A little while back I was talking with my family about our generations. More specifically, I was trying to find perspective over the struggles I was facing as a young person. I’ve always found it easy to adopt the ‘we have it so hard’ narrative (as I’m sure a lot of young people in past generations have), but how different are we from our parents, really?

My mom went to Queen’s University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in the 70’s — a typical Canadian Baby Boomer. She (mostly) paid her own way through university, as I did. She found an entry-level job upon graduating, as most did. She realized an adult life over the course of her 20’s, as I am doing now.

Conceptually, none of the elements of growing up are different from her generation to mine. However, my schooling was more expensive, the entry-level jobs more competitive, and major life milestones like buying a house or starting a family are regularly pushed into our 30’s. With that being said, my suggestion that life is now harder for young people did not go over well.

“Karl, did you know that there wasn’t even such a thing as teenagers when I was growing up?” I was taken aback by this. “What do you mean?” “Well, you were either a kid, or an adult. People your age have more time to figure it out.”

She explained that when she was a kid, you were often categorized by your physical size. If you were a big 15 year-old, you’d better get a job – being forced into adulthood at a young age was hard. By the time she became 13, however, there was something in between a kid and an adult – a ‘teenager’. I was immediately fascinated by this, as I’d never considered there might exist a part of life that was culturally ‘discovered’.

So, I researched it. The first mention I could find of the teen-ager (at the time carrying a hyphen) was Time Magazine’s LIFE in 1944, although the concept didn’t develop broad appeal until the late 50’s. In the article there is a fabulous set of photos, describing jovial young people without a care in the world. Intertwined amongst the photo essay done by the magazine, however, lay a further musing.

“American businessmen, many of whom have teen-age daughters, have only recently begun to realize that teen-agers make up a big and special market. . . . The movies and the theatre make money by turning a sometimes superficial and sometimes social-minded eye on teen-agers.”

Interestingly, the invention seemed to have less to do with culture than economics. World War 2 was ending, and a new era of capitalism and western economic fortune was upon us. This meant a new sense of security for young people, and with it disposable income passed from parents to children. Completing high school was quickly shifting from attainable for some, to attainable for all. ‘Real life’ was postponed for a few years, and this encouragement produced consumer characteristics that were neither child-like or adult-like. As a new demographic was born overnight, it looked like a marketer’s dream.

As I continued to read, the story became more and more familiar; the invention of the teenager share similarities with the modern 20-something narrative. And although the post-teenager consumes differently than teenagers from 60 years ago, they are labelled in the same way. The internet continues to be plastered with Millennial wallpaper, and I can’t help but think of the unassuming teenagers of the 60’s being plotted against by Big Advertising.

This post-teenager existing as a unique and independent demographic isn’t novel. With all the talk about the delay in major life events for young people, this is implicitly referred to all over the place. Nevertheless, the context is compelling. How does this demographic change impact contemporary marketing initiatives?