Smells like teen spirit Meet the new pioneers – teenage girls
anew type of role model has marched into town. She runs businesses, champions human rights, faces bullets and harnesses the power of science for social development, even though she and her peers are routinely marginalised. She’s grown up with the internet. She is smart but may not legally drink or drive just yet. She’s a change agent and she’s only 17. She’s a teenager. The last few lines almost sound like the musings of a Taylor Swift song ‘IMHO’. (In my humble opinion, for those of you who aren’t down like that.)
Now, more than ever, teens have a platform to change the world. Beyond recoding the English language with abbreviations like IMHO and a myriad others including ORLY (oh, really) and SRSLY (seriously), they’re ciphering the world’s disorders. Well, they’re trying to, at least. According to an article published in The Economist, for those born between, roughly, 1980 and 2000, ‘growing up with the internet… has transformed their approach to education, work and politics’. The access to some form of digital technology has allowed them to ‘exercise closer scrutiny’ of governments – theirs as well as others’ – and given them the freedom to ‘use new, digital ways to express themselves’. These digital natives are scorned for challenging and changing the way we communicate: Snapchatting instead of calling, connecting via Twitter or Facebook rather than penning letters, handing over their privacy with YouTube uploads or selfie updates.
Teenagers have never been taken seriously though. In fact, breakouts and tantrums aside, they never really existed as a subset until the end of the Second World War. They’re a completely 20thcentury invention. The first time the term ‘teenager’ was described as a new type of social class was in an article written by Elliot E Cohen in 1945 called ‘A Teen-Age Bill of Rights’. The birth of the phrase describing the transitional period of life called ‘adolescence’ was a result of the time when child labour laws began to be enforced during the industrial revolution. Newly defined, the West sought to create ways to try and control these pubescent graces (raging hormones and risky behaviour) through reform such as the Boy Scouts or, more heinously, the Hitler Youth. In the new documentary film by Matt Wolf called Teenage, based on the book of the same name by Jon Savage, he celebrates in particular the young women who fought against these social restrictions. A lot of the political agitators in the film are teenage girls: The Swing Kids (a group of youngsters between 14 and 18 years
old from Germany who loved and listened to jazz and swing, which were banned during Nazi rule and were the nemesis of the Hitler Youth); the Wandervogel (another German youth movement established in 1901 but with a focus on returning to nature); Bright Young Things (a group of young bohemian aristocrats and socialites in the 1920s) led by the socialite Brenda Dean Paul; the famously resilient Anne Frank, who wrote her wartime memoir The Diary Of A Young Girl. And her polar opposite, Melita Maschmann, who became a journalist and, after her de-Nazification, tried to make sense of her life. She wrote a book, Account Rendered, about her victims, explaining why she, against her family’s wishes, became a Nazi who later exposed the Reich for all the wrongs she willingly took part in.
Long accused of letting their hormones rule their chancy outlook on life, it turns out it may not (always) be such a bad trait after all. The greatest common ground that all these teens have shared across the century is their willingness to take risks. The tie that binds Malala Yousafzai, who stared down Taliban bullets in 2012 to fight for equal education, with Sofie Scholl, who faced unjust execution in 1943 for her participation in the anti-Nazi White Rose Movement, is a part of the brain called the limbic system. The limbic system, according to cognitive neuroscientist Sara-Jayne Blakemore, is an area deep inside your brain that heightens the reward from doing fun things, including taking risks. And wouldn’t you know it, it is this part of the brain that is hypersensitive in adolescents when compared with adults. To top it all off, the prefrontal cortex (the area at the front of your brain), which is known to stop us from taking excessive risks, is still in development when you’re a teenager. Says Blakemore, ‘So what’s sometimes seen as the problem with adolescents