The XX Factor

Kids Today

In Elizabeth Wurtzel’s piece in DoubleX today on The Curse of the Good Girl , she writes:

The teenager, which was a 20th century invention (in fact, like Eames chairs , really a midcentury creation), might no longer exist as a subgroup at all, which might be the real tragedy. It looks to me like there is, as there was pre-1950, childhood and adulthood, without the labile adolescent phase in the middle.”

Wurtzel is referring to our current, socially constructed version of the teenager, of course, but still, I paused over the lines, since I recently read a fascinating list in the New Scientist of things about humans that science has yet to satisfactorily explain-and the existence of teenagers was one of the mysteries therein.

We are, it seems, the only species who has this protracted adolescence-even apes get to dodge it. Fossil evidence suggests that, biologically speaking, the teenager was created not at mid-century, but rather between 800,000 and 300,000 years ago, which “pre-dates by a ‘fascinatingly short period’ the great leap forward in human brain size, when our ancestors’ brains underwent the last big expansion to reach today’s size,” writes NS ’s Kate Douglas.

There’s more there on the research behind why gender differences assert themselves in the teen years, but I confess I stopped paying strict attention once the magically permissive words “Science can’t explain” were on the table. The construction Wurtzel dismisses as lost has mysteriously inchoate-and thus romantic-biological underpinnings. We just didn’t get a chance, as a society, to express them fully until mid-century. (And I think we’re expressing them still-for my money, she’s totally wrong that the twinned phenomena of precocious maturity and adultulescence have succeeded in getting rid of that “labile adolescent phase.” Teens don’t like Twitter; grownups don’t like the Jonas Brothers.)

But if it’s such a singularly human phenomenon, maybe it’s not as shallow as we all think to be collectively fixated on eternal youth , or to never outgrow loving teen movies, or to wear miniskirts past the age of rhyme or reason . Instead of chalking it up to nostalgia or arrested development, call it biology. It’s the perfect excuse for, say, loving Taylor Swift -no need to say that it’s your mom side she’s appealing to. Just say her pop-y twang is a distillation of The Human Condition, no offense to Kobayashi or Arendt , who were overthinking things.

Photograph by Getty Images.