“Teenager” as Modern Social Construct, and Marketing to Teens

The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen by prominent psychologist Robert Epstein sounds fascinating. Here’s a review in Time magazine:

A new book…argues that we should abolish the very concept of adolescence….Epstein’s book….says that once they can prove themselves competent, kids should have all the rights of adults. “Just about everything we do tells [teens] they’re incompetent,” Epstein writes. “We protect them from danger (driving, cigarettes, alcohol); we don’t trust them to work or own property … We don’t allow them to make basic decisions about their health, education or religion.” Epstein’s proposal? Allow any kid–of any age–who can “pass one or more relevant competency tests” not only to do constructive things like sign contracts and vote but also to do essentially anything he or she wants: have sex with people of any age, drink, smoke, drive, get a tattoo. “If they can pass an appropriate test of maturity,” Epstein writes in a passage that left me a bit queasy, “young people of any age should have access to pornographic materials commensurate with adult access.”

Impractical (competency tests?), but fun to think about. Anastasia Goodstein adds a bit from a related book:

Thomas Hine, in his very informative book The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, argues that both “teenagers” and “youth culture” are modern social constructs that originated from adult workers’ need to keep teens out of the workforce in order to protect their own jobs and that was made permanent with the universal adoption of compulsory high school. These historic facts spawned a new class of young people in between childhood and adulthood called teenagers (the word began to be widely used in 1945).

I agree that the term “youth culture” is overused and empty. Stressed out marketers haven’t helped by huffing and puffing over how to understand this demographic which — for a reason I have yet to understand — seems so elusive. Anytime a marketer asks me how to talk and sell to “Gen Y,” I say: Like you talk and sell to any other human being. Sure, targeting teens calls for different tactics than other age groups (namely internet-based ones), but at a high level, I think it’s odd how frequently companies self-diagnose themselves as clueless when it comes to today’s youth. Aren’t we all status-seeking human beings with irrational buying decisions?

9 comments on ““Teenager” as Modern Social Construct, and Marketing to Teens
  • This last part:

    I think it’s odd how frequently companies self-diagnose themselves as clueless when it comes to today’s youth. Aren’t we all status-seeking human beings with irrational buying decisions?


  • Interesting thoughts. The first proposed construct is a slippery slope at best.

    The marketer’s complex in terms of teens and buying habits has more to do with being lazy than being in touch with their needs in my opinion marketers want a demo that is predictable, teens aren’t the most predictable in a traditional sense.

    Ironically we do use similar compentency tests with the elderly but in a reverse manner, are you STILL fit to do: x,y,z etc.


  • It’s convenient to blame irrationality of market segments (teens here) when marketers fail to achieve their targets; On the company’s part, if they can’t put together an effective go-to-market strategy (not just for the teens), the conclusion is obvious.

    Great insight Ben !

  • Go Ben! My new book is filled with information about highly capable young people like you. I wish I had gotten you in there! The main idea is that we need to start judging people by their abilities, not by their age. We also need to give young people incentives and opportunities to join the adult world, rather than infantilizing them and trapping them in the vacuous and bizarre world of teen culture. Teen “culture”? What a joke! See http://thecaseagainstadolescence.com. /Robert Epstein, Ph.D.

  • Well, it’s true that the ‘teen’ is a modern social construct.

    Teenagers as a social group didn’t exist before the 40’s.

    Teenagehood was a necessary archetype for a time of existential crisis in the aftermath of World War II.

    James Dean came as an avatar of youthful rebellion against the babylonian system to deliver these new sexual creatures– existentially challenged panting teens, from their spiritual bondage.

    He created the template for a rock and roll church of community in a future of tumultuous times.

  • Great posting! The oddball blogger alfin2100 has been posting on this topic for almost two years now. His conclusion is very close to Dr. Eppsteinn’s.

  • Amaranta Wright’s book ‘Ripped and Torn’ is an interesting story of how ‘clueless’ marketers find out about the so-called Youth Culture. In this case, Levi’s sending a journalist into South America…

  • Yes, I believe in this. When my son was around 9, he thought teens looked and acted ridiculous. He told me, “I’m not going to be a teen. I’m going to go from being a boy to being a young man.” And I thought, yes, please!

    Going on 13 and I’m not sure that is what will play out.

    I rail against this teen culture that parents, teachers, media, marketers and society reinforce in a repetitive cycle but I think we need to refine a possible model. I’m no conservative but I don’t think a 15, 21 or 51-year-old needs to have much access to the type of porn available these days – for all the usual reasons. It’s unrealistic, often violent, demeaning to everyone involved but of course especially the women – and men now think certain acts that a porn actor gets paid more for (so are becoming more common in porn) are supposed to be part of every woman’s repertoire after she has finished the teens’ homework, done the dishes, watered the garden and gone to bed. And, porn’s sometimes just plain ick.

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