Childhood and Adolescence

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The twentieth century might well be called the century of the child and the adolescent. The Swedish reformer Ellen Key chose New Year's Day of 1900 to publish her Century of the Child, and it was followed four years later by G. Stanley Hall's Adolescence. The idea of the child has a long history, but the concept of the adolescent was a late-nineteenth-century creation. Both were nourished by the European and American urban middle classes, which saw themselves as creating new civilization in which childhood and adolescence would have a unique status, superior not only to that assigned them by the peasant and working classes but by all previous societies, western as well as nonwestern. These concepts would be only partially realized until the post–World War II era, when in developed countries the treatment of children and adolescents became relatively standardized according to urban middle-class notions of both age and gender. For the relatively brief period from 1950 to 1980, it was possible to talk in gendered ways about the child and the adolescent in Western European societies, but by the beginning of the twenty-first century the universality of both categories was again in question.


It is important to note that childhood and adolescence are normative notions based less on what children and adolescents actually are than on an ideology of what they ought to be. Both are based on a notion of life as a linear, irreversible passage through a series of strongly gendered stages, a nineteenth-century evolutionary concept that assumed that both individuals and peoples develop through time. According to this view of the world, nonwestern peoples were childish, new nations were youthful, and older European nations were mature. These modern concepts of human development were reinforced by equally novel notions of gender. In earlier periods, less had been made of differences between boy and girl infants. As late as 1900, boys were dressed in skirts and their hair allowed to grow long until they were properly "breeched" (put into trousers) and ceremoniously shorn. Even in the twentieth century, childhood was gendered feminine, something boys needed to be distanced from if they were to grow up to be "real" men. The greater number of rites of passage associated with male adolescence than with female reflected the expectation that boys would put away childish, girlish things. Indeed, for most of the twentieth century, when people spoke of youth they were usually referring to males. In the work of G. Stanley Hall and his successors, female adolescence was given little attention, as if women moved from childhood to adulthood in a seamless sequence culminating in marriage, contrasting sharply with the discontinuous, often troubled lives of young men. Male adolescence became associated with hypermasculinity, and with delinquency, political radicalism, and violence. Fears of female deviancy focused mainly on sexuality. These powerful stereotypes held sway in Europe for most of the twentieth century and only at the turn of the twenty-first century are they being challenged.

The appeal of these stereotypes must be understood in the context of significant demographic, economic, social, and political trends in Western European societies in the twentieth century. Following a pattern initiated by the middle classes, Europeans reduced their fertility while at the same time extending their longevity. The result was that each successive cohort of children and adolescents was smaller. The proportion of younger to older age groups fell significantly, while both childhood and adolescence became increasingly refined into smaller subgroups—babies and infants, preteens and teens—each of which was accorded its own special status and treatment. Although fewer in number, children and adolescents loomed ever larger in European consciousness. By the 1960s and 1970s, the prophecies of Key and Hall seemed to have been realized.

This trend was reinforced by changes in the economy, which removed first children and then adolescents from the labor market and from the world of adults. Trends that had begun before 1914 accelerated during the Depression and culminated after 1945 in a situation where young people's primary function became consumption rather than production. Children became the target of advertising aimed at getting adults to spend on their behalf, and a new teenage market in clothes, music, and sport developed. Among poor and immigrant populations, children remained a source of economic support for families, but compulsory schooling removed virtually all children and a growing proportion of adolescents from full-time employment. By the 1960s, both children and adolescents were largely dependent on their families, an unprecedented condition and one that depressed the European fertility rate still further. Families, now smaller than ever before, were keeping their offspring at home longer than previous generations had, reinforcing the identification of children (especially girls) with the private realm of home and family, breaking their long-standing connection with workplaces, streets, and the public sphere.


Outside of families and kin groups, the world of children and adolescents was sharply segregated from that of adults. Already segregated by schooling, they were now served by an array of social services keyed to their perceived special needs. The medical specialty of pediatrics spawned new fields of child and adolescent psychology. The growth of the welfare state brought with it new agencies concerned exclusively with the care of young people. Beginning in the 1920s, special courts were established to deal with juvenile delinquency. Likewise, the publishing, music, and film industries became segmented along age lines. Radio and later television offered special programming for children and teenagers. Censorship of media came to be justified in the name of protecting innocent children and vulnerable juveniles. In a similar way, age minimums applied to drinking, smoking, and driving reflected increasingly strict age segregation in all social activities.

Never before had European society been so age segregated, with the result that adults began to worry about losing touch with the younger generation. An awareness of peer group influence, reflected in a concern with juvenile delinquency, had been growing since the late nineteenth century but reached a peak after 1945, when, despite all evidence of growing conformity, a series of moral panics about juvenile crime and deviancy swept through Europe. By this time, both children and youth had assumed enormous symbolic power. They had become a kind of litmus test of social well-being and national vitality. The bodies of young athletes were assigned enormous national and racial significance in the Olympics before and after World War II. In an effort to rejuvenate itself in the wake of its defeat in 1940, France invested enormously in its youth. During the Cold War, youth was everywhere on the frontline, symbolizing either the supposed strength or weakness of the contending powers.

Children and adolescents took on unprecedented iconic power in the course of the twentieth century. Children came to stand for an innocence that was assumed to be lost in the course of maturation. Paradise had once been seen as a place; now it was a stage of life. Adult nostalgia for lost childhood was reflected in the proliferation of child-centered holidays such as Christmas and in popular photography, which focused almost exclusively on children. Only the home, and a home under the supervision of a competent mother, was thought sufficient to preserve this paradise. Thus although child-protection laws proliferated, they stopped short of regulating family life, despite the evidence that child abuse was more common in private than in public life.

The symbolic status assigned to adolescents was different. The teen years were increasingly described as tumultuous and rebellious. Despite evidence that modern adolescents were no more violent or radical than earlier generations, they were recruited symbolically as well as physically by various self-described leftist and rightist "youth" movements during the 1920s and 1930s. Youth continued to serve a similar function in the 1960s, but even in quieter times adolescence was still used to represent what was unacceptable, if not illegal. The threatening image of the juvenile delinquent came to symbolize everything that Europeans had come to see as unacceptable in the adult male. In a similar way, sexual fear came to be focused on the teenage unwed mother, despite evidence of declining illegitimacy rates throughout the Western world. The functions that demons and witches had once performed in earlier societies were transferred to the teenager. Even as children came to symbolize innocence lost, teenagers represented newfound evils.


Normativized notions of the child and the adolescent reached their apogee from 1950 to 1980 and found their clearest expression in the work of psychologists such as John Bowlby and Erik Erikson and in a postwar sociology bent on revealing universal laws of human development. Until Phlippe Ariès published his Centuries of Childhood in the early 1960s, both childhood and adolescence had been treated as timeless. In retrospect, however, these static, essentialized notions can be seen as a way of denying or containing the very changes that were sweeping through Western capitalist societies and would soon affect communist Europe. Postwar Europe was experiencing an education revolution that had already transformed its age and gender systems. By the 1960s, virtually all female as well as male adolescents were in secondary education; by the 1990s a sizable proportion of young people would continue on to a university or technical education. By then it was common to distinguish older youth from adolescents and even to talk about a stage of young adulthood prior to marriage.

The new service-oriented, information-based economy was closely tied to the welfare state that had emerged during the era of the Cold War. In addition to expanding the duration of schooling, the welfare state institutionalized child and youth welfare services, standardized age minimums, and policed the boundaries between the young and old. European societies had gained an unprecedented measure of social security, but at the cost of increased regulation of its citizens' lives. In addition, the maintenance of military service after 1945 ensured that the lives of young men were especially controlled, but young women were no less affected by the strict moral and sexual codes of the period.

An unprecedented degree of age conformity had been achieved, reflected in the increasing uniformity with which people of all classes and ethnic groups moved through schooling, into work, and then into marriage. What Martin Kohli has called the "chronologization" of European life reached its apex by the 1980s. Even as other standards of behavior became less rigid, age norms took on ever greater influence. In terms of dress, musical taste, and other markers of status, lines were now drawn between generations rather than within generations on a class or ethnic basis. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in Europe class discrimination was displaced by age discrimination.


But all this was about to change. By the 1980s, the fertility rate in some parts of Europe dropped close to or below the replacement level. Many people were already delaying having children, but some were now deciding against having children altogether. In many places, the fertility rate among immigrants was much higher than that among the native born; and because people were living so much longer, the proportion of children and youth became ever smaller. Children were still regarded as precious, but with the collapse of communism throughout Eastern Europe, state support was drastically reduced and child poverty increased dramatically. But Western European economies were also feeling the effects of the restructuring of capitalism that had become associated from the 1970s onward with the term globalization. As manufacturing shifted to third world countries, male workers' wages in Europe stagnated and unemployment increased. Married women entered the workforce in larger numbers to compensate. Western European welfare states softened the effects of loss of jobs and income, but everywhere young people again began to take up paid work in order to earn spending money to sustain their status as consumers. It was now not uncommon to combine work and school at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

The boundaries between age groups were visibly eroding. Media and advertising targeted ever younger age groups, exposing them to language and images once reserved for their elders. Sexual maturity was occurring at earlier ages and access to tobacco, alcohol, and drugs became easier. New categories—preteens and tweens—emerged to describe this precocity. Even as the lines between children and teenagers blurred, adolescence seemed to merge with adulthood. Teenagers moved into the spaces once occupied by their elders, and young adults, now postponing marriage to their thirties, seemed less mature than earlier generations. Age norms that had once seemed fixed by nature suddenly seemed uncertain, open to negotiation.

Even as age norms were flexing, they were also becoming more diverse as Europe itself became more heterogeneous in the late decades of the twentieth century. Patterns of age groupings had been different in Eastern and Western Europe, and differences remained in the expanded European Union. New immigrant groups, especially from Muslim countries, further diversified the age cultures of host countries. In France and Germany, difference was increasingly the occasion for tension and outright conflict. Everywhere there was a sense that childhood and adolescence were changing. Some observers even thought they were disappearing. Both became less strongly gendered as the perceived differences between males and females were reassessed. The movement of women into previously male spheres of activity, including the military, was partly responsible. Evidence of female aptitude for violence and gang behavior, as well as the growing awareness of the feminine side of many males, eroded both age and gender boundaries. At the end of the century, discussions of adolescent homosexuality and bisexuality further loosened the grip of old essentialized stereotypes of age and sex.

All these changes have highlighted the mutable nature of both childhood and adolescence. They have not only prompted an abundance of psychological and sociological studies but triggered much valuable historical research, which throws light on the changing nature of age relations. Whatever the future of childhood and adolescence may be, these categories will no longer be able to be viewed as universal or static, exempt from the contingencies of time and space. Henceforth one will have to speak of Europe's multiple childhoods and adolescences.

See alsoChild Care; Consumption; Demography; Education; Gender; Old Age; Sexuality.


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Fass, Paula S., ed. Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In History and Society. 3 vols. New York, 2004.

Gillis, John R. Youth and History: Continuity and Change in European Age Relations, 1770–Present. Revised ed. New York, 1981.

Hall, G. Stanley. Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education. 2 vols. New York, 1904.

Jobs, Richard. Riding the New Wave: Youth and the Rejuvenation of France after the Second World War. Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 2002.

Key, Ellen Karolina Sofia. The Century of the Child. New York, 1909.

Kohli, Martin. "Die Internationalisierung des Lebenslauf." Vierteljahresheft fuer Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 1 (1985): 1–29.

Levi, Giovanni, and Jean-Claude Schmitt, eds. A History of Young People in the West. Vol. 2. Translated by Camille Naish. Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

Mitterauer, Michael. A History of Youth. Oxford, U.K., 1993.

John R. Gillis

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Childhood and Adolescence

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