Chris Brickell

Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017) documents the history of young people in New Zealand between the start of the nineteenth century and 1970, by which time the concept of the ‘teenager’ was well established. The book draws extensively from a range of life writing in order to explore the meanings that young New Zealanders’ lives had for them, as well as the ways that individual experiences reflected and shaped the wider culture. Work, education, leisure, mobility, friendship, family life and romance are all important themes. While teenagers’ lives were not determined by adults’ preoccupations with notions of morality and respectability, their experiences did intersect with wider – and sometimes rapidly changing – notions of the good society.

NOTCHES: What is the relationship between the NZ teenager, sex and romance? Are they exceptional?

Brickell: New Zealand teenagers don’t seem to have been extraordinary, given international flows of popular culture. In spite of its geographical isolation, New Zealand was closely tied into international inspirations like the sensational novel, music, dances and the cinema which had woven fantasies of romance among the young since the nineteenth century. Young women who lived in the port cities, and some young men, embraced the romantic and sexual possibilities offered by the cabin boys who arrived on the ships that brought passengers and freight into the country. There were other international influences too. Chaperonage had given way to the American style of ‘dating’ by the 1940s, and older siblings and adults had much less oversight of younger adolescents than they had in earlier decades.

NOTCHES: How do these stories relate to other themes in the book?

Brickell: Movies (‘the pictures’) and comic books shaped ideas about romance and sex, but they also influenced the language that young New Zealanders spoke. During the 1930s, words like ‘yeah’, ‘gee’, ‘super’ and ‘lousy’ – and ten years later ‘broad’, ‘shag’ and ‘stick-’em-up’ – found their way from American films into the local lexicon. Transport technologies shaped degrees of youthful independence in general ways. Trains and bicycles allowed groups of young people to spend time away from parents, teachers and factory bosses, for instance, and these, too, had an influence on romance. Teenagers flirted on trams and trains, showed off their boyfriends to their friends, and headed off across town on dates.

NOTCHES: What stories or topics did you leave out of the book, and why? What would you include had you been able to?

Brickell: Teenagers is a panoramic survey of sorts, an attempt to tell the story of how age and generation mattered between the early nineteenth century and the late twentieth. I wanted young people’s voices to come to the forefront as much as possible; to fashion an account of social change through their eyes. I would love to have made much more use of the diaries that I found. Many told of the rhythm of everyday life: the repetitious nature of farm life, lists of movies watched, details of crushes enjoyed and endured, observations on the routines of a school day. Often, though, these did not speak to the broader themes of the book and had to be cut back for that reason. This omission was necessary, but a bit of a shame.

NOTCHES: How did you research this book?

Brickell: The research for Teenagers took about eight years. It involved reading extensively across a range of secondary literatures – on the history of the education system, dance, popular music, and the changing patterns of work, for example. But the main body of primary research consisted of oral history interviews and the extensive use of papers in archives and museums around the country. There were a few road trips to see what material could be found in smaller towns and cities as well as in the larger centres. Some of the best finds – including a wonderful set of letters written by young domestic servants – were kept by small museums. The book’s extensive photographic research also threw up some choice finds in out-of-the-way places.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Brickell: The history of young people is everybody’s history. When adults make claims about young people, they are, in fact, often generalising about their former selves. Older people who lament the effects of the internet or the smartphone on adolescents’ sexuality, for instance, sometimes forget that their own generation caused scandals about ‘juvenile delinquency’, ‘milk bar cowboys’, and sexual ‘immorality’. These gave rise to a government enquiry and excessive pearl-clutching during the 1950s. Have today’s adults genuinely forgotten the scandals of their own youth, or do they deliberately overlook them? During the 1920s, sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote that young people are ‘sucked into the vortex of social change’ and threaten to live differently from their parents. Does each generation lose sight of this threat? Perhaps. Histories of young people tell of continuities as well as ruptures over a long span of time, and they keep the present in dialogue with the past.

Chris Brickell is Professor and Head of the Sociology, Gender Studies and Criminology Programme at University of Otago, New Zealand. His research spans a number of areas: adolescent history, social science history, and queer studies, with a particular focus on gay men and masculinities. His other books include Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand (Random House, 2008).

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