Story: Teenagers and youth

Page 1. Defining teenagers as a group

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Teenagers (from 13 to 19 years old) are typically at secondary school, in their early years of university or other post-school study or training, or in their first few years of paid work. The teenage years mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. Yet the term ‘teenager’ only originated in 1921 and came into New Zealand language in the 1950s. ‘Youth’ was a common term for young people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those in their early teens were considered children until they left school, entered employment and became adults.

Teenager origins

The adjective ‘teenage’ first appeared in written English in a Canadian newspaper in 1921, but was probably used in spoken language earlier. The noun ‘teen-ager’ first appeared in an American publication in 1941, and the hyphen was eventually dropped. The term only came into common use in New Zealand in the 1950s.

In the 21st century ‘teenager’ (or ‘teen’) was often used, perhaps as it defined a more specific age group than the terms ‘adolescent’ or ‘youth’. Older teenagers were also termed ‘youth’ or ‘young adults’.

Youth, school and work

It was not until the 20th century that some prosperous societies could afford to let most of their younger members have a childhood and adolescence of play, education and outdoor activity, largely free of work. In Māori society all iwi members worked and children were considered adults when they reached puberty. On farms, children of European settlers cleared bush, harvested crops and milked cows. Boys were unpaid labourers and girls helped with domestic chores and child-rearing.

While the Education Act 1877 made schooling free, secular and compulsory from the ages of seven to 13, it was not enforced. Many children and adolescents spent much of their time doing paid and unpaid work until the early 20th century. ‘Working age’ – the age of beginning full-time paid work – was around 12 in the late 1800s. Secondary schooling only became common in the early 20th century. The school leaving age was raised from 14 to 15 in 1944, and to 16 in 1993. Secondary school removed adolescents from the adult society of work and made them a distinct group.

Youth organisations and support services

European settlers brought ideas of guiding youth to be good future citizens. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was established in New Zealand in 1855, followed by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1878. Youth organisations such as these, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, provided positive social and recreational opportunities for young people within a Christian tradition. In the early 1960s some of these groups formed the National Youth Council to act as a voice for young people. This disbanded in 1989, the same year that the Ministry of Youth Affairs was set up.

Once teenagers were defined as a distinct social group, support services grew to meet their needs. In 1977 the Department of Internal Affairs funded the first detached youth workers who worked out in the community. Youthline (established in 1970) offered counselling services by young people for young people, including a free phone helpline. The youth development sector organsiation Ara Taiohi was established in 2010 from the merger of the National Youth Workers Network Aotearoa and New Zealand Aotearoa Adolescent Health and Development.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Teenagers and youth - Defining teenagers as a group', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 May 2022)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Aug 2017