Teenagers are a construct that has propelled popular culture forward for 100 years. But, prior to the end of the first World War, they mostly didn’t exist. It wasn’t that somehow people skipped from age 12 to 20, but rather that there was no pause between childhood and adulthood before the advent of child labor laws and the progressive political movements that supported them. In 1900, children (10-15) made up nearly twenty percent of the work force. A generation later, this was seen as an affront to the family and to the normal progress of young people.
In 2014, Director Matt Wolf made a film from the perspective of these individuals who had magically been transformed into “Teenagers.” He did so by looking at existing archival footage (and the stories that surround them) of Teenagers in The United States, England, and Germany:
Within these vignettes of newly minted “Teens,” the movie explores the rise of political and social power for students around the world. It shows how seductive night life was (thus, flappers) and how much the Nazi’s (and to a lesser extent, the communists) relied upon the zeal of young people to affirm their ambitions. As the youth started to see themselves as the inevitable future of the world, it was clear that they wanted to be a part of something big. And Fascism was about the biggest and newest thing you could find in the late 1920s and early ’30s.
In the beginning, Fascism was a form of rebellion. It was going against the established world order. Fascists were the underdog class, trying to come to power. Their ideas were not yet mainstream, and for a generation of kids for whom rebellion was a rite of passage, fascism felt like a logical extension.
One such German teenager describes her plight this way, “parents complained about the unemployment and poverty, but they didn’t do a think. [I] wanted action. So, [I] joined the Hitler youth. My mother expected to be unquestioning and obedient, like the maids. But, I rebelled. I wanted to be different – to escape from my narrow childish life… to be allowed to belong to a community which embraced the whole youth of the nation.”
And yet, once the fascists (Adults) were in power and the kids fully realized what fascism meant, once they saw the hate and the death that came along with imposing a racial and ideological hierarchy, teenagers no longer flocked to it. Their culture-setting rebellion shifted to asking for more freedom and more opportunities for expression.
So much so that by 1945, the teenagers of that era wrote their own “Teen-Age Bill of Rights,” which states that Teenagers should have the following:
- The right to let childhood be forgotten
- The right to a “Say” about his own life.
- The right to make mistakes to find out for himself.
- The right to have rules explained, not imposed.
- The right to have fun and companions.
- The right to question ideas.
- The right to be at the romantic age.
- The right to a fair chance and opportunity.
- The right to struggle toward his own philosophy of life.
- The right to professional help whenever necessary.
These statements (in particular the right to question ideas and struggle toward your own philosophy) is how I know that Fascism will never truly be “cool,” at least not for very long. While hatred and bigotry may be interesting for a season, it is the teenage propensity to question ideas and construct their own theories about the world that will never let it become the dominant philosophy.
So long as we never return to putting children to work in large numbers, there will always be a class of people with enough time and attention to rebel against the current political “prevailing wisdom.” And if we should ever again find ourselves on the brink of war, we should turn to the youth of the world (the ones who will actually fight that war) and they will help pull us back from the precipice.
While it is emphatically true that children are the future, it is the teenagers who are the arbiters of what that future will actually be. And somehow, the fleeting interests of youth are a lot more reassuring than the entrenched opinions of the old right now.