- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

They didn’t die before they got old, but the “Zimmers,” a group of 40 British senior citizens who grew tired of feeling isolated and cast aside, went ahead and recorded the Who’s anthem “My Generation” anyway.

Now they’re the toast of the Web.

It shouldn’t surprise us, says British writer Jon Savage, just out with a lively new book called “Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture,” a sweeping social history of adolescence.

In one sense, says Mr. Savage, 53, we’re all teenagers now — from age 6 until death.

“Youth culture is one of the great motors of the Western economy,” says Mr. Savage, who authored the definitive history of the late-‘70s British punk movement, 1991’s “England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond.”

“The original consumer youth culture was defined in terms of a group of young people buying books, magazines, cosmetics, clothes — all fairly rapid turnover,” he says. “Everybody buys like that now.”

The wrinkle in Mr. Savage’s study is that it ratchets back the beginning of youth culture as we know it to the late 19th-century — to the sense of spoiled angst found in the diaries of Russian emigre Marie Bashkirtseff (1875), to Oscar Wilde’s novel of decadent eternal youth “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1895) and onward to the landmark fin-de-siecle fantasy literature of J.M. Barrie (“Peter Pan”) and L. Frank Baum (“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”).

Customarily, youth culture is pegged to the post-World War II era, when a pent-up American economy and a baby boom coincided with the rise of iconic young figures like the erotically transgressive Elvis Presley and the glowering James Dean.

“It’s not revisionist; it’s just that people didn’t do the work,” Mr. Savage says of “Teenage” on the phone from his home in Wales. “Before I started this, I knew there were previous youth movements prior to the Second World War. I just went further and further into the prehistory.”

A key text, he says, was psychologist G. Stanley Hall’s 1904 study “Adolescence,” which helped define adolescence as more than puberty. Thereafter, it became what Mr. Savage calls a “cultural construct that’s placed on top of a biological event.”

“Teenage” crisscrosses the Atlantic to compare various youth movements and cadet corps that vied for the obedience and proper civic development of young men — the Boy Scouts and the Young Men’s Christian Association (both founded in Britain), as well as the Wandervogel (a German analogue to the Boy Scouts).

It breezes through criminological data and discussions of juvenile delinquency and urban gangs. It marks the advent of the nickelodeon and the subsequent explosion of motion-picture culture and traces the influence of black Americans on ragtime, jazz and swing, as well as the congeries of “animal dances” (“the turkey trot,” “the bunny hug,” “the monkey glide”) that long predated “the Twist.”

“Everything that I included had to be related in some way to youth or the idea of youth,” Mr. Savage says. “What does it say about youth? Is it trying to define youth? Is it trying to express youth? Is it trying to control youth?

“That was the acid test.”

It might seem a stretch for Mr. Savage to flit from zoot-suiters to French “zazous” to the famous young Dutch diarist Anne Frank, but it turns out that war is a pivotal element of Mr. Savage’s story. It was the cataclysmic World War I that decisively molded a generational identity among Europeans — especially the sense among disenchanted young Europeans that their peers had been sacrificed in a pointless war.

War, too, became more tragic in dimension as industrial technology rendered it more deadly — the same advances that helped shape mass youth culture in the first place.

Mr. Savage rounds out “Teenage” with a telling comparison of 1940s America and Nazi-occupied Europe. While the New York Times Magazine published a “Teen-Age Bill of Rights,” Miss Frank was murdered at Bergen-Belsen. America’s infrastructure was unscathed by the bombs of the Luftwaffe; Western Europe was a shambles.

“Things were so bloody awful,” Mr. Savage says. “The ‘teenager’ had to come into Europe. There was nothing else to hold onto.”

It’s in this context that Mr. Savage defends mass youth culture, about whose acquisitive materialism and ever-shifting fashions there is so much ambivalence around the globe as in America itself.

By 1945, the choice for modern societies wasn’t whether to have mass culture, but, rather, what kind of mass culture — capitalistic consumer culture or fascism and militarism? Much of the world has opted for the former, and for that Mr. Savage, though a man of the left, is glad.

While researching “England’s Dreaming,” he recalls noticing the concurrence of the Sex Pistols’ single “Holidays in the Sun” with the 1977 hijacking by the Baader-Meinhof terrorists of a Lufthansa airlines flight.

“I thought, if I had been the same age in Germany at that point, would I have actually gotten involved in that?” wonders Mr. Savage. “I was absolutely appalled. And I was glad about the fact that in Britain at that particular point, we didn’t have a youth culture of political extremism. We had a youth culture, if you like, of aesthetic extremism. That was the crucial difference.”

For all its faults, Mr. Savage says Western youth culture affords adolescents a “theater within which to enact” feelings of angst, disaffection and displacement. “To some considerable extent, it’s a safe arena.”

Translation: Western youth culture is a lot of inauthentic, hyperemotional posturing — thank God.