“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?

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