Universal Teenage Experience?
September 23, 2006 10:42 PM   Subscribe

Are teenagers the same around the world and through all cultures?

Y'know, teenagehood, that horrible time of your life when e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. is the Biggest Trauma Ever. That overly dramatic stage that, as far as I've ever heard, everyone goes through... at least in Canada.

Now, I'm pretty sure you Americans and British et al have a similar sort of teenaged life: Adrian Mole and so on...

...but do kids growing up in a pygmy tribe in Papua New Guinea go through the same thing? Are they rebellious? Refuse to... hunt? Get married? Eat pig? Do they make music their parents dislike? Invent a teen language?
posted by five fresh fish to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've always sort of got the impression that in other cultures, and until recently in the cultures you list, you were a child and then an adult. There wasn't much of a gap. I imagine in, say, Papua New Guinea, parents aren't going to put up with sulkiness or rebelliousness. If you refuse to hunt, you don't eat. Neither does your family, maybe. In that sort of society, it seems like the common problems of teenagers wouldn't be tolerated.
I have no real idea, though. My only qualification to answer this question is being a teenager myself, which doesn't give me much standing I'd imagine.
posted by MadamM at 10:46 PM on September 23, 2006

Margaret Mead got famous answering this very question.
posted by paulsc at 10:49 PM on September 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Many cultures don't even have a concept of teenagers. You're either a kid or you're an adult. There's no in-between.
posted by frogan at 11:18 PM on September 23, 2006

I've taught American high school and I've worked with Chinese high school students. I can tell you little kids are little kids worldwide, but I don't see much at all in common with Chinese and American teenagers. Chinese teens don't date and are quite a bit more childlike until they marry. There isn't this rush to act "mature" and I'm not even sure the concept as we understand it really exists.

There also seems little concept of "cool" as Americans understand it and there really don't seem to be many subcultures and their associated alternative styling cues. I see a few metro-sexual looking males and some punkishly dressed women in the early 20's demographic, but style is fairly homogenized. They understand the value of education as it relates to a decent job at the end. They are much, much more family oriented - like my 22 y/o Chinese roommate who sends half of her $250 paycheck back to her parents.
posted by trinarian at 11:41 PM on September 23, 2006

Teenagers: An American History
posted by scody at 11:45 PM on September 23, 2006

The idea of teenage experience is a fairly recent concept: the twenties were the first decade to emphasize youth culture over the older generations. "Teenager" was not a common term until 1930; before then, the term was "young adults."
posted by Violet Hour at 11:56 PM on September 23, 2006

I think our concept of teenager comes from a lack of any definitive moment where we stop being children and become adults. So I'd say that in cultures similar to yours and mine (Australian), teenagers have similar experiences. But in PNG or Swaziland, they would be very different, as different as the rest of the culture is from ours.
posted by twirlypen at 12:09 AM on September 24, 2006

Refuse to... eat pig?

My boyfriend was raised in a Jain household, and as a teenager he took up eating meat. This probably has as much to do with being an immigrant as it does with being a teenager, but I thought you'd appreciate the anecdote.
posted by anjamu at 12:27 AM on September 24, 2006

The same sort of thoughts occurred to me: that when you're living a subsistence life, maybe you don't really have the luxury of having snits and knowing everything and having your heart crushed.

But so much of that experience is due to hormones, I think. And, besides, you can read Dickens and see there were times of contrariness and such; you can read Aristotle (I think it is) complaining about the slacker youth; you can read [various other culture's works] and see the same.

And yet on the third hand, a literate culture is probably one where there's just enough advantage that one can have a sulk.

Now to pursue that Mead link. Thx, man.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:46 AM on September 24, 2006

For further empiric observation of Chinese teens (I used to teach middle school in a large urban Mainland school):

Much less affect, less standing around posturing. More being happy, or being miserable, less trying to look happy, or trying to look miserable.

They are more obedient and less rebelious, but I think (no real back-up for this) that's mostly because they lack the opportunity to be rebelious.

They seem to me to be just as prone to try to fit in, perhaps moreso.

For whatever reason, they seem to be more comfortable being kids, not trying to be adults. But they still try to f like rabbits, at least in my God-forsaken-tradition-eschewing-money-worshipping city.
posted by bluejayk at 2:08 AM on September 24, 2006

There were some good articles in New Scientist recently about various aspects of the teenage experience, and to what degree they are universal or not. Some of them are gathered here (although you will need a subscription to read the most recent ones). This page is a good overview of the weird four year gap in humans between sexual maturity and prime reproductive age.

I found this article and this article particularly interesting. They're about how teenagers' social ineptness and their general feeling that life is unfair may stem from the fact that their brains are changing rapidly, making it harder for them to judge emotions in others. The effects are probably amplified in the West by the typical kinds of social positions teenagers here find themselves in, though.

Also, there's this one (which, unfortunately, you can only read the first two paragraphs of), which basically says that most teenagers around the world all fall into the habit of staying up late and finding it hard to get up in the morning. The adjustment of sleep patterns seems to be a universal thing, rather than just being caused by video game addiction or whatever.
posted by chrismear at 2:27 AM on September 24, 2006 [3 favorites]

In subsistence, pre-technological societies, work was integrated into everyone's life. Animals needed to be herded, crops needed to be cultivated, fruit needed to be picked.

Your average medieval teenager may not have liked digging an errant sheep out of a snowdrift at midnight, but they knew why they were doing it.

Nowadays, teenagers spend most of their time working on something of almost no immediate practical use: education. I imagine that's a major part of their disaffection.

Paul Graham has an interesting essay about this. His advice for smart teenagers is to treat school as your "day job".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:57 AM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Radio 4 are currently running a series on growing up.
posted by the cuban at 3:42 AM on September 24, 2006

this really is very close to chatfilter, so don't be so harsh on SCDB.

but to the topic...i cannot recall the references, but when i was studying sociology ages ago, the point came up at some point that the teenager was basically invented around the 1950s/1960s. james dean's character in *rebel without a cause* was apparently one of the early, and quintessential, manifestations of this newly-invented marketing demographic. for it was (and remains) pretty much all about marketing. previously, young people went straight from school to work at a relatively young age. childhood to adulthood - snap. nowadays, there are extra years in limbo, with pocketmoney & jobs, ripe for commercial exploitation. therefore, in summary of this cogent argument, teenagers don't actually exist, but were invented in order to sucker them out of money. /chat
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:14 AM on September 24, 2006

[a few comments removed, you know where metatalk is if you need it]
posted by jessamyn at 4:28 AM on September 24, 2006

Are they rebellious? Refuse to... hunt? Get married? Eat pig? Do they make music their parents dislike? Invent a teen language?

Probably not, at least historically. One, because responsibility was doled out on children at a younger age, and those responsibilities had dire consequences if not followed (e.g., failing to go to work meant your family might not eat that night, versus failing a term paper meaning you can't watch TV).

Two, because... well, frankly, parents didn't let their teenagers get away with as much crap as our current teen-is-king, child-fetish culture allows. If you don't obey, you get beaten. Simple, but effective.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:58 AM on September 24, 2006

I'm not sure teens are even the same within the same culture. I grew up in a more working / lower middle class area, where most people headed to jobs at 18 and got married and bought homes within a few years. When I moved to the City, I was shocked to find out that middle and upper middle class people in their late teens were still treated as children.

(This continued into their 20s, with some modifications. The behaviours and expectations of 20somethings around me seemed more like those of teens. They all still lived at home. The effect on me was that those people could have great lives on entry-level incomes and then plunk down $75k each when they married and bought a super-sized-priced home.)

Middle and upper-middle income teens seem(ed) less likely to have held part-time jobs and, even so, there was no great pressure for them to save for post-secondary (not in comparison with lower income teens). Their lives seemed more leisurely.

Of course, angst, one-upmanship, and other attributes seemed universal.
posted by acoutu at 8:17 AM on September 24, 2006

previously, young people went straight from school to work at a relatively young age. childhood to adulthood - snap. nowadays, there are extra years in limbo, with pocketmoney & jobs, ripe for commercial exploitation.

Perhaps it could be argued that the 'push for college' in the 1950s exacerbated this problem (well, if you view an entirely new demographic as a problem)? The government, wanting as many 'new minds' as they could get, helped establish college as something 'everyone' can or should be able to get into; it was no longer an elite institution (at least for the most part). This essentially creates a minimum 4 year period in which teenagars continue to be students, and although they grow into their 20s, they're often still very much treated as children--at least that's how I understand it.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 8:34 AM on September 24, 2006

In addition to the research that chrismear mentions, I recall recent studies that tie teenage brain development to rash decision making, impetuousness...
posted by stuart_s at 10:25 AM on September 24, 2006

My question arose from watching an advertisement (on some crappy Kevin Nealon-hosted "World's Best" video) in which an African tribal kid is on his first hunt, opportunity to kill a pig.

He has a hissy fit, wants to be vegetarian, etc.

And it struck me that, y'know, maybe kids are kids the world over.

I suspect they are: it's just a matter of degree.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:55 PM on September 24, 2006

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