The Teenager, and other distasteful developments

October 17, 2010

An offhand mad comment in an article I read at some point during the summer caused me to go all Angry Young Man, but my angry write-up was of the immediately dating kind and as such hasn’t ended up anywhere but here. I hang my head in shame as I become: ANGRY YOUNG INTERNET MAN.

In ‘The changing face of fatherhood’ (Daily Mail Weekend, 19th June), Tony Rennell took advantage of an extended advert for a BBC Father’s Day documentary to mourn the decline of the father in British family life.

Whilst the article’s defence of fathers’ rights post-divorce was admirable, its take on the shocking rise of the teenager in the ‘60s – deigned all of four paragraphs – was somewhat skewed.

“Youngsters had once gone from childhood to adulthood in one easy step,” typed Rennell, glancing furtively between the curtains at the youths lingering dangerously on the pavement outside. “But now, with money in their pockets and the desire to have some fun before knuckling down to being parents themselves, the new teens fought against parental control.” The resulting generation gap, he regretfully informed us, “turned into a chasm and family life into a battlefield”.

This realisation, on top of Original Sin, makes climbing through those teenage years a hefty blame-shouldering operation long before we have time to fumble drunkenly at parties or back dad’s Merc into a bollard.

Except, maybe that’s not the case. Could it be that the teenager’s intermediate period of hedonism isn’t a recent development at all, but merely the most recent name for a far longer-running youthful desire for distance from the older generation?

Certainly, the condemnation of insolent youth is nothing new. The following scribblings of an outraged ancient of Athens – commonly attributed to Socrates, though probably wrongly – tell us as much. “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority,” dictated the anonymous Greek to his scribe, glancing furtively between the pillars at the youths lingering dangerously in the forum outside. “They show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Children, he regretfully informs us, “are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannise their teachers.”

If our inability as a race to live up to the previous generation’s standards has continued at the same rate to this day, that leaves us in a sorry state indeed.

Yes, the teenager has been with us for as long as anyone would care to remember, not as a threat to the nuclear family but as a healthy stage of cognitive development, one that coincides with the outgrowing of the world our parents have constructed for us. Moreover, its continued existence is drastically important, not only for the individual – who obviously benefits in the expansion of their worldview – but for the progression of popular culture.

Untainted by the previous generation’s deep-set opinions of what art and entertainment should be, but with a subconscious full of its past achievements, the teenager is perfectly poised to push into new artistic territory. Without the teenager, there would be no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no French New Wave and no Fight Club; no one would have considered three chords adequate qualification to start a band, and there would be very little worth calling Sheffield underground art, music, film or anything else.

It’s something that might benefit Rennell – himself a commentator of popular culture – to stop and consider. After all, there’s no reason the fathers can’t learn a thing or two from their offspring. In the words of the Human League: these are the days.

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