Chris: It’s been almost ten years since The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager was first published. Back then you noted that the threshold of adulthood was rapidly retreating into a young person’s teens and tweens. Since we are practically in the year 2009, at what age today would you say someone becomes an adult?
Tom Hine: It is probably somewhere in the early 20s by now. How we define adulthood really has to do with the point at which people participate in the society as producers. When there are a lot of jobs available, we tend to define maturity as occurring at a younger age.
Chris: That’s very interesting. So that would suggest that the current economic downturn is going to have a more detrimental effect on young people than – say – adults who are on the verge of retirement. That is, if in fact we continue to see unemployment on the rise.
Tom Hine: The effects are obviously different. For those nearing retirement, the loss of the money they thought they had responsibly saved and invested is undeniably traumatic. For young people, the challenge is, as always, in getting started.
Young people have faced challenges in getting into the economy for quite a long time now. This economic situation will probably only make familiar difficulties somewhat worse. By comparison, the Great Depression profoundly changed the way in which youth and maturity are defined.
Chris: True, but the current situation is being compared – by both the Democrats and now the Republicans – to 1932. As you noted in Rise and Fall, it was the Great Depression that forced national passage and enforcement of child-labor laws to free-up jobs for more parents. What I’m not so sure you mentioned was that Social Security – a product of FDR’s New Deal – was concurrently designed to provide incentives for older people to leave the job market to make way for people in their twenties. Is it possible then that the long awaited retirement of the Baby Boomers might give people who are, say, 24 (like me) an opportunity to move into middle-management?
Tom Hine: Perhaps, if there is any middle management left.
I think, though that, a difficult economic time will encourage boomers to work longer, provided that they are allowed to do so. On the other hand, people of the younger generation are less expensive to employ — lower salaries, fewer health problems. I think that both the young and the old are being squeezed, and there is no value to make them adversaries.
Chris: A tough job market usually leads to a spike in young people pursuing advanced degrees such as MBAs and JDs. Has your research into the historical experience of young people led you to the conclusion that higher education is the fast-track to a high-paying salary?
Tom Hine: I probably haven’t done specific enough research to answer that question, but I suspect that the answer is no. People will need a great deal of knowledge and skill, but those two are not always the same as a lot of schooling. We use schooling as a delaying mechanism. We don’t know for sure that it will produce the products and the technology on which the economy of the 2020s will be based.
I am particularly skeptical that having more people with MBAs will get us anywhere, but that may just be a prejudice.
Chris: Since the end of the Great Depression, the most universal experience for American teenagers has been the classroom. You are of the opinion that this has been a waste?
Tom Hine: Obviously not. Indeed, for a majority of young people, high school works pretty well. For a significant minority it works less well. I just think that we ought to have some alternate routes to adulthood, some of which involve other kinds of schooling and others that involve work, entrepreneurship, or service.
Chris: What about giving students a freer hand in designing their education? Since the 1980s there’s been a steady decline of democracy in the classroom. The way the average 1st grader is instructed is roughly comparable to the average 12th grade high-school student. In this increasingly test-centered environment, how do we move toward a system where students do more than just receive an education, but are actually called upon to design it as well?
Tom Hine: I agree with your fundamental point, I think, but I would express it differently. I think that all education is self-education. People will learn very quickly and intensely if they understand how it gives them power and benefits.
Our school system is one of the last major parts of our society to be based on an industrial model — that we take the raw materials, our children, and process them into responsible adults. Working against that model, particularly in colleges, is another model — that the student is a consumer who must be satisfied with creature comforts and entertaining schooling. This seems better than the industrial model, but it still assumes that students are somewhat passive. I like the idea that education is about constructing yourself. You don’t necessarily design your education; you use education to become yourself.
Chris: You went to great lengths in your book to demonstrate how historically young people have had a tremendous influence on both the economy and politics. Arguably Barack Obama owes his current position to the successes won by young people in the early primary states. Would it be correct to say that young people today have more political influence in American affairs than at anytime before? Or are we just experiencing a generational cycle?
Tom Hine: I recall my mother talking about how exciting for her as a young person to canvas for FDR in the 1932 election. She felt the country was at a turning point and it was time for people like her to turn it around.
At the time of the American Revolution, young people played an extremely important role. Nathaniel Greene, one of the most successful generals was in his early 20s.
Chris: Yes, and during the Civil War 3/4ths of the Union Army was under 18.
Tom Hine: However, for most of our history, the voting age was 21. It was changed during Vietnam, largely because of the argument that those subject to being drafted as soldiers should have the rights of citizens. Yet, perhaps because of Vietnam, young people did not vote. Both parties seemed broken for a long time. In addition, our voting system is based on residency and young people have tended to be footloose and not registered to vote.
Chris: Final question – multipart: how is the average 24 year-old (say me) of today MOST DIFFERENT from the 24 year-olds of say: 1908, 1928, 1948, 1968 and 1988?
Tom Hine: You ask difficult questions. I suppose one difference between the first two periods you mention and the rest is that one can speak more or less meaningfully about an “average” 24 year-old in the latter periods.
There was much more of a demarcation between working class young people, middle class youth and rural youth in the earlier periods.
This would be particularly true in 1908, which comes right after the period when the idea that adolescents are unstable comes to the fore. The middle class youth would likely be the first of his or her family to graduate from — rather than just attend high school. As with today, they would be competing in an economy that included a lot of immigrant workers and had relatively weak unions or other worker protections.
The 1928 young person was in the midst of a boom, or bubble, similar to that of the 1990s. Mass culture of movies and music was emerging and young people were its subject and biggest market. Collegiate life had glamour. There were jobs.
Chris: Was more expected of them though?
Tom Hine: Going back to 1908, I would say that more probably was expected of the 24 year-old. By 1928, marriage was already starting to happen later.
The 24 year old of 1948 had very likely been to war. He was a grownup. The tone of college campuses changed from the frat house culture to something more serious. He was marrying younger than his counterparts before or after. Obviously he could afford to because there was a shortage of workers at America’s big corporations, and salaries were rising faster than skill levels, and much faster than inflation. This guy is probably the least like the current young person.
Chris: You’ve written a new book about the 1970s called The Great Funk. Is there anything you’d like to share about it before we go?
Tom Hine: Thanks for mentioning it. Actually, The Great Funk is relevant here because one of its subjects is what happened when the baby boom came to maturity. It was marked by an economic collapse, rather different from that of the present time, but also very traumatic. The earliest boomers were able to get good jobs, the later ones had to wait longer.
Chris: Well like today there was an energy crisis and we we’re already perceived as losing to foreign competition from Japan (whereas now we lose to third world countries)
Tom Hine: Yes, there were crises during that period from which we should have learned — or that we did learn about then forgot. The 1970s brought two decades of energy conservation; then came the SUV!
The size of the baby boom generation helped create the problem [unemployment]; our economy couldn’t adjust all at once. Moreover, the baby boom generation was the first in which women of childbearing age expected to keep their jobs.
Chris: That’s a good point. Though mothers in the workplace would hardly have been unusual to the 24 year-olds of 1908.
Tom Hine: Yes, actually it would have. Especially young mothers.
Chris: I just finished Reading The Jungle (1906) where all the female characters are working in the factories.
Tom Hine: That gets back to the class issue with which I prefaced the discussion. But even then, mothers of small children did not usually have jobs.
My larger point about the 1970s, however, is that the failure of so many of the institutions, and the assumptions about the nature of people’s life proved liberating. When nothing seems to work, you can free yourself from old ways of doing things and try something new.
Chris: That’s an interesting take, given how the 1970s are normally remembered as a depressing time marked by uninspiring leaders, economic decline, fake plastic disco mania and avocado-colored washing machines.
Tom Hine: Not everything that gets tried is good. The 1970s gave us women’s liberation as personal liberation. It liberated gays and fundamentalist Christians, and Southerners. It allowed women to think of themselves as athletes.
Chris: That’s all very true
Tom Hine: I like the word “funk” because it has a double meaning. It connotes both depression and joyousness, both of which were abundant during the 1970s. And if, as a geezer, I can give you advice about living through a difficult time, it is that you do live through it. You will survive, as Gloria Gaynor more or less sang. And it is more fun to invent a new world than to try to fit into an old one. Embrace the failure and do something new.