Why fears over Generation Z are overblownRoundup
tags: baby boomers, cultural history, Generation Z
Miranda Sachs is a visiting assistant professor at Denison University whose research and teaching focus on the history of childhood.
For most of history, the majority of children worked. Before industrialization, children carried out agricultural labor within the family economy, taking on more demanding roles as they grew up. Access to formal education tended to be irregular and depended on race, gender, family economy and local conditions. With the spread of industrialization in the United States and Europe in the 19th century, children as young as 8 left the protection of the family to work in factories.
That prompted reformers in the United States to clamor for child labor legislation and for the expansion of public schooling. The spread of schooling began to remove children from the workplace and into age-segregated spaces. By the end of the 1920s, half of American children attended high school. While efforts to enact national child labor laws faltered for decades, the conditions of the Depression finally broke that logjam, leading to passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which severely curtailed the ability of children under 18 to work.
These developments began to change the experience of childhood, but it was only the post-World War II prosperity that allowed white middle-class children to experience what would come to be considered “modern childhood.” Without the obligation to work and support their families, these youngsters had the luxury of leisure time to spend with their friends. They also enjoyed access to a growing consumer culture aimed at them — first receiving toys as children and then buying the latest records as teens.
As this conception of childhood and young adulthood became the norm, it became enshrined in pop culture through the creation of a new genre of film: the teen movie. Two famous films of this era, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Breakfast Club,”which appeared in 1955 and 1985, respectively, exemplify the idealized second half of the 20th-century teen experience. Unlike youngsters of the early 20th century, their characters spent their days in school, they socialized almost entirely with peers rather than with adults and they had ample free time.
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