Why were people so scared of "juvenile delinquents" in the 1950s?
September 20, 2014 12:23 AM   Subscribe

I've been fascinated with 1950s-1960s stuff for a long time, and for just as long I've accepted that people back then were fascinated with evil, misbehaving youth, and indeed thought that "JDs" were a Huge Problem in Society (i.e. West Side Story, Blackboard Jungle, or Rebel Without A Cause).

Yet it also seems people were genuinely terrified of Teens Gone Bad, in a way it's hard to wrap my modern brain around. But how did this come about? Why were so people scared of "juvenile delinquents," and why was this considered a societal problem on par with battling Communism?

I started looking around for answers, but it's hard to find anything very satisfying. It was something that was taken Very Seriously back then-- I've seen so many books dating from the '60s claiming to study the "new phenomenon of teenage delinquency"-- but it's all so dated and overblown, with really dubious psychology. Even Madeleine L'Engle features some evil, evil young gang members in one of her early YA books (the hysteria seems to have been overwhelming, because she's usually more thoughtful than that).

However, nowadays, the whole 1950s-60s fear of teen JDs is something I now usually see treated as a joke, rather than being examined with any seriousness. So, yeah... I'm stumped. If any of you fine Mefites can give me a decent sociological explanation for this phenomenon, I'd much appreciate it!
posted by suburbanbeatnik to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Could it be that there were just so many damned teenagers? This was the baby boom, after all.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:09 AM on September 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Teenagers themselves were new. Their emergence represented a significant societal change, and I'm not sure this question can be contemplated outside of that.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:16 AM on September 20, 2014 [15 favorites]

The 50's and 60's really marked the beginning of Youth Culture for want of a better word, there began to be some disposable income after the war etc and they were seen as a market etc.. enter Rock n Roll and so on. And Elvis's gyrating hips didn't go down to well with the church!

In the 60's my mum was a social work student and was interested in this stuff so tried to get a placement with disaffected youth. Her Catholic parents blocked it by telling her tutors they were worried she'd turn into one!!!

From that time (unreturned to the Uni!) I have her book "Just me and nobody else" Wilfred D'eath I think. It is the result of an Oxford graduate/journalist doing a radio show with a 'delinquent' youth and looking at what made him tick. D'eath a year or so back himself was investigated for alledged sexual assault of a young women and I read a pretty revolting interview with him - he didn't seem likeable at all.

The book though mild by todays standards is a page-turner though. It's out of print I think and could be tricky to find. Interesting question!
posted by tanktop at 1:18 AM on September 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

People were used to teenagers who were deferential, respectfully obedient, and tried to dress to look middle-aged. Seriously.
posted by Segundus at 1:32 AM on September 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mod note: One comment deleted. Sorry guys, I know it's an interesting question and brings up all sorts of thought about present day parallels, etc., but we still need to stick to answering the question here rather than taking it as a general discussion prompt.
posted by taz (staff) at 2:57 AM on September 20, 2014

The question is, why aren't you terrified of teenagers gone bad?

Teenagers are inherently unpredictable, yet smart, creative, and strong enough to do real damage --

- they can decide to band together and hunt whatever they want (especially with cars), including people or your property;
- they can get guns or knives and hurt you or your loved ones;
- they could decide to destroy your yard, or a store;
- they don't value peace the way you do, so they're likely to do these things for no apparent reason;
- they are as loud as a Mongolian horde, which is a tactic often used to deliberately terrify enemies;
- they are also cute and beloved by their families, which makes it nearly impossible to defend against them.
posted by amtho at 3:00 AM on September 20, 2014 [15 favorites]

Could it be that there were just so many damned teenagers? This was the baby boom, after all.

I think that this is it -- basically the population shift made middle aged folks uneasy, particularly because they sensed that pointed questions were being asked about their value system. But striving for money and aging seems to get everyone on the same side of the fence once they have kids and want/need a house, or at least that's the largely internalized belief: "If you're not a liberal when you're young you have no heart and if you're not a conservative when you're old, you have no brain."

I don't really believe that's true (I have the same values I did at fourteen now in my forties, and think lots of people do.) I think that's mainly true of people who secretly hold particular values to begin with but didn't voice them because they sensed their peers didn't share those beliefs.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:02 AM on September 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you think about it, the previous two decades were very serious: 1930s = depression and 1940s = war, so the 1950s were a time of relative peace and prosperity. Yet people (in the US anyway) were obsessed with juvenile delinquency and the threat of Communism.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:26 AM on September 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

"When I was their age, I was working 18 hours a day / fighting the Hun / fighting the Nazis, and they get to just sit around in their Studebakers and listen to music?!?"

Plus the relatively new influence of mass media meant that movies and TV shows and radio programs about these juvenile delinquents made it into every corner of the American psyche.
posted by Etrigan at 5:15 AM on September 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also, the influence of rock and roll made it clear that black culture was now entering the mainstream and in fact dominating it. People were terrified that young people would replace civilized Western culture with "degenerate" African American culture. Which, in the end, means they were picturing black guys dating white teenagers. ie Armageddon.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:22 AM on September 20, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I studied the fifties as a history student, and it's really a very fascinating era. We tend to look back on it as an innocent time (as long as you were white, at least), but it was actually a very anxious time. In fact, at the time it was sometimes called "the anxious decade" or something along those lines.

I think a big thing is that American prosperity and safety were pretty new and seen as tenuous. I mean, your average 40-year-old parent of a teen in 1955 had come of age in the depression and either fought in WWII or everyone they knew did. Anything that represents a threat to this new prosperity and safety is going to cause anxiety.

As for WHY they represented a threat: this was a time when mass media was really growing a lot. And the story of good kids gone bad is a sensational one that is sure to guarantee lots of eyes. Exciting to teens, terrifying to their parents.
posted by lunasol at 5:56 AM on September 20, 2014 [9 favorites]

Jazz and blues entered the mainstream in the 20s. Ragtime ditto in the 1900's.
posted by brujita at 6:17 AM on September 20, 2014

Best answer: I think it's easy to forget just how fast stuff was changing back then. 2004 doesn't seem that long ago or that different to us, but 10 years was all it took to get from 1947 to 1957, and then from 1957 to 1967. Imagine just how shocking and seemingly unprecedented somebody like Little Richard was for people who were used to big band music. Some skinny, aggressive, androgynous black fellow, wearing a lot of makeup and howling like a demon! If you imagine that a year lasted as long for them as it does for us, the pace of change must have been dizzying. No wonder kids seemed insane, constantly changing their looks and chasing all these fads like rock n' roll and that dirty beatnik stuff. If you grew up in a time when girls wore gloves and nice hats and they were expected to be modest little ladies, imagine having a daughter who dressed like a bum, argued with you and listened to music that just sounded like noise to your ears!

It's something I try to keep in mind, when I encounter an old person who seems like a hopeless, nasty old bigot. The world changed on them in ways it's hard for us to imagine.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:18 AM on September 20, 2014 [19 favorites]

Is the advent of television related to this? You get a dose of pop culture and national news fed to you every day, and everybody sees it happen. Newspaper tells you the next day; radio tells but doesn't show.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:23 AM on September 20, 2014

Yep. Folks weren't generally worried about their own teenagers - they were worried about teenagers who were from immigrant families, Catholics, black teenagers, and kids from the wrong side of the tracks.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:08 AM on September 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Maybe it was a consequence of popular awareness of shifts in consensus in fields like criminology or psychology. For example: half a century before this, eugenicists were gung-ho about concepts of inherent hereditary criminality. Maybe eugenics becoming discredited by association with the Nazis left a sort of "blame vacuum" and "juvenile delinquency" was what filled the gap, if a percentage of the public had accepted that crime can't be blamed on some general class of people in society with an essential nature that disposes them towards committing misdeeds.
posted by XMLicious at 7:16 AM on September 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

May I suggest some general background reading? You might want to look at:

* United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (1953)
* Fredric Wertham's "Seduction of the Innocent" (text)
* Moral panic
* IIRC (and that's a big if), David Hajdu's "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America" covers a lot of this territory.

From the NYT review of Hajdu's book:
The forces of offended decency hovered over comic books virtually from their inception. A bluenosed literary journalist in Chicago, wonderfully named Sterling North, attacked the genre in May 1940, in his essay “A National Disgrace (And a Challenge to American Parents).” North condemned the “poisonous mushroom growth” of “color ‘comic’ magazines” over the previous two years. ... In 1954 a new prophet of doom, the self-promoting psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, published “Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth.” Dovetailing with the antifascist/protofascist wave of comic-book bonfires around the country, and with the spread of censorship boards and arrests of newsdealers in towns and cities, Wertham’s intellectually shoddy book dwarfed “A National Disgrace” in its influence. “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry,” Wertham suavely remarked, even as his jingoism prompted urban police forces, churches and eventually Congress to join the chanting burners and cripple a flourishing industry, ruin the livelihoods of hundreds of artists and demonstrate (not for the last time) how fragile are the integuments of American democracy.
* And, not to get too tangential, but this History of Comics Censorship also covers ground related to JD/comics.

tl;dr: I did not fight Nazis so you could upend truth, justice, and the American way with your degeneracy, son!
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:21 AM on September 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

"The Ballad of the Kingsmen" by Todd Snider might provide some insight into the teen scare mindset.
posted by Xurando at 9:48 AM on September 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Wild One was maybe the iconic "motorcycle gang" movie of the '50's. This discussion of the film touches on some of what you are asking about (very detailed description/anaylsis).
posted by gudrun at 11:20 AM on September 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Most kids born during the post-war baby boom (1946-1964) were not teenagers in the 1950s when the Senate had a subcommittee on delinquency. Some of them weren't even born yet. So what were these young people born between the late 1930s and the mid-1940s rebelling against? One major thing that happened after the war was the enormous growth of suburbia. Sterile cookie-cutter suburban communities without histories or centers bred dissatisfaction? They were promoted as the American ideal, but many families could not hope to live in them.

The boys born between the late 1930s and the mid-1940s "missed out" on two wars and perhaps needed some other way to assert their machismo?
posted by rudd135 at 11:32 AM on September 20, 2014

Best answer: My answer here is quite anecdotal, but it simply relates to what was happening in society and in the economy as a whole.

In college I spent a great deal of time interviewing my grandparents and a number of their friends for a project and paper relating to growing up during the Depression and World War II. The folks I interviewed were all roughly the same age. All were roughly age 5-15 or so during the 1930s, and age 15-25 during the 1940s (meaning all were in their final years of high school as the war began). All grew up in and around Hollywood, North Hollywood, and Van Nuys in LA, and none were from wealthy families.

One common thread I heard in all of these conversations was that in the 1930s, these young kids felt compelled to do whatever they could to help their families get by. Of course, not everyone was destitute during the Depression, but so many people were deeply affected. I heard stories about kids helping at the family business after school, or even leaving school temporarily from time to time to help out.

The second common thread was that in the 1940s, these young adults now felt compelled to do whatever they could to help the war effort. There was tremendous social pressure to enroll in the armed forces as soon as you could, or to take a job in war production, or to participate in home front programs. My grandfather enrolled early in a Navy air program (partly out of duty, and partly because it let him have more choice in what he'd be doing). My grandmother and a few of her friends worked in war publication offices.

But in the 1950s, those two major social pressures had evaporated entirely. With the massive rise in prosperity, suburbia, and consumer culture out there, things changed for kids growing up. Many kids no longer had these two big pressures on them. Society began to recognize a time of development called the "teenage years," which is a construct that simply didn't exist in the 1930s and 1940s. Once you were old enough and sharp enough to work, you got to work.

And so you see in the 1950s and 1960s, young adults who had grown up during the Depression and War years are now looking around them saying "What in the hell are these young kids doing? When I was her age, I was helping at the family auto shop, and then I took a job working for the War Food Administration when I was 18. This kid is out screwing around all day hanging out with their friends, not taking school seriously, going out to eat at malt shops, listening to wild music, and driving around all evening."

There was a societal backlash thanks to that newfound prosperity, and you had a new generation of young adults that entered their teens and their post-high school years without the twin weights of economic collapse and warfare on their shoulders.

That's a recipe for blowback if there ever was.
posted by Old Man McKay at 11:53 AM on September 20, 2014 [19 favorites]

I think old people are just scared of kids aren't they? Certainly in the UK people were terrified of punks, terrified of hoodies (any child wearing a hooded top ffs - many supermarkets banned people wearing them completely, including turning away my 60yr old mother wearing post-gym clothing as it was see as such a marker of criminality), terrified of ravers/crusties, terrified of any children really (Aphex Twin's Come to Daddy video is a good parody of this). The Daily Mail loves whipping up a good moral panic about working class/BME children.

I had just assumed that was how some people respond to things that are new or unusual. Plus racism. Certainly it isn't limited to the 1950s.
posted by tinkletown at 2:34 PM on September 20, 2014

Also, don't forget the widespread availability of awesome, relatively inexpensive cars.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:23 PM on September 20, 2014

nowadays, the whole 1950s-60s fear of teen JDs is something I now usually see treated as a joke

I disagree. Cite? In the late '60s when I was a teenager, 'hoodlums' were threatening and scary. True, they were generally armed only with knives, not guns. Nowadays, 'gangbangers' are also threatening and scary, and may have superior weaponry (or maybe just more tattooes). But are they any more or less scary? I think not, 'twas ever thus.
posted by Rash at 9:32 AM on September 21, 2014

And over in the blue, this recent posting echoes my notion.
posted by Rash at 9:39 AM on September 21, 2014

Upon reflection, I think DarlingBri has it -- the concept of 'teenagers' was new, and in the 1950s, there were visibly so many of them.
posted by Rash at 9:57 AM on September 21, 2014

From the 1955 hearings ("Juvenile delinquency (obscene and pornographic materials) Hearings before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Eighty-fourth Congress, first session, pursuant to S. Res. 62 .." ):

Sen. Kefauver: "The problem of juvenile delinquency which brings us here at this time deserves and requires the best attention and the best effort of every American citizen. The future of this country is irrevocably tied with our young people. If this is a great generation we are rearing, and I am firmly convinced it is, then the future of our democracy is secure. Yet we must face up to the problems besetting our young people."

Henry Epstein, Deputy Mayor of New York: "...May I remark at the outset tliat juvenile delinquency is neither a new problem nor one we can expect to meet with temporary expedients.

"With so much talk of juvenile delinquency in the air and scare headlines all too frequently in the press, we are apt to forget the 97 juveniles in 100 who do not come in conflict with the law....

"We cannot have it both ways : Either our young people are a welcome part of the New York community, or they are some curious alien breed, shut out, marking time till their 21st birthday."

Other testimony cites J. Edgar Hoover: "The entire problem was pointed up by Mr. J. Edgar Hoover, Direc-tor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, when he said :

'The publication and distribution of salacious material is a peculiarly vicious evil : the destruction of moral character caused by it among young people cannot l)e overestimated. The circulation of periodicals containing such material plays an important part in the development of crime among the youth of our country.'"

Scared of teenagers? Sure. But also "scared for" (won't someone please think of the children?), as a means to other ends, like the suppression of "filthy" print materials and of anti-authority attitudes.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:08 PM on September 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

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