhood into adulthood, but no concept of adolescence intervened between stages. In the classical world, Aristotle recorded what now is known as adolescent development, that is, the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics in both males and females, but he and other ancients recognized only three distinct periods of life: childhood, youth, and old age. Among Romans the term child (puer ) could be applied almost without regard to age, and through the Middle Ages it served as a demeaning label for any person of low social status. By the Renaissance, the establishment of schools for a somewhat larger proportion of the population helped to extend the period of childhood but still did not define a separate stage of adolescence because neither school attendance nor grade in school was based on age. Other factors inhibiting the evolution of distinct life stages included the brevity of total life span, the necessity for almost all people except elites to work, and the rigid social hierarchies that made most people, regardless of age, dependent on nobility.

The largely agrarian world of early modern Europe kept young people in a condition of semidependence, in which economic and personal status involved important contributions to the family economy but left the individual dependent on parents. Among lower classes in western (though less frequently in southern) Europe, England, and colonial America, many boys and girls in their teens were sent from their homes to work as employees for other families, a practice that served both economic and upbringing functions. Though the French word adolescence existed, the term youth (or its equivalent) was more pervasively applied to people in this semidependent condition. Some historians have posited that a youth culture, manifested by organizations and activities, existed to some extent in the eighteenth century. Moreover, in Europe and America at this time, adults particularly religious leadersexpressed concern over presumed emotional and behavioral problems of young people and began to urge their education as preparation for future roles in the family and community.

The Formal Study of Adolescence

During the late eighteenth century and through the nineteenth century, biologists and physicians undertook more formal study of adolescent phenomena. European scientists researched aspects of physical growth such as the onset of menarche in females and seminal emission among males. These works provided scientific and philosophical background when, in the 1890s, psychologists began investigating the abilities, behaviors, and attitudes of young people between the onset of puberty and marriage. Their work marked the first emergence of adolescence as a formal concept.

The notion of youth as a time of sexual awakening and rebellion received particular expression in Jean-JacquesRousseau's philosophical narrative, Émile (1762), which described the evolution of a noble boy into a civilized man. At age fifteen or sixteen, according to Rousseau, a boy experiences crisis, and his mind is in such "constant agitation" that he is "almost unmanageable." With proper care and education, however, he learns to enjoy beauty and wisdom so that at the end of adolescence he is ready to marry and raise children.

At the same time as scientists and philosophers were developing the concept of adolescence, the industrialization of Western society placed new pressures on the process of growing up. Industrial capitalism and its attendant mechanization reduced the participation of children in the workforce, thereby diminishing the incidence of apprenticeship that formerly had characterized the youth of many people. Fewer young persons left home to go to work; more stayed in their parents' homes, often attending school. The removal of work and production from the household made the family more isolated, and, particularly among emerging middle classes, left moral responsibilities in the mother's sphere. Declining birth rates enabled middle-class families to place new values on children, viewing their worth in moral and emotional rather than practical and economic terms. Advances in nutrition and disease control quickened the process of sexual maturation. In the mid-eighteenth century the average age of menarche in America occurred at over sixteen; it dropped to just over fifteen by the end of the nineteenth century, but fell to twelve years and nine months by the end of the twentieth century. Urbanization, with its accompanying employment and entertainment opportunities, was also seen as creating threatening environments from which children needed to be protected. Girls could be sheltered at home, where they prepared for domestic adulthood, while boys were confined to school, where they learned skills needed for professional and community life. As a result, the semi-dependence that previously had characterized adolescence gave way to even more dependence.

Reacting to these trends, American psychologist G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer in the study of children and their learning processes, gave adolescence its first full definition in Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education, published in 1904. Widely read in the United States and Great Britain, Hall believed that the stresses and misbehavior of young people were normal to their particular time of life, because human development mirrored the evolution of civilized society. To Hall, just as the human race evolved from savagery to civilization, so too did each individual develop from a primitive to an advanced condition. Adolescence in the individual corresponded to, or recapitulated, the period of prehistory when upheaval characterized society and logical thinking began to replace instinct. Although later theorists rejected Hall's recapitulation scheme, much of his characterization of adolescence as a time of storm and stress endured.

A year after Hall's book appeared, Sigmund Freud published an essay in which he identified adolescence as a period when psychosexual conflicts could cause emotional upheaval, inconsistent behavior, and vulnerability to deviant activity. Freud related much of adolescent behavior to genital developments in puberty, which, he said, induced a need among adolescents to become emotionally independent of parents. This need induced rebellion accompanied by anxiety, moodiness, and aggressive behavior. Concern over self-image, often influenced by social interaction, also comprised one of the challenges of adolescence.

By the mid-twentieth century, the leading theorist of adolescence was the neo-Freudian Erik Erikson, who constructed a staged sequence of lifetime ego development consisting of eight psychosexual, or "identity," crises. How successfully an individual resolves the identity crisis at each stage is determined by the ego strength created in previous stages combined with influences from the cultural environment of the current stage. To Erikson, adolescence, with its marked physiological changes and sexual awareness, is a period of experimentation that creates a crisis between the self concept created in earlier stages and role diffusion, which involves relationships with peers and institutions. The task that an adolescent faces in resolving the crisis requires integrating self-knowledge amid judgments emanating from contemporaries and peers. At various times during this crisis resolution, the adolescent has to decide whether to rebel or submit to prevailing cultural institutions. Throughout the twentieth century, the qualities of anxiety and awkwardness resulting from radical physiological development and sexual awareness that Hall, Freud, and Erikson emphasized pervaded popular as well as scientific definitions of adolescence.

Peer Cultures Resulting from Schooling and Age Grading

In the modern era in both the United States and Europe, adolescence was a middle-class phenomenon, and it received particular impetus from the expansion of secondary schools. Established in part as a means to create a literate work force in industrial society, the American high school, English boarding school, and German gymnasium helped construct a new image of youth. Age grading (i.e., grouping students into classes based on their age), which began in lower schools in the mid-nineteenth century, narrowed the age range of students likely to be attending the high school that spread in the late nineteenth century. Though only a minority of youths enrolled in secondary schools until the 1930s, the process of concentrating teenagers in high schools spurred the formation of youth peer groups and enabled adults to attempt the control of young people during their supposedly stormy years. Several Western countries passed compulsory school attendance laws that kept children in school until they were fourteen or older. Such laws had a strong impact in the United States, where by 1930 nearly half of all youths aged fourteen to twenty were high school students. Enrollment of rural youths and African Americans remained relatively low (only one-sixth of American blacks attended high school in the 1920s). But large proportions of immigrants and native-born whites of foreign parents attended high school. Educational reformers developed curricula to prepare young people for adult life, and an expanding set of extracurricular organizations and activities, such as clubs, dances, and sports, heightened the socialization of youths in peer groups. As a result, secondary school and adolescence became increasingly coincident.

In Great Britain, fewer youths attended high school than in the United States, mainly because a more rigid class structure made state-funded high schools primarily a realm for middle-class adolescents. Working-class youths, especially males, grew accustomed to using the streets to resist institutional means to regulate them. Nevertheless, by 1900 British youth workers were attempting to socialize adolescents into law-abiding, productive adults by herding them into educational institutions and supervised extracurricular activities. The resistance by youths in Great Britain, the European continent, and the United States to adult attempts at controlresistance that galvanized fears of juvenile delinquencyprovoked educators and psychologists to distinguish adolescence even more distinctly as a life stage needing strict supervision.

Beyond the structural changes, the age consciousness of Western society that intensified in the early twentieth century sharpened the distinctiveness and peer socialization of adolescence. By the 1920s, most adolescents spent more waking hours with peers than with family. In the United States, extended opportunities for time and space away from parental eyes, combined with new commercial entertainments such as dance halls, amusement parks, and movies fortified a unique youth culture. These amusements attracted adolescent peer groups in Europe and England as well.

This culture of youths ironicallyor perhaps under-standablyraised consternation among and conflict with adults who fretted over adolescents' independence in selecting friends, activities, dress styles, and sexual behavior that eluded adult supervision. The American practice of dating, which by the 1920s had replaced adult-supervised courtship and which was linked to high schools and new commercial amusements, was just one obvious new type of independent adolescent behavior. (Dating was slower to develop in Europe because adolescents there lacked the disposable income generally available to American youths.) The proliferation of automobiles and the opportunities they provided for youthful activity and privacy was another.

Equally important was heightened adult concern over the supposed emotional problems that adolescents experienced, particularly their awakening sexuality and penchant for getting into trouble. Indeed, in the adult mind sexuality stood at the center of adolescence. Male youths especially were seen as having appetites and temptations that lured them into masturbation and homosexuality. Young women's sexuality could allegedly lead to promiscuity and prostitution. In general, adults worried that adolescents were growing up too rapidly. As a result, psychologists and physicians in the 1920s insisted that adolescence necessitated exacting control, not only by the self but also by parents, doctors, educators, social workers, and the police. Moreover, the combination of peer associationsometimes in gangswith the stresses and challenges to adult authority that characterized adolescence contributed to a rising concern over juvenile delinquency. The street gangs of American cities and rowdy behavior of British hooligans reinforced adult desire to supervise young people's behavior because in theory every adolescent was a potential delinquent. Thus juvenilecourts, reform schools, and other child-saving institutions were created to remedy the problems that adolescents, in their unhealthy precocity, allegedly experienced and caused.

Adolescence in the Depression and World War II

During the Depression years of the 1930s, adolescents underwent new strains but also encountered new opportunities. The potential for intergenerational conflict increased as scarcity of jobs and low pay thwarted young people's personal ambitions and delayed their ability to attain economic and social independence. Adult control was challenged, even in Germany where members of the Hitler Jugend (HitlerYouth) resisted Nazi party leaders. In the United States, joblessness and lack of income forced many young people to stay in school longer than had been the case in previous generations. By 1940 49 percent of American youths were graduating from high school, up from 30 percent in 1930. Though adolescents in the 1930s had less disposable income than those in the 1920s, they still influenced popular culture with their tastes in music, dance, and movies.

Exigencies of World War II disrupted the lives of European adolescents, but in the United States an expanding war economy brought three million youths between ages fourteen and seventeen, about one-third of people in this age category, into full or part-time employment by 1945. The incomes that adolescents earned helped support a renewed youth culture, one that idolized musical stars such as Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra and created new clothing styles such as that of the bobby soxer. Their roles in the national economy and mass culture complicated the status of adolescents, who now were caught between the personal independence that employment and war responsibilities provided and the dependence on family and institutional restrictions that the larger society still imposed on them.

Postwar Teen Culture

After the war, the proportion of adolescents in the population in Western countries temporarily declined. Children reaching teen years just after World War II had been born during the Depression, when a brief fall in birth rates resulted in a smaller cohort of people reaching adolescence. Furthermore, a marriage boom followed the war, drastically reducing the age at which young people were entering wedlock, especially in Great Britain and the United States where the median age at marriage for women declined from twenty-six to twenty-three and twenty-three to twenty-one respectively. By 1960, 40 percent of American nineteen year olds were already married.

Soon, the marriage boom translated into the baby boom, which eventually combined with material prosperity to foster an ever-more-extensive teen culture. By 1960, the first cohort of baby boomers was reaching their teen years, and in America goods such as soft drinks, clothing, cars, sports equipment, recorded music, magazines, and toiletriesall heavily and specifically promoted by advertisers to young people with expanding personal incomescomprised a flourishing youth market that soon spread overseas. At the same time, radio, television, recording companies, movies, and mass market publications directed much of their content to this segment of the population. Marketing experts utilized long-standing theories about the insecurities of adolescence, along with surveys that showed adolescents tending toward conformist attitudes, to sell goods that catered to teenagers' desires to dress, buy, and act like their peers.

Inevitably, as adolescents began manifesting independent behavior in their tastes and buying habits, they heightened fears among parents and other adults that teenagers were maturing too rapidly. Experts in the helping professions tightened the link between the concept of adolescence as a troubled period of life and uncertainty, crime, and other problems that accompanied the process of growing up. Even before the baby boomers had entered their teen years, social scientists, educators, and government officials were reaching a near-panic state over premarital pregnancy and juvenile delinquency. In the United States, the rate of premarital pregnancy among white women aged fifteen to nineteen doubled from under 10 percent in the 1940s to 19 percent in the 1950s. The rock and roll generation in the United States and teddy boys in England signified a type of rebellion that often included antisocial behavior, which in turn garnered heavy media attention. Much of the concern reflected theory more than reality, however. Especially in America, newspapers eagerly publicized gang wars and other sensational cases of juvenile crime, and police departments created juvenile units to deal with a presumed teenage crime wave.

Though perpetrated by only a minority of youths, antisocial conduct gave adolescence an international flavor by the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970s in Great Britain, sadistic, mostly working-class skinheads helped generate the punk style of boots, leather outfits, and nihilistic music. Germans accepted the term Teenagers into their vocabulary and saw rising numbers of alienated youth engage in destructive acts, some random and others political such as protests over housing policies and police harassment. France and Sweden experienced countercultural uprisings from blousons noir (teenage "black shirts") and raggare (alienated youths) respectively. In eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as well, industrialization pressed wedges between children and adult society, creating opportunities for adolescents to adopt deviant fads in dress and behavior. Russian sociologists began reporting problems of teenage drinking, assaults, and thievery. A 1973 survey found adolescent alienation in Japan to be the highest among a dozen industrial nations, and problems of juvenile delinquency even reached Communist China by the 1980s.

Remarkably, adolescence of the 1960s and 1970s reflected a quest for conformity that seemed to validate Erikson's theory about identity crisis. In 1961, psychologist James S. Coleman published The Adolescent Society, a study of American high school teenagers, in which he noted that youths often sought acceptance among their peers by placing higher value on nonacademic activities, such as sports and social interaction, than on accomplishment in school. They told researchers that their heroes were not teachers or humanitarians but rather athletes, movie stars and musicians. This kind of conformity was at odds with what parents and educators wanted for adolescents, but it reflected both the prevailing peer values and the larger pressures for conformity in an expanding corporate society.

Many postwar trends in adolescence, especially adolescents' influence on the consumer economy, continued to the end of the twentieth century. However, by the late 1960s and early 1970s new attitudes about gender equality and birth control, aided by increased access to automobiles and generally higher material well-being, helped fashion new sexual values among adolescents. Increasingly, peer groups in American high schools and colleges (in 1970 three-fourths of Americans were graduating from high school and a third were enrolled in college) replaced dating with informal, mixed-gender "going out" and "parties." As well, looser attitudes toward marriage, for which a date had been seen as a first step, and greater acceptance (among adults as well as youths) of nonmarital sex, arose among adolescents in many countries and heightened concern over society's ability to control adolescents' sexual behavior. By 1976 surveys in the United States showed that nearly one-fourth of sixteen-yearold white females and one-half of sixteen-year-old black females had had premarital intercourse. By 1990, 55 percent of women aged fifteen to nineteen had experienced inter-course. Though this figure declined to slightly below half by century's end, the seeming sexual abandon practiced by many young people was prompting some analysts to conclude that marriage was losing its special meaning. A sharp rise in average age of marriage, for men from twenty-three to over twenty-six and for women from twenty-one to over twenty-three between 1970 and 1990, reinforced such a conclusion.

At the same time a minoritybut a vocal and well-publicized minorityof youths began to infuse adolescence with a new brand of political consciousness that seemed to widen the growing "generation gap." Much of the youth activism flourished on college and university campuses from Berkeley to Berlin, but enough of it filtered down to high schools that educators and other public authorities faced challenges they had not previously encountered. The civil rights movement and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 had caused American teenagers to question the values of adult society, but the Vietnam War ignited them and many of their European cohorts politically. Though the majority of youths did not oppose the war, a number of them participated in protests that upset traditional assumptions about the nonpolitical quality of high school life. This political activity reached as far as the Supreme Court of the United States when, in 1969, the court declared in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Schoolystem that the right of free speech applied to high school students who wished to wear black armbands in protest of the war. Major protests by young people also occurred in European capitals such as Bonn, Germany, where students stormed and looted city hall in protest over a visit by South Vietnam's president.

After the Vietnam War ended, the alienation of adolescents from societyas well as, in adolescent minds, the alienation of society from adolescentsseemed to intensify rather than abate. Anger over the deployment of nuclear weapons on European soil and dangers to the ecosystem worldwide sparked student protests on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, a spreading drug culture, the attraction by teens to the intentionally provocative lyrics of punk rock and rap music, the rise of body art and piercing, the increase in single- (and no-) parent households, and the high numbers of families with two parents employed and out of the home for most of the dayall have further elevated the power of adolescent peer associations. Juvenile crime continued to capture attention as surveys in the 1980s estimated that between 12 and 18 percent of American males and 3 to 4 percent of females had been arrested prior to age twenty-one. To the frustration of public officials, crime-prevention programs ranging from incarceration to aversion to job placement and counseling have failed to stem teen violence and recidivism. As identity politics pervaded adult society, youths also sought havens within groups that expressed themselves through some behavioral or visual (though only occasionally ideological) manner. Neo-nazism attracted youths in Germany and France, but not strictly for its politics. American high school populations contained dizzying varieties of identity groups such as "Goths," "jocks," "nerds," "Jesus freaks," "preppies," "druggies," and many more. All the while, commercial interests in a new global economy, whether they be sneaker and sportswear manufacturers, music producers, or snack-food makers, stayed hot on the teenage trail, eager to capitalize on or guide every new expression of adolescence.

Adolescence as a Universal Concept

In the twenty-first century, multiple models of adolescence bring into question whether or not the historical concept has as much uniformity as some experts implied it had in the twentieth century. Certainly almost all adolescents, regardless of race, class, or nationality, undergo similar biological changes, though characteristics such as the age of menarche have shifted over time. But the social and psychological parameters appear to have become increasingly complex and diverse. Though the most common images of adolescents set them inside the youth-oriented consumer culture of clothes, music, and movies, the variable dark side of growing up has captured increasing attention. Poverty, sexual abuse, substance abuse, learning disabilities, depression, eating disorders, and violence have come to characterize youthful experiences as much as the qualities of fun and freedom-seeking that media and marketers have depicted. Popular theory still accepts that almost all adolescents confront similar challenges of stress and anxiety, but the processes involved in growing up display complexities that confound attempts to characterize it. A continuing rise in age at marriage, which in the United States is approaching the late twenties for males and mid-twenties for females, has made family formation less of an end point for adolescence, and the assumption by preteens of qualities and habits once exclusive to teenagers, such as musical choice, dress (including cosmetics), hair styles, and even drug and sexual behavior, has challenged the cultural definition of the age at which adolescence begins. Even within adolescence itself, the trend of young people assuming adult sexual, family, social, and economic responsibilitiesand their attendant problemshas blurred many of the qualities that previously gave adolescence its distinctiveness.

See also: Age and Development; Apprenticeship; Baby Boom Generation; Consumer Culture; Flappers; Teen Pregnancy; Victory Girls.


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Howard P. Chudacoff

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