It might be strange to think about a time not so very long ago when the term ‘teenager’ didn’t exist. Now we accept it, but in 1940s Britain young people aged between thirteen and nineteen lived a very different life to the life they might live today.
School leaving age was fourteen, with many leaving at thirteen. Their priority was to get a job – often unskilled – to bring in money to a household that would inevitably be struggling to pay all the bills. Popular jobs for young teenage boys might be as a butcher’s or baker’s boy, cycling around their local area, delivering goods to families. It’s likely that young girls would have been relied on to help with household chores, washing, cleaning, cooking and perhaps looking after younger siblings. The war years saw a significant rise in women taking jobs in a wide range of occupations, leaving teenage girls to ‘stand in’ at home, but when the war ended and the men returned many women had to take up their role as housewife once more.
It’s thought that the concept of ‘teenagers’ as a distinct group was first flagged up in America with retailers identifying them as a potential consumer group – particularly for developing fashion. Gradually this filtered into the UK, with young people beginning to choose their own clothing styles, rather than following the traditional fashion of their parents. There was a steady rise in youth clubs and dance halls, all attracting youngsters. Although this would be a generation who didn’t have to fight in a world war, National Service meant that eighteen and nineteen-year-olds would spend two years away from the influence of their parents.
It was in the 1950s that the independence and purchasing power of teenagers really took off, with Teddy Boys and the rise of rock and roll, developing still further with the pop culture of the 1960s and the likes of Beatlemania and fashion icons such as Mary Quant.
But the freedoms seen during later decades saw their beginnings in the 1940s when a world war changed the attitudes of every age group and every strata of society.