Percent of American teenagers at its lowest point ever

The development of the age category teenager has been influential in American society but recent data suggests the percent of Americans who are teenagers has never been lower:

Here’s the total number of 13-to-19 year olds over the past 50 years. (The most recent data from the Census Bureau is an estimate from 2013.)

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in different social spheres including:

1. Education. Does this mean the closing of schools/colleges and fewer jobs for educators?

2. Marketing. Teenagers wanted to utilize their disposable income and brands wanted to hook them as consumers for life. But, with fewer teenagers, brands will really have to make sure they reach enough teenagers.

3. Suburbs. These areas have been devoted to children for decades while also not knowing what to do with teenagers who often wanted to escape the relatively dull, often private settings.

4. All sorts of occupations. Are there certain industries that won’t attract enough teenagers?

I could go on. But, I would also note that there may be even fewer teenagers if it hadn’t been for higher birth rates among the tens of millions of immigrants who have made their way to the United States in recent decades.

“Are Americans falling out of love with the shopping mall?”

The shopping mall era may be slowly ebbing away:

While high-end malls thrive, many others have been unable to keep up with changing shopping demands of American consumers, leading to obituaries in the US press with headlines such as “A dying breed – the American shopping mall” and “shopping malls in crisis”.

About 80 per cent of the country’s 1,200 malls are considered healthy, which means store vacancy rates of 10 per cent or less, according to CoStar Group data published in The New York Times.

That is down from 94 per cent in 2006, and there is even a website dedicated to documenting what some are calling the death of the shopping centre,, keeping tabs on the latest closures across the country. Ms Dorsey remembers the old-style mall with nostalgia. “The first time my mum allowed me to go out by myself, it was in a mall,” says Ms Dorsey, a saleswoman at a natural products shop in Fairfax, outside the US capital. “I do have fond memories.”

Most of America’s malls were built in the 1950s and 1960s, as a growing network of highways connected suburban homes to futuristic urban shopping centres…

“It’s not that consumption is going down – consumption is going up, but we’re consuming differently in different places,” says the sociologist George Ritzer, the author of a book on consumption, Enchanting a Disenchanted World. “They are becoming more entertainment complexes.”

There are some competing trends contributing to this:

1. The rise of the suburbs helped lead to this as centralized locations for shopping became more important than communities where needs could be met within walking or mass transit distances (like in cities). But, that decentralization can now be moved increasingly online.

2. Suburbs didn’t have as many public places – and if they did, they were more difficult to access since they often required driving. Malls filled this void, particularly for teenagers who became a prominent social group right around this time (and their collective life was encouraged in the suburbs which was largely centered around child-rearing).

3. Americans still like consuming. See the fate of higher-end shopping experiences. However, shoppers now have more options including big box stores and online retailers. Additionally, the shift in malls toward experiences rather than consumer goods is still consumption. In fact, prioritizing experiences might even increase consumption because people can have a variety of experiences.

While malls won’t disappear anytime soon, perhaps they will be seen at some point as the result of a particular historical and social convergence.

Should all suburban teeangers want to experience the big city?

A Hollywood actor who grew up in Naperville argues suburban kids should want to explore the big city:

Right there on Wikipedia, Odenkirk said that he grew up “hating” Naperville because “it felt like a dead end, like Nowheresville. I couldn’t wait to move into a city and be around people who were doing exciting things.”

We contacted the co-star of the hit TV series “Breaking Bad” (he plays sleazy attorney Saul Goodman) and Alexander Payne’s critically acclaimed domestic drama “Nebraska,” opening Nov. 22, and asked for an explanation for this unabashed Naperville bashing.

“Well, you have to remember I was 16 years old when I was in Naperville,” said Odenkirk, 51. “I felt like I was offstage when I wanted to be onstage. I felt like I was watching from afar all the people who were movers and shakers, the people who were living exciting existences. That’s what I wanted to do.”…

“I didn’t want to be in the suburbs when I was 16 and 17 and 18,” Odenkirk continued. “I couldn’t wait to get out and go to Chicago or some other big city. New York intimidated me. Frankly, Chicago intimidated me, but I wanted to be there! Come on! Doesn’t every teenager feel that way?”…

“I would worry if my teenagers said they liked (the suburbs), that they didn’t want to experience the big city.”

One of the critiques of American suburbs involves their lack of opportunities for teenagers. This can take several forms. One issue is with urban design. In spaces designed around cars, if you can’t drive, you are in trouble. Similarly, if you live in isolated residential neighborhoods that are not close to important areas, like school or shops or parks or friends, teenagers can’t go very far. A second issue is with the suburban mindset that tends to focus attention on the local level. The complaint here is that teenagers aren’t exposed much to the wider world, to interactions with people much different from themselves.

Cities offer solutions to both issues: there is a variety of mass transit option in many big cities and walking or biking can actually get you to somewhere interesting. They also tend to contain more diverse populations and opportunities compared to suburbs. Yet, the perception is that cities are not as safe for children/teenagers and this might limit their ability to explore big cities.

All that said, compared to other suburbs, Naperville has the sort of factors that can help make suburbs more exciting for teenagers – a lively downtown with restaurants, stores, and the Riverwalk; good schools; plenty of recreational activities and learning opportunities (good libraries); a growing non-white population. So, if it doesn’t appeal to teenagers, what suburb does? (Note: Odenkirk was 16 in 1978 Naperville, a time when the community was growing but didn’t necessarily have all of the amenities it does today.)

TV shows for teenagers show professors as “old, boring, white, and mean”

Here is how college professors are portrayed on television shows for teenagers: “old, boring, white, and mean.”

They may be fictional characters, but their small-screen images may affect students in big ways, says one researcher. Barbara F. Tobolowsky, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, found that television’s image of the professor is intimidating, uninterested, and generally old, boring, and white. She is scheduled to present a working paper on her research, “The Primetime Professoriate: Representations of Faculty on Television,” this week at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education…

While previous studies of television have focused on how much time students spend watching TV and not studying, Ms. Tobolowsky looked at the content of those television shows. In her study, Ms. Tobolowsky, who has a master’s degree in film history and criticism and who previously worked in the film industry, analyzed 10 shows that aired from 1998 to 2010 and were geared toward the 12-to-18-year-old demographic group in the Nielsen ratings.

Scrutinizing professors in those shows, she examined characters’ clothing and ways of talking, camera angles and background music, and a variety of other film nuances to break down how enthusiastic the faculty were and how they interacted with students, along with other criteria.

On the whole, she says, professors on the television shows tended to be relatively old, white, and traditional, wearing sweater-vests and sporting graying hair. Young, female, and minority professors on the shows tended to teach only at arts-oriented institutions or community colleges. Most were intimidating or, at the very least, distant, throwing a scare into characters like Matt on 7th Heaven, who worried he’d seem weak if he asked a question in class.

This study seems to suggest that shows for teenagers depict professors as the enemy. While not all teenagers love school, I wonder if this is part of a larger message on television and in movies that the learning part of school isn’t that important while the social aspects, think of the message in Mean Girls, is what really matters. Of course, there is a genre of movies that depicts heroic teachers but these are formulaic in their own ways.

It would be interesting to compare these depictions to how professors are portrayed on shows aimed at adults. I’m reminded of the TNT show Perception that features Eric McCormarck playing a neuroscientist at a Chicago area university. (Disclosure: I know about this show because I tend to catch a few minutes of its opening after watching Major Crimes which I watch because of The Closer.) The show tends to open in this way: McCormack is at the front of the classroom that is full of eager students who are hanging on his every word. At the side of the room is his trusty graduate student TA who occasionally chimes in. McCormack has scribbled all sorts of profound things on the board and then he ends class with a deep question or a witty joke. When the class ends, he quickly leaves the classroom and gets wrapped up in some fascinating case. Sound like a typical college classroom? While the professor here is depicted as a cool young guy, it is not exactly realistic to most college classrooms.

I realize what takes place day in and day out in a college classroom likely does not make scintillating television. Indeed, have you watched DVDs of The Great Courses? Yet, this doesn’t mean there isn’t something worthwhile going on in that classroom that doesn’t require severely stereotyping professors one way or the other depending on the audience.

A few sociological answers to why American kids are “spoiled rotten”

A recent piece in the New Yorker asks “Why Are American Kids So Spoiled?” Here appear to be the crux of the problem:

With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff—clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, televisions, cell phones, PlayStations, iPods. (The market for Burberry Baby and other forms of kiddie “couture” has reportedly been growing by ten per cent a year.) They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority. “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,” Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults at their beck and call. This is a social experiment on a grand scale, and a growing number of adults fear that it isn’t working out so well: according to one poll, commissioned by Timeand CNN, two-thirds of American parents think that their children are spoiled.

The article is primarily built around anthropological comparisons with “the Matsigenka, a tribe of about twelve thousand people who live in the Peruvian Amazon.” But I think there are also some sociological answers to this issue.

1. American culture has long emphasized children. While this article seems to suggest some of this is tied to recent technological and consumer changes (we can buy so much stuff so cheaply), this stretches back further than the consumeristic 1980s to today. This reminded me of the Middletown study, an in-depth examination of Muncie, Indiana that started in the 1920s. In the first study published in 1929, here are a few of the findings regarding children (and these are from my notes so there are some summaries and some quotes):

-growing problem of “early sophistication” where young teenagers (12 to 14) act like grown-ups (135) – part of this is the relaxation of traditional prohibitions between interactions of boys and girls (137) – greater aggressiveness and less modest dress of girls (140) – parents are unsure and puzzled about what to hold children to (if they could even do that ) (143) – parents increasingly devoting more of their lives to and sacrificing for the children (146-147) – mothers eager to get their hands on any resource that will help them train their children (149) yet there is “a feeling that their difficulties outrun their best efforts to cope with them” (151)

-the school provides the most formal and systematic training (181) – the school now has more responsibility where this task may have fallen to the family in the past (190)

-“If education is oftentimes taken for granted by the business class, it is no exaggeration to say that it evokes the fervor of a religion, a means of salvation, among a large section of the working class.” (187) – “Parents insist upon more and more education as part of their children’s birthright; editors and lecturers point to education as a solution for every kind of social ill…” (219) – “Education is a faith, a religion, to Middletown.” (219) – education is not desired for its content or the life of the mind but rather as a symbol: “[seen] by the working class as an open sesame that will mysteriously admit their children to a world closed to them, and by the business class as a heavily sanctioned aid in getting on further economically or socially in the world.” (220)

In other words, the Middletown study hinted at an American world that was starting to revolve around children: teenagers were gaining independence (particularly with the introduction of the automobile) and education was a growing community emphasis as it represented future progress for younger generations.

Researchers in the early mass American suburbs also noted the emphasis on family and children. The classic study of Crestwood Heights (1956) as well as some work by Dennison Nash and Peter Berger (early 1960s) showed that suburban life was organized around children. People moved to the suburbs for their children, particularly the increase in open space, the better schools, and safety. Other more recent researchers (such as Eileen Luhr) have also noted this emphasis in contemporary suburbia.

Overall, these studies suggest that the emphasis on children is not necessarily new in the United States. The form that it takes might have changed but this is not simply the result of recent trends and this is also intertwined with the important processes of consumerism, suburbanization, and education which also have a longer and more complicated history.

2. This reminds me of Annette Lareau’s two types of parenting (see Unequal Childhoods): concerted cultivation (middle-class and up) and the accomplishment of natural growth (working-class and below). Lareau argues that there are benefits of both styles of parenting (as well as disadvantages) and I wonder if some of this “spoiledness” could be beneficial down the road. What the journalist is describing seems to fit some of Lareau’s description of concerted cultivation: parents cede authority to children as the children are taught to ask questions and assert their interests and children are pushed by parents into all sorts of activities to develop their skills. Here are my notes on what Lareau says are the advantages of this:

children become adept at using language, activities are said to teach them skills that will prepare them for later opportunities/jobs/school, parents help them access new things in school and activities, they become assertive and challenge institutions to help them, institutions often made up of same kind of people so these kids fit in

And my summary of the disadvantages:

feel a sense of entitlement, little talk about money so children have little idea what things cost (in terms of money and time), parents spend a lot of time sacrificing for children, conflict can arise with professionals (school teachers and administrators in particular throughout the text), conflict between siblings and limited contact with extended families

Doesn’t this sound like this article is arguing? While there are clearly disadvantages to this way of raising children (and the differences are perhaps made more stark in comparing this to past childrearing strategies, or even the relative lack of childhood several hundred years ago), there are also advantages. Overall, Lareau suggests children raised under concerted cultivation are better prepared than their counterparts to join the adult world. Even from a young age, these children are taught to challenge institutions and given skills that serve them down the road.

Based on Lareau’s findings, is the story all bad? Perhaps not. When I read critiques like this, I always wonder if there is a little generational bias present: “these young people of today just aren’t like we were in our day.” I suppose time will help us figure this out, particularly as we see how today’s youths handle adulthood and what they are able to accomplish.

New party spot: foreclosed McMansions

Curbed National hints at a new possibility: foreclosed McMansions could become party spots for teenagers.

Certain youngsters in certain parts of the country have turned their attention to foreclosed McMansions, which prove better accommodations than, say, dorm rooms and are generally really great places to throw parties. This is kind of on par with that burgeoning trend, except the mansion in question here is not foreclosed, nor is deserve the preface “Mc”: recently more than 100 local teenagers threw a raging party at the Marin County home of imprisoned former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, trashing the place and making off with silver candlesticks, leather coats, laptop computers, and a Pablo Picasso lithograph worth $30K. Apparently police were called to the sprawling home as early as 10 p.m. on the night of the festivities, despite its remote location down a private lane, at which point attendees scattered into the surrounding countryside. The nine-bedroom, 19,500-square-foot house, where Eddie Murphy once stayed during filming, belongs to an LLC tied to the disgraced former Ukrainian P.M., who is currently imprisoned in Marin while seeking asylum to avoid money laundering. That left the place wide open for the party of the century.

Is the Picasso the party favor? Here are a few more details on the story:

The caretaker, who has not been identified, returned a day later to discover three teens, including two boys and a girl in the backyard, Riddell said. The three fled, and the caretaker discovered that a glass coffee table in the house was broken and a fire extinguisher was inside.

The nine-bedroom, 19,500-square-foot house was acquired by Dugsbery Inc. a Novato entity prosecutors have linked to Lazarenko in 1998, just months before the former head of state was arrested in Switzerland on suspicion of money laundering.

Two quick points. First, I don’t envy the task of lending institutions, municipalities, and homeowners in trying to keep foreclosed and/or abandoned homes secure. However, it seems like some low-level security, such as a home security system or occasional checking-in, would help in avoiding these situations which could get out-of-hand or even dangerous. Second, this is a mansion at 19,500 square feet, not a McMansion.

But perhaps the occasional teen party is better than finding that a squatter has claimed the McMansion through “adverse possession”

The challenges of Going Solo in the suburbs

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues that it is particularly difficult to live alone in the suburbs:

Q: What do cities and the housing industry need to be thinking about in terms of homes for this wave of single people?

A: One thing I worry about is that we have built suburban areas that won’t fit our future lifestyles. I interviewed many older people who live alone in suburban areas who discovered that they weren’t good places to be when their children moved away because they tended not to have good areas for walking and often were far from public transportation. The houses themselves were too big, making them expensive to heat and cool; more house than most people need. And the suburbs are reluctant to retrofit. They don’t want to change their zoning laws to deal with reality.

The thing I’m most concerned about is housing for poor people of any age who wind up living alone. We need to rethink this whole idea of the single-room-occupancy building. I write in my book about one very successful SRO experiment in New York that had a mix of incomes, not just the otherwise-homeless people who today are associated with SROs. It became sort of a vertical village and ended up being replicated in other places.

We need to design more housing like that. But it’s expensive, and cities are strapped for resources. And it’s not like the group that needs it the most has any political clout; they’re the most vulnerable people in our society.

Klinenberg brings up an issue that has been raised for decades: certain age groups don’t do well in the suburbs. If I remember correctly, Herbert Gans brings this up in the classic study The Levittowners and these issues are also raised in Suburban Nation by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck. These observers suggest two groups are particularly disadvantaged: teenagers who can’t yet drive and who want freedom and the elderly who can no longer drive and are now more isolated in their single-family homes. Both of these groups are united by the necessity of driving in the suburbs and how driving is tied to completing daily subsistence tasks (such as getting food) as well as social interaction.

As Klinenberg suggests, building this kind of alternative housing in the suburbs (and cities) will be difficult. Not only is it expensive but I imagine many suburbanites would not desire such housing near their own houses. At the same time, this is a recognized problem in a number of communities: how can communities help the elderly live in the towns they have spent much of their lives in?