Birth of the American Teenager


Essential Question

How did teenagers become a distinct demographic group in the 1950s?


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.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The growth of teen purchasing power in the 1950s
    • The growing financial independence of teenagers, who could now spend their money as individuals without familial obligation
    • The ways American business marketed goods to the new teenage demographic
    • The effects of growing teen independence on the American family in the postwar era
    • The growing influence of teenagers on popular taste and culture
    • The influence of Chuck Berry and others on the representation of teenage life
  1. Be able to (skills):
    • Relate popular music to the social context in which it was produced
    • Characterize social, economic, and cultural change over time


Motivational Activity:

Please note that for this lesson, instructors will need copies of the complete lyrics to the song “School Days” by Chuck Berry. 

  1. Ask students to define the word “teenager.”
  2. Poll sample answers and write them on the board.
  3. Briefly discuss:
    • Have teenagers always existed?
    • How would you characterize the relationship between teenagers and adults?
  4. Play the first 1:30 of Chuck Berry’s “School Days” (1957), which includes the first two stanzas (through “Gee but the teacher don’t know how mean she looks”).
  5. Distribute lyrics to the song.
  6. Briefly discuss:
    • Who is the “you” in the song?
    • What happens to the person in the song?
    • What audience do you imagine Chuck Berry had in mind when he recorded this song in 1957? Who did he think might buy the record?
    • What conclusions can you draw from this song about the influence of teenagers on popular music in the 1950s?


1. Explain to students that they will be seeing a series of images depicting teenagers before World War II and in the 1950s. For each set of images, you will ask a series of questions. Instruct students to write down their observations on Handout 1 – Comparing Images and Documents About Teenagers.


2. Show Comparison 1 on the board: The first image is a photograph of a factory girl, aged 14 or 15, taken by photographer Lewis Hine in Massachusetts in 1911. The second image is of teens in Boston in the late 1940s. Discuss with students:​

  • How old are the people in the pictures?
  • What is the girl in the first picture doing?
  • What are the boys and girls in the second picture doing?
  • What do you imagine the girl in the first picture does with the money she earns? Does she keep it for herself, or use it to help support her family?
  • Do you think the boys and girls in the second picture have jobs? Why or why not? What kinds of jobs might they have?
  • If they do have jobs, what do you think they do with the money they earn? Do they keep it for themselves, or use it to help support their families?
  • What do these images suggest about how much leisure time middle-class teenagers had in the postwar years, compared to earlier times? About how much spending money they had?

Average weekly income of a teenage boy (allowance plus job earnings)

1946 1956





Source: Time magazine, “Bobby-Soxers’ Gallup,” Aug. 13, 1956

3. Show Comparison 2 on the board. Discuss with students:​

  • How much more did the average teenage boy have to spend per week in 1956 than in 1946?
  • What kinds of things do you imagine the teenager in 1956 would have spent this money on?
  • If teenagers in this era were able to spend more money on themselves than teens in earlier times, how do you think this might have affected their relationship with their parents?


4. Show Comparison 3 on the board: a Coca-Cola advertisement from 1940 and a 7-Up advertisement from 1954. Discuss with students:

  • Who do you see in the first advertisement?
  • What does the picture in the first advertisement suggest about the relationship between parents and children?
  • Who do you see in the second advertisement? Who is no longer in the picture? What does this suggest to you about changes in family life in the 1950s?
  • In the first advertisement, whom is Coca-Cola trying to convince to buy its product?
  • Who is 7-Up trying to convince to buy its product in the second advertisement?
  • Why do you think the advertisers changed their focus in this way between 1940 and 1954?


5. Show Comparison 4 on the board: advertisements for radios from 1938 and 1959. Discuss with students:

  • What is the first advertisement trying to get consumers to buy? Who is most likely going to make the decision about whether to buy it?
  • What is the second advertisement trying to get consumers to buy? Who is most likely going to make the decision about whether to buy it?
  • Look at the radio in the first advertisement. In what room in the house would it have likely been? Who do you think would have decided what programs to listen to?
  • Look at the radio in the second advertisement. How is it different from the radio in the first ad? Where would someone be most likely to use it? Who would have decided what to play on it?
  • What conclusions can you draw about how the relationship between teens and their parents changed from the 1930s to the 1950s?
  • What conclusions can you draw about how teenagers might have influenced the kinds of music that was played on the radio in 1959?

6. Distribute Handout 2 –  An Excerpt from Life Magazine Article, published Aug. 31, 1959.

7. Show photograph from the Life magazine article illustrating the kinds of goods teens purchased in the 1950s on the board.

8. Have the class read the article out loud, with a new student reading each paragraph. Discuss:

  • According to the article, how much money did teenagers spend in a year in 1959?
  • General Motors was the largest car manufacturer in the world at the time the article was written. How does the article say teen spending compared to the total sales of GM cars?
  • Based on the article, what kinds of things were teens buying in this era? Would you characterize these things as necessities or luxuries?
  • Out of that total spending, how much was spent specifically on entertainment? On records?
  • If you were a record company executive in 1959, how would this information influence the kinds of artists you signed contracts with and the kinds of songs you asked them to record?

Summary Activity:

  1. Play the final minute of Chuck Berry’s “School Days.” Discuss:
    • What does the “you” in the song do after school?
    • Does the song suggest that life revolved around the home in this era? What conclusion can you draw from this about how independent teenagers were in 1957?
    • What does the last verse say about Rock and Roll?
    • What does the song tell you about who would have been listening to this record?
    • What conclusion can you draw from this song about how important Rock and Roll was to the teenage experience in 1957?

Writing Prompt:

Have students write a short response reflecting on the birth of teen culture in the 1950s. Students should craft their responses as a narrative from the perspective of the teenage “you” in the song, and include details from the readings, photos, and advertisements in their descriptions of teen culture.


  1. Ask student to reflect on today’s marketplace and teen culture and compare it to the teenage demographic of the 1950s. Questions to consider may include:
    • On what do teenagers today spend their money? How is that different from what teens spent money on in the 1950s? How is it similar?
    • How has technology affected the spending habits of teens since the 1950s?
    • How do teens’ tastes today influence their households’ consumption?
    • How does today’s music industry attract teen buyers?
    • How do other businesses use music to attract teenage customers?
    • Overall, do you think teens have less, more, or the same influence over popular culture as they did in the 1950s?
  2. Ask students to investigate the relatively new marketing demographic of “tweens” and compare its influence on popular culture both to the that of teenagers today and that of teenagers in the 1950s. Research could focus on the ways music, fashion, entertainment, and other products have been marketed to all three groups.
  3. Have students research records from the 1950s and early 1960s that had the word “teen” in them. Discuss how these songs are a window onto the teenage experience of the times in which they were released.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 5: Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 7: Production, Distribution, and Consumption

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate  musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.5 Research and analyze the work of an artist or designer and how the artist’s distinctive style contributes to their industry production.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A3.4 Identify art in international industry and discuss ways in which the work reflects cultural perspective.
    A3.5 Analyze similarities and differences of purpose in art created in culturally diverse industry applications.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.