Teenagers these days


Next week my teenage daughter finishes her GCSEs. Then she will be all grown-up.

Grown-up enough, we’ve all decided, to catch a bus to London with a friend and spend a few days there, taking in a music festival in Hyde Park. Oh heck! Seeing it in black and white has just made my palms sweat. Maybe I shouldn’t have started watching that season of ‘Without a Trace’ this week.

But she’s a very sensible girl, clever, confident and resourceful. We’ve visited London lots of times together and she knows how to handle herself. These are the words of ‘rational mum,’ who knows that the chances of something awful happening are statistically very remote.

Turning to work, which is always a happy distraction for me, I started paying more attention to the lives of the teenagers I was researching from the turn of the century. Of course they weren’t known as that at the time. The term ‘teenager’ only came into existence in 1957 when Bill Haley and the Comets coined it during a UK tour.

What were young people’s lives really like in the 1900s? Were they safer or more dangerous? Happier or just hard slog? And did their poor mothers worry, as we do, about their fledglings starting to leave the nest?

School versus work

There’s no doubt that school is a far more stressful place now than even thirty years ago and our teenagers are being driven harder than ever to do well academically. They also now have to stay in education or training until the age of 18. It wasn’t until 1918 that the minimum school leaving age increased from 12 to 14 years old, so a hundred years ago the vast majority of 13-19 year olds had finished their formal education and entered the world of work. Our teens face mental overload and perhaps a certain lack of financial independence. Teens from the 1900s had already started their life-long, often back-breaking jobs such as domestic service, labouring, or work in a mine or factory. They didn’t earn much either. Homework or hard work? I’m sure most would choose the former.

Safer or more scared?

The list of frightening scenarios that has gone through my mind over the last few hours is incredible. No doubt it’s been fuelled by movies, news reports and social media hype. We worry about our teenagers being attacked, abducted, abused and trafficked, and of course these things do happen, but do they happen any more frequently than a hundred years ago? It’s virtually impossible to come up with accurate figures for such things from the early twentieth century, mainly because so many attacks on young people weren’t even reported then, perhaps because they weren’t considered serious enough. However, there is evidence that young people were no safer than they are now.

In a very interesting article about The Victorian Child Marah Gubar writes about the great advances in attitudes to children during the end of the 19th century. In 1885 a journalist called W T Stead, performed a rather dubious experiment to illustrate the ease with which young virgins could be kidnapped and sold on the street.

One in three of Queen Victoria’s subjects was under fifteen and several landmark laws relating to them were passed between 1850 and 1899. In 1891 the Custody of Children Act sought to bring some legislation to the practice of children and young people being sent abroad to work in the Americas without their consent. So there must have been an awareness of the same dangers even then.

It would be fascinating to know the figures involved, but we can’t be sure whether teenagers today are more or less vulnerable than they were 100 years ago. Kids of the modern era are certainly more aware than their forebears, and policing, communication and surveillance are more prevalent than when even I was a teenager, so I’m going with the theory that they are actually safer.

Happier or more stressed?

A survey in 2014 suggested that UK teenagers are the unhappiest in the world because of fear of failure, bullying, the burden of being thin or attractive and pressure to succeed at school. But would a quick visit back in time to 1900 reveal happier young people? Cramped living conditions, often a lack of good food and medicines, childhood diseases and a life of hard slog or endless pregnancies. Weren’t the young people of that time facing just as many issues? Perhaps the emphasis has just switched from physical problems to emotional and psychological ones?

So, in answer to this one, I would say, no, our teenagers are not necessarily happier than they were then. But what I do know is that the ones that are the happiest are those who work hard but are up for an adventure. Those who love being with their friends, enjoy music, travel and culture. Those who want to squeeze all the juice out of life and take a few risks. So, fly my little one, fly! Be safe but be happy. Have an amazing adventure like millions of young people before you.

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