Youth and Adolescence

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Andrew Donson

Social historians have taken an interest in youth in part because of their numbers: Those age fifteen to twenty-nine comprised 26 percent of the population both in France in 1776 and in England in 1840. While the decline of fertility in the nineteenth century limited this preponderance, modern states recognized that they needed youth to establish their legitimacy. Governments, aware that they did not lack competition for the allegiance of this crucial group, engaged in massive projects to make young people reliable citizens. For revolutionaries, the rough and energetic behaviors of male youth—their predilection to engage in violence and radicalism—proved instrumental. Social history has established that youth played a pivotal role in the development of European polities.

Because modern states and reformers left voluminous source material in their drive to reinforce citizenship and morality, we know far more about the modern than the premodern period. But social historians have been successful in applying their main approach—identifying the norms, behaviors, and institutions that correspond to the stage of the life course marked by growing independence from the family—to all periods. In Europe before the modern era, the stage of youth distinguished itself by its rites and rituals. By contrast, youth in the modern era was far more defined by leisure, secondary schooling, and the norms and behaviors that social scientists called "adolescence."


The most celebrated argument in the social history of youth was Philippe Ariès's thesis in Centuries of Childhood that French society in the fifteenth century made no distinction between adults and young people. Ariès contended that youth—as a concept and a stage in the life course—emerged out of developments in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when parents began to express affective bonds to their children and a growing literature presented youths as imperfect, weak, and in need of education. His narrative explored the pedagogical implications of socializing youth in such works as Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (1712–1778) Emile (1762). Much research in social history confirmed that German Protestantism in the Age of Reason demanded diligent raising of children. The debate against Ariès hinged on whether youth as a stage in the life cycle existed in traditional rural Europe.

Against Ariès, the scholarship of Natalie Zemon Davis and Andreas Gestrich borrowed methods from anthropology and made clear that European villages had rituals where single young men regulated the pools of marriageable young women. In France, the young men in these charivaris, the carnivalesque hordes, donned masks and publicly humiliated those perceived to be disrupting the marriage market. In Germany the Katzenmusik (cat howls) of male youth humiliated adulterers, as well as men in second marriages and women who failed to become pregnant. Humiliation was administered with loud shouting or singing to debase the putative miscreants.

Most importantly, this rough courtship ritual was often organized in formal youth societies, like religious orders and trade associations. Upon church confirmation at fourteen years of age, members entered the organized male youth abbeys in parts of France and the brotherhoods and boys' clubs in Germany. From this age until twenty-five to twenty-nine, the age of marriage, young men in these groups issued statutes, held meetings, marched in parades, and upheld financial regulations. On the Continent more generally, fraternal and journeymen's associations segregated young people by age, developed elaborate initiation rituals, and enforced rules of celibacy. Their members fostered strong corporate identities linked to age during their itinerant period, their tours-de-France or Wanderjahre. Of course, age segregation in these rites and organizations was far from strict. Examples abound of adults who engaged in the rough and carnivalesque behavior alongside male youths. "Youth" was a flexible category in the early modern period, and the age at which it began varied with locale and time.

The rough practices of youth had a long tradition of tacit support in European villages, but with the growth of cities in Renaissance Italy, charivaris became more mixed-age or disappeared altogether. Because governments wanted to solidify their rule, they could not condone the arbitrary justice meted out by the rough behaviors of male youth. In addition, demographic and financial changes in Florence made fathers absent in the raising of children. As Richard Trexler argued in Dependence in Context in Renaissance Florence, for these reasons many grew anxious about masculinity and the leanings toward debauchery among male youth. In 1396, these conditions induced petitioners to found a confraternity, the first formal institution outside the nobility aimed at socializing youth in restraint and dutifulness (Renaissance schools never undertook such moral aspirations). By the mid-fifteenth century, numerous such groups for boys age thirteen to twenty-four staged political and religious dramas. These youth groups also provided supervised leisure activities, competed for positions in public processions, and held elections for officers. In their probity they cast themselves as the pious saviors of society. As such, these organizations influenced local politics in fifteenth-century Italy, and the charivaris disappeared.

Still, the rougher traditions of male youth were integrated into the new youth groups. Italian tyrants organized boys into brigades during festivities, having them light bonfires and fight on the street as a way to reinforce authority. Likewise, between 1497 and 1502 the confraternities under the preacher and reformer Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) appointed themselves the roles of moral guardians, burned books and paintings, emitted sulphur and manure during sermons, and attacked girls whom they perceived as shameless. In Europe after the Reformation, religious holidays and other festivities were opportunities for male youth to wrestle married men, set fires in fertility rituals, and on Mardi Gras play soules, a violent form of football. It was expected that during weddings youths would fire salvos, extort drink money, obstruct processions for ransom, and ferret out the couple in their conjugal bed. Youths also made themselves conspicuous outside festivals by playing pranks. They scared people, jumped off bridges, threw benches in churches, and rolled large stones down hills.

Gender, the relations of power among the sexes, strongly informed the stage of youth. Courtship and sexuality needed to be regulated for at least a decade: Europeans had exceptionally late marriages—the average age of marriage was much higher than most other cultures in the world. Youth, the stage between leaving home and marriage, was therefore particularly long. Though young women certainly participated in the charivaris, research shows that rough behaviors were practiced primarily by young men who asserted their authority over the pools of marriagable young women. Female youths found more equanimity in the rituals regulating courtship in the village spinning or light rooms (Spinnstuben in Germany, veilles in France, posidelki in Russia). The practical use of these rooms was to conserve light and warmth while sewing and doing handicraft in winter, but the rooms also developed into spaces attended exclusively by young people where they could drink heavily, discuss villager misconduct, organize mixed-sex charivaris, and engage in physical and erotic contact.

The modern age ultimately brought the decline of charivaris, spinning rooms, and other rural traditional practices. Furthermore, the category "youth" became more distinct. States and voluntary associations began to organize their activities according to age, determined by state-issued birth certificates. More rigorous segregation by age was also a consequence of urbanization, public schooling, voluntary societies, military conscription in nationally led armies, and the consequent politics of nations. As the categorization of youth developed, more stringent regulations and hierarchies of age followed. In Germany in the eighteenth century, enlightened state and ecclesiastic officials strove to end the free sexuality in the spinning rooms and replace the arbitrariness of the Katzenmusik with a rational form of adult justice. Of course, state and civil society arrived late in rural Europe: We still find the traditional rough practices in the German countryside in the period before World War I and in France after World War II. But though the date of the arrival of modern youth culture differed in countries, regions, and times, scholars agree that across Europe youth became a more regulated stage in the life course, and traditional rural practices faded.


England is a well-studied case in the early modern social history of youth. England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries lacked the age-segregated charivaris and organized youth groups common on the Continent. But apprenticeships segregated female youths age fifteen to twenty-five and male youths age fifteen to twenty-nine. These youths were single, in dependent relationships, and performed service as domestics, apprentices, or farm laborers. Though Ariès contended that an extended adolescence was a privilege only for the upper class, almost all subsequent scholarship has established that most youth in early modern England had a particularly long period of dependence—as long or longer than in the modern period. Though the time spent under the care of biological parents was short, masters acted in loco parentis.

In general these relationships of dependency were short-term with any individual master, however. Because labor was in high demand, rural youths in early modern England had considerably high mobility, working in one apprenticeship for only a period of months or weeks before moving on to benefit from skills in a different one. In this regard, youths enjoyed a fairly large degree of independence in making decisions about where to work. The two features of high mobility and short-term dependence on masters marked youth as a particular stage in the life course.

Although Lawrence Stone argued in The Family, Sex, and Marriage that the removal of children from their biological parents demonstrated the lack of affective ties in the early modern period, few scholars now agree with this thesis. Masters were far less sadistic than historians initially assessed them to be. Low rates of illegitimacy tend to indicate that communal supervision limited the abuse of female apprenticeships by male masters. Furthermore, parents and kinship networks continued to provide financial and logistical support for apprentices after leaving home. Of course, public bureaus to support youths—clubs, voluntary associations, parish-relief systems, and philanthropic societies—expanded in the late seventeenth century. Furthermore, provincial attorneys, registry offices, newspaper advertisements, and hiring fairs in the countryside provided new institutionalized support to apprenticed youths. But ultimately biological parents and kin remained the single most important source of aid.

While England lacked the formal youth groups of the Continent, certain rites were similar to those in the rest of Europe: Youths had particular roles in such holidays as Shrovetide and May Day. They engaged in contests, cockfights, revels, and games such as football, skittles, archery, cudgel, and sword play. The ale house served as the place where youths developed an informal associational life and discussed their own ideas about recreation, literature, sexuality, and riotous behavior.

As with the charivaris on the Continent, these activities often involved adults, as the distinctions in age created by the state did not yet have their import. Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos pointed out in Youth and Adolescence in Early Modern England that variations in levels of literacy and in regional practices tended to splinter youth cultures. In general, the value systems of youths and adults converged, and youths lacked social institutions and spaces separate from adults. The hallmark of the early modern period, Michael Mitterauer claimed in A History of Youth, was the relative absence of competition between the family and the peer group.

This condition was nevertheless coterminous with the high mobility that demarcated youth from the adult world. Arguing against the view that early modern England lacked a cohesive youth culture, Paul Griffiths emphasized in Youth and Authority the informal rituals of age, such as the pranks, licentiousness, and fighting condemned in a large body of pamphlet and advice literature. The needs of high mobility—the life on the road—brought a separate set of interests for youth, which then shaped their recreation, support, and companionship.


What distinguished youth in the modern from the early modern period were the national and social revolutions that brought military conscription, voluntary societies, and public schooling. While our understanding of youth more broadly in the French Revolution (1789) is still limited, the violence of male youth clearly proved instrumental to tyrants, reactionaries, revolutionaries, and other radicals. After the fall of Robespierre (1758–1794) in July 1794, for example, gangs of young men calling themselves the Gilded Youth attacked members of the radical Jacobins and forced actors to sing counterrevolutionary tunes in Parisian theaters. On the left, the need to have youth participate in the violence—in the wars and the intimidation—boded well with the political demand for reform, that is, for rejuvenation and renewal. Article 28 of the Constitution of 1793 guaranteed "one generation cannot subject a future to its laws." The concept of youth was grounded firmly into the French Republic.

The most important legacy of the French Revolution for the social history of youth was not its violence but its introduction of age regulation by the state. The need for conscripted soldiers to fight the Republic's wars complemented the codification of age in state citizenship and eligibility to hold office. Furthermore, the new Republic set up a pedagogical policy that emphasized the collective over the individual—citizen-soldiers needed to be loyal. As early as the Reign of Terror (1793–1794), there were demands that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds be trained in patriotism, martial arts, and hatred of tyranny. The Republic also introduced a host of civil ceremonies, the fêtes de jeunesse, which celebrated the ages of citizenship (twenty-one) and bearing arms (sixteen).

The pedagogical goal of creating loyal citizens in turn ceded to the right to receive an education. Consequently, new distinctions of age were produced in the lycées, faculties, and grande écoles of the national university system after Napoleon. These schools, whose first graduates Alan Spitzer called the French Generation of 1820, concentrated boys of the same age in youth barracks, thereby increasing the importance of the peer group. They produced a cohort of young men who expressed their awareness of their youthful identity on the editorial boards of journals and in discussion circles, Masonic lodges, and political groups. They turned in the 1830s to the "Young France" movement, established ties to Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and other Utopian Socialists, and reproduced the theme of revolution, rejuvenation, and renewal. But France in 1806, a country of 25 million, had only 50,000 pupils receiving secondary education. Much about the ancien régime persisted: The Wanderjahre and tours-de-France of apprentices flourished on the Continent after Napoleon.

During the industrial revolution Britain saw a slow decline in apprenticeships and the youth culture they had produced: The new jobs in factories did not demand that youths be itinerant and gain skills in short-term, dependent relationships at work. Furthermore, factory labor offered youths independence and so gradually ended the early separation from the family that so strongly characterized the early modern period. Consequently, youths working in factories now lived at home until they married; patriarchal migrant apprenticeship in Britain declined. Though wages offered a modicum of independence to youths, volatile industries like weaving brought instability, misery, and discontent—in short conditions that abetted rough behaviors of youth in gangs and popular movements like Captain Swing (1830). The radicalism of youths of the lower social classes in Britain in turn frightened an increasingly influential middle class, which held a more restricted view of youth independence, education, respectability, and other distinctions. While the rough traditions of youth proved useful in political revolutions, liberal politicians shunned youths' violence.


John Gillis argued in Youth and History that adolescence denoted a particular stage in the life cycle of middle-class families in England after 1870 and in Europe more generally. Adolescence was characterized by the pressure of being middle class—of securing professions, trades, secondary schooling, or perhaps admission to university. At the same time, it was a stage in the life course with increasing leisure time, as middle-class youths had the privilege to learn and play, in contrast to adults and working youths. Because increased leisure time led to independence, the discourse on adolescence in Europe after 1870 expressed concern of this stage in the life cycle and called for more controls (Gillis, 1974, pp. 95–183).

Thus despite the privilege of an adolescence of learning and leisure, middle-class youths faced controls, such as the time discipline enforced in the secondary school regimes of the new European middle classes (see sidebar). Secondary schoolboys in both England and Germany faced a particularly brutal world, with the liberal use of corporal punishment. Suicide notes of middle-class teenagers in Germany identified their despair with the strict and demanding conditions in school. As John Neubauer has made clear in The Fin-De-Siècle Culture of Adolescence (1992), the woes of the privileged secondary-school boy and his contrast to the working class usually orphaned boy became a familiar theme in literature. Youth as a particularly trying time in the life cycle was depicted in novels by Charles Dickens (1812–1870), Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), and Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880), and in the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), Paul Valéry (1871–1945) and Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929). In the visual arts, the gaze turned toward youth most introspectively in Edvard Munch's (1863–1944) painting Puberty (1895), a subject that medical science had openly discussed for the first time in the 1870s.

Some historians have disagreed with Gillis that a concept of adolescence had developed before the turn of the century. As Harry Hendrick pointed out in The Male Youth Problem, the term "adolescence" did not come into wide usage among social workers in England until after the publication in 1904 of G. Stanley Hall's (1844–1924) Adolescence. Adolescence was largely a concept of Hall's influential work, which had borrowed heavily from Freud and the discussions of the celebrated case of Dora in 1901. As Mitterauer has argued in A History of Youth, the grounding of the term "adolescence" in psychology related to the new social scientific discourse of youth that emerged at the turn of the century. Though German social scientists never widely adopted the French and English term Adoleszenz, they produced a large body of studies on youth and developed powerful pedagogical models that predicted the speed of learning and acquisition of practical skills. Influenced by the progressivism of Ellen Key (1849–1926) in Century of the Child (1893, Swedish; 1902, German), German pedagogues addressed issues of motivation and self-determinism. And as in Britain, social scientists in all European countries turned to a concept of adolescence as a vulnerable period to create categories of youth deviance. Gillis pointed out that because application of these categories of youth deviance enforced greater conformity in comportment and appearance, adolescence became universalized for all social classes, even though its model was clearly a middle-class youth.

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The concept of adolescence reproduced femininity for middle-class youth and made categories of gender more rigid. As Carol Dyhouse made clear in Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, the British middle-class families disapproved of women who worked outside the home; a sexual division of labor asserted middle-class respectability. Consequently, when secondary schooling did become acceptable, it aimed to prepare girls for matrimony. The separate sphere of domesticity was also institutionalized in public elementary schools that expected schoolgirls to become mothers or domestics.


The sine qua non of adolescence was leisure, but the leisure of working adolescents, with its rough practices of marking territory and participating in courtship parades, distressed the middle class. Consequently, a vigorous reform movement developed after the 1870s in Europe to educate, train, and above all enforce morality. Reformers set up clubs, youth centers, apprentice homes, and sports associations. Uniformed youth movements, such as the Boys Brigade (founded in 1883), evolved into organizations with the goal of furthering the empire, Christian manliness, and youths' efficiency and reliability.

The influence of uniformed youth movements was limited, however. As Michael Childs pointed out in Working-Class Lads in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, these organizations failed to attract the vast majority of working-class male youths whom the movement was supposed to reform. But the British youth movements presented a model of social control highly attractive to states and reformers: The more time a youth spent in supervised activities, the less likely he or she was involved in activities deemed delinquent. As John Springhall has argued in Youth, Empire, and Society, the combating of deviance also pleased a state that saw the advantages of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism—ideologies central in the founding of the Boy Scouts in 1908. The goal of the Scouts, like the ambition of the pedagogues in the French Revolution, was to create the citizen-soldier.

Youth organizations in Germany at the turn of the century were particularly well developed. Secular clubs for youths—crafts, gymnastics, and other sports—flourished. The availability of rail transportation to rural areas led to the growth of hiking organizations for urban middle-class youth. In addition, Germany by 1918 had 350,000 members in Catholic youth groups and boasted an even larger network of Protestant organizations. Further making Germany unique were the growth of large socialist and patriotic organizations: The Socialist Youth Movement, with an estimated 250,000 members in 1914, and the Young German League, a patriotic umbrella organization with 750,000 members. In contrast to Britain, these last youth movements followed a politics opposed to the social order. The right followed the left's lead in viewing youth as a regenerative social and political force.

The most celebrated of the German youth movements at the turn of the century were the Wandervögel (wandering birds), the hiking organization. Though it had fewer than 50,000 members, the Wandervögel were important in asserting the demand for youths' self-expression and self-realization, a demand that then influenced a wide range of youth organizations, from socialist to conservative ones. Furthermore, they presented a challenge to the strict and drab academic system: They set up youth hostels, held "nest" meetings, and performed folk music on the lute and the guitar.

France too had an expanding youth movement at the turn of the century. The French Catholic Youth Association, founded in 1886, had 140,000 members by 1914. In addition, French youth groups supported hosteling, football, bicycling, and socialist and communist politics. When Henri Massis and Alfred de Tarde published the survey Les jeunes gens d'aujourd'hui (Young People Today) under the pseudonym of Agathon in 1913, they made France aware that youths wanted their own organizations. Furthermore, Catholic youth rejected pacifism and showed a disdain for intellectual introspection. They wanted national renewal, even if that meant a war to win back Alsace and Lorraine. Above all, the associations that grew out of this youth movement, Maurice Crubellier has argued in L'Enfance et la jeunesse, constituted peer groups and made age more salient.

Segregation by age, peer groups, and leisure offered the opportunities to cultivate youthful identities that were then addressed by a popular commercial press. In Britain as early as the 1830s, cheap domestic romances and sensational stories—the "penny bloods"—flooded the bookstores for youth. Youths wanted fantasies, and the religious monthly's appeal was simply no match for the penny hero Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. As the Danish anthropologist Kristin Drotner showed in English Children and Their Magazines, Britain in the 1880s in particular saw a more expansive and open youth reading culture with the publication of the durable youth magazines, Boys Own Magazine (1879–1967) and Girls Own Paper (1880–1908). These magazines were the first popular literature to address a variety of leisure and work activities: skating, angling, photography, hygiene, body building, career advice, and rabbit feeding. Advanced literacy and a commercial mass book market had addressed the adolescent.

In addition to age, this popular reading culture was clearly distinguished by gender. As Sally Mitchell demonstrated in Girl's Culture in England, 1880–1915, male youths were cast as active movers and shakers and had a masculinity where emotions were absent or minimal. Female youths by contrast had intellects appropriate not for creating but for ordering and making decisions, for purity, service, sacrifice, and domesticity. But girls' magazines in Britain also addressed the promising female professions and occupations, such as nursing, teaching, and clerical work. The first generation of women with secondary schooling produced a pool of writers who filled voluminous pages of school stories, holiday adventures, advice on careers, and tales of heroism and misfortune. Together these produced a modern girl caught between the expectations of domesticity and the fantasies of independence.


The nineteenth century saw a long and gradual decline in apprenticeships for working youths. Apprenticeships brought more security for youths in the long term but made them more dependent on their families in the short term. Wage labor, on the other hand, offered immediate independence and financial relief for poor families. Furthermore, with the successive child-labor laws, the pool of cheap labor shrank, and the demand for the labor of male youth swelled. A buoyant labor market for youth—a condition that characterized Britain from the 1890s to the Great Depression and Germany from the 1890s to the end of World War I—in turn raised the status of the young workers in the family, as they had more money to control and spend.

The youth movement was stimulated in part by the middle class's desire to reform the consumer habits of working-class youths. Although most youths in industrial Europe still worked more than forty hours per week, the growing number of high-wage jobs increased the leisure time and pocket money available to spend on consumer pleasures, such as alcohol, tobacco, football, cinemas, cafés, billiards, penny bloods, amusement fairs, and dance and music halls. With money for clothing, social types with distinctive dress styles emerged. In German cities, there was the Halbstarke (ruffian), with his weapons, sported insignias, bright colors, fantastic hats with feathers, and other distinctive raiment. In Paris, there was the apache (savage), who rejected work, stood in conflict with his family, scribbled graffiti, dressed well in a silk scarf and a cap, and spent his days wandering coolly through the streets. Formal working-class youth organizations, though growing rapidly, were still incipient in comparison to the middle-class youth movements. Much of working-class culture thus continued to reproduce the rough traditions of youth: Youths in working-class neighborhoods formed gangs and fought on the street. Courtship came to be regulated by youths in the Monkey Parade, the trains of male and female youths who dressed in their weekend best and picked each other up. These behaviors alarmed a set of middle-class reformers, who sought to impose respectability on working-class youth.

As vigorous as the youth movements in trying to impose this respectability were the organizations that addressed the so-called "boy labor" problem, the masses of male youths who became porters, messengers, newsboys, vanguards, and errand boys. These "blind alley" jobs, as they were called in Britain, were chosen because they offered wages that in the short term were far higher than traditional apprenticeships. They also had better working conditions, with more independence and less monotony. Concerned about the reliability of these male working-class youths "between school and the barracks," between the ages of fourteen to eighteen, Germany became the first country to found obligatory vocational schools aimed at both the practical and moral welfare of youth in these jobs. It also set up advice and job exchange centers.

In all European countries, discipline in school was the response of the middle class to the growing independence of working-class youth. The oral interviews collected by Stephen Humphries in Working Class Childhood and Youth showed that though school offered the possibility to achieve literacy, the classroom demanded strict obedience and gave little room for creative self-expression. As in the rest of Europe, teachers in Britain meted out brutal punishment against violation of regulations or resistance to authority. All European countries founded juvenile detention centers, which kept boys deemed deviant in isolation in order to develop their piety, moral integrity, and self-control. British working-class schoolboys harbored deep resentment against the educational regime and the class inequalities it produced. Poor families looked upon obligatory grammar schools as an imposition because they limited the wage-earning potential of sons and daughters.

Working-class youths gained leisure as industrialization progressed, but they still spent a significant amount of time at work, in addition to commuting and doing household chores. Work also started early: A 1908 survey in Vienna revealed that over 40 percent of eleven- and twelve-year-olds had jobs, and this figure did not include informal modes of work. Furthermore, all but the very poorest working-class families encouraged their daughters to stay at home to shop, care for siblings, and do housework. A survey in Vienna as late as 1931 discovered, for example, that 45 percent of all girls were kept home from school regularly. The case was similar in England. Nevertheless, as Robert Wegs has argued in Continuity and Change among Viennese Youth, the general trend after 1870 was for working-class youths to spend less time with families and more time with one's peer group in school, youth organizations, and public sites. Without a doubt, working-class youth after 1900 in Paris had a repertoire of associations and leisure activities to shape a youth identity.

Despite many attempts to limit the independence of youth in England, France, and Germany, spaces for youth separate from adults widened in the 1920s. Public consumer venues—theaters, cinemas, automats, jazz clubs, sport clubs, hiking and hosteling organizations, and dance halls especially—offered opportunities wherein the absence of adults established norms and hierarchies. The demise of the calling system, where parents had regulated courtship, and the broad adoption of the dating system, where youths themselves determined the rules of wooing, is perhaps the most lucid example of how this new recreational world gave youths greater opportunity to shape their social world. As David Fowler established in Young Wage-Earners in Interwar Britain, working youths showed a defiance of their parent's call for respectability. They fashioned their own teenage culture in leisure activities and the new objects of consumption. Cinemas, spaces that youths visited on average three times per week, became the venues where rival gangs toughed out hierarchies of status and established the turf of youth. In France too, consumer items like the "show me bracelet" offered possibilities to create youth identities.


It was a hallmark of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century that they introduced national youth organizations with the goal of socializing youth in political loyalty. Just as the requirements of conscription induced new pedagogical goals after the French Revolution, these national youth organizations proved essential in producing ideologically reliable soldiers on a massive scale. For example, the 400,000 members in the Soviet Komsomol (Young Communist League) filled the ranks of the Red Army in the civil wars after 1917, and at least 10 million of its members fought in World War II. In Germany, the Hitler Youth served as a conduit for the elite Nazi groups, just as the Free German Youth in East Germany cultivated future Communist Party members. While the success of the Italian Fascist organization is doubted, historians agree that the Hitler Youth, the Komsomol, and the Free German Youth were essential in establishing the legitimacy of European totalitarian states.

On the eve of the Revolution, Russian youths were still largely integrated into the world of adults. Like their counterparts in rural western Europe, they participated in the rough music rituals of villages and regulated courtship in the light and spinning rooms. In the cities, however, industrialization clearly placed new interests on the labor of youth. The liberalization following the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 led to a blossoming of autonomous youth groups, including the Socialist ones that pioneered the strategy of using youth cells in factories to protest those in the worker's movement who ignored them. The programs of the Communist Party in June 1917 included concrete demands for improving youths' social and economic standing.

The Komsomol, Ralph Fisher argued in Congresses of the Komsomol, demonstrated that a successfully run state youth organization in totalitarian regimes secured the loyalty of future soldier-citizens. The first national youth institution of its size and complexity in the history of the world, the Komsomol was imagined to be the vanguard of the social revolution. After the civil war, it cast itself as a bulwark against the decadence of the West, expelling its members for bourgeois attitudes and demanding a plain style of dress. It grew rapidly, incorporating previously independent youth organizations, which had flourished after the Revolution, into a vast network of recreational and political clubs. Youth organizations that resisted its march were banned, and great efforts were made to organize rural youth, despite the protest of village leaders. Memoirs attest that the mission of the Komsomol was greeted enthusiastically by its members, who felt hopeful it would bring social justice and better education and employment. Membership rose to 2 million at the announcement of the first Five Year Plan in 1928. But the Komsomol's commitment to improving youths' social and economic standing was weak. Its higher priority was to secure ideologically reliable members for the Communist Party.

A singular phenomenon in the European experience of youth was the displacement in the Soviet Union of 9 million youths, a consequence of World War I, the civil war, and the subsequent famine and orphans they produced. Like western European cities, Soviet cities had a vibrant subculture of youth gangs that engaged in brawls, public courtship displays, and promenades around streets, gardens, taverns, and dance halls. But this subculture of displaced youth also differed markedly from European youth by its independence and its identity with wandering: Initiation rites into gangs included clinging to the underside of trains. A strong counterpoint to the organized youth in the Komsomol, these youths were viewed in theory by the Party as victims of capitalist oppression. In practice, it dealt with them as hooligans, forcing them into working and attending vocational schools. By 1938, two-thirds of those arrested were sent to work camps. The same draconian treatment applied to dissident members of the Komsomol, which purged its ranks.


Like the Communists in the Soviet Union, the Fascists in Italy presented themselves as a continuing revolution whose dynamism stemmed from its youth. Indeed, fascist martyrology in 1925 claimed one-half of its saints were under twenty years old. Youth were by all measures disproportionately represented in the party. In the early 1920s the average squardrista, the fascist fighter, was scarcely over twenty years old. In 1922, when the Fascists became a mass party, the average age of its members was just twenty-five.

The goal of creating the citizen-soldier led the Italian Fascist Party to use schools as an agency of indoctrination. Benito Mussolini's (1883–1945) education ministers introduced state textbooks in the fascist spirit and eliminated academic freedom for teachers. Emphasis was on blind obedience to the Leader. The Italian Fascist state-run youth organization, Opera Nazionale Balilla (National Youth Works), functioned much like the Komsomol. It organized schoolboys under eighteen years of age into leisure activities like sports and paramilitary training and countered refusal to join with demands for a written explanation. As in the Komsomol, membership was also a prerequisite for advancement in careers. The Italians also pioneered a political aesthetic for their youth: Sleek uniforms, athleticism, singing, glorification of war, and rites of the Party. By 1930, premilitary training for boys was obligatory. In certain respects, the Opera Nazionale Balilla expanded opportunities to working-class Italians: At least 4 million youths participated in the fascist culture courses, most in rural areas, in 1939. But the socialization project, Tracy Koon has argued in Youth in Fascist Italy, ultimately failed to provide Italy in World War II with a mass of loyal soldiers, as the 1930s saw a growing dissidence among youth against Mussolini and his project.

In contrast to Britain, which had little youth protest and generational conflict after World War I, Germany had political and independent associations for youths that practiced violence and radicalism. Of course, most youths preferred the state-supported sport and recreation associations, as the welfare of youth was guaranteed by the Weimar Constitution (Articles 119–122). But Germany was the country in Europe with the most splintered and politically charged youth organizations: paramilitary Protestant groups; Nazi, Socialist, and Communist Party associations; and the peculiarly German autonomous male youth groups, the Bünde, who aspired to an idealistic atavism of mythic knights and masculinity. Suffering tremendously under the inflation and the unemployment, youths turned to violence and radicalism and played a significant role in the downfall of the Weimar Republic.

Before 1933, the Hitler Youth was a relatively small organization not rigidly controlled by the Nazi Party. But like the Komsomol in the Soviet Union, the Hitler Youth owed its success to intimidation and violence: Its members swallowed older youth organizations and beat up those who resisted. In addition to its predatory tactics, the Hitler Youth's growth also stemmed from its popularity, especially among right-wing groups in rural Protestant organizations and also among the working-class youth. Its maxim, "youth must be lead by youth," had much affinity to the early youth movements. It also attacked hierarchies within the educational system, as its leaders goaded members to challenge the authority of teachers and the traditional curricula. The organization promoted camping, hiking, and physical fitness and gave recognition to the efforts of working-class youth, developing the immensely popular competitions in craftsmanship and technical skills in which 3.5 million participated. Membership grew to 7.7 million members in 1939, making it a rival to the Komsomol. Like the Komsomol, the Hitler Youth provided the state with an ideologically reliable cohort: The broad reach of the Hitler Youth made it one of the central institutions that popularized racism, anti-Semitism, violent nationalism, and the Hitler myth. As a general trend, the fascist and communist models of national youth organizations lessened the significance of school and family in the socialization of youth. Both placed youths under the guidance of state-sponsored, ideologically driven youth groups.


The history of totalitarian regimes is also about the resistance from urban youth subcultures: In Germany, youth gangs with names like Edelweiss Pirates and a Swing scene of high school jazz parties together formed an underground, illegal protest of the morality and politics of the Nazis. Subcultures flourished in the Soviet Union after World War II as well. The era of Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) was marked by a new youth counterculture distinct from the Komsomol. Calling themselves the stiliagi (the "stylish"), they were the sons and daughters of the elite urban class who cast their identity in their dress and preference for jazz. Subsequent to the stiliagi were other subcultures: the bitniki (beatniks) and the rock, punk, and heavy metal aficionados. Nevertheless, youth culture remained dominated by the Komsomol, whose membership grew to 19 million by 1962. The Komsomol continued to block avenues of dissent against the Communist system and its Marxist-Leninist ideology. It persecuted the stiliagi and threatened to send them to work camps. In contrast to the West, youth in the East were neither subject to a secondary labor market nor influenced by a consumer-oriented culture. Furthermore, the Komsomol provided a single and ideologically unified organ of social control. Even the discourse of youth, including its sociological study, were coordinated by the policies of the Komsomol.

In East Germany, the state-sponsored Free German Youth was a central institution that solidified communist rule as well. It had quickly gained 1 million members by 1949, filling the void vacated by the Hitler Youth. Its popularity stemmed in part from its promotion of games, dances, and sports and its project of building a socialist consciousness in volunteer work projects on dams, buildings, and farms. As important, however, was that membership in the Free German Youth improved chances in receiving advanced education and choice apprenticeships. By 1977 more than 50 percent of all eligible youths age fourteen to twenty-five were participating. Even if informal youth organizations flourished despite the Free German Youth, it remained a durable institution of the Eastern system. It also complemented schools, which had their pupils take oaths against fascism, sanctify socialist heroes, and condemn capitalism under the maxims of Marxism-Leninism.

In many ways, Western Europe after 1945 saw trends similar to the interwar period: The traditional practices of rural youth disappeared; secondary schools absorbed greater numbers of youth; affluence made working unnecessary for the growing middle class; sport and confessional youth associations thrived; youths visited cinemas, cafés, and dance halls. But in other ways, ties of Western Europe with the United States introduced the American culture of consumer goods, such as radios, motorcycles, automobiles, cameras, jazz, rock and roll music, and record players—status symbols that defined youthful identities. Still, youths in Central Europe in the 1950s were remarkable for their conservative apoliticism. Surveys showed that their primary concerns were employment, inflation, and other economic matters. This stance stood in contrast to the highly politicized and confident youth culture of the 1920s and 1930s.

In all European countries in the 1960s, however, a generation of youths who had not experienced the war became active politically, particularly against the spread of nuclear weapons, relationships with the East, the Vietnam War, and the conservative academic and educational establishment. These more liberal views also altered sexuality, impelling the vast majority to support premarital sex. In Britain, peer groups that stood in opposition to state institutions and formal youth associations proliferated. Stuart Hall and his colleagues have argued in Youth Subcultures in Postwar Britain that these groups—the Mods and the Rockers, the Teddy Boys, the Skinheads, and the Rastas—were an effect of the growth of leisure in Britain after World War II and the ascendancy of universal secondary schooling. Furthermore, mass culture (entertainment, art, communication) produced styles of dress (shaved heads and black suits) and expressions of musical taste (jazz or rock) that asserted an identity separate from the adult value system.

Youth has existed as a stage in the life course throughout European history, but a youth subculture based on style and dress had its origins in the modern transformation that introduced consumer goods and commercial locales. Modernity also made the boundaries between youth and adulthood more distinct. Furthermore, it made peer groups more influential insofar as the stage of youth shifted away from work and toward leisure and age-structured institutions like school. At the same time, states and politicians recognized the importance of winning youth to establish their legitimacy and created highly influential institutions of socialization.

See alsoThe Life Cycle (volume 1);Students; Juvenile Delinquency and Hooliganism (volume 3);Puberty; Child Labor (in this volume);Schools and Schooling (volume 5); and other articles in this section.


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