In the early 20th century, the period between childhood and adulthood was simply called adolescence, a passing phase between the two main periods in one’s life. But in the postwar period, this age cohort – now known as teenagers – developed a distinct identity and established itself as an important demographic group that would come to have enormous influence on American life.
Because of the postwar economic boom, many white, middle-class teenagers had more leisure time and more spending power than previous generations of young people. If they held jobs, they were increasingly able to keep their earnings rather than contribute them to the support of the family, as they generally did in early generations. American business soon realized the enormous potential of this emerging market, gearing advertising of everything from soda pop to cars in order to cash in on teens’ growing purchasing power. Companies in every segment of the entertainment world — records, radio, television, movies – were not far behind. Recognizing the affinity of this new demographic for Rock and Roll, they soon shaped a mass-market phenomenon out of what in the early 1950s had been a music confined to a handful of stations aimed at African-American listeners.
In this lesson, students will investigate how teenagers became a distinct demographic group with its own identity in the postwar years, and, in turn, how their influence helped push Rock and Roll into the mainstream. In so doing, they helped secure Rock and Roll’s place as the most important popular music of the 20th century.