Story: Teenagers and youth

Page 2. Transitions and social relationships

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School to work

Many teenagers work part-time after school, and many leave school to begin apprenticeships or full-time paid work. While the rates of pay for young people are often low, they learn a range of life skills such as punctuality and how to interact with other people in work situations. The transition from school to work can be difficult – in 2005, 18.4% of early school leavers (those who left school as soon as they could) were unemployed and were not in training or education.

Beginning to work and earn money marks an important transition to adulthood. Young people move from economic and social dependence on their parents to independence. Teenagers become legally permitted to leave home, to have sex (at the age of 16), drive (16), marry (16), vote (18), buy alcohol (18), go to war (18) and manage their own money (16). Unsurprisingly, there are often tensions between parents and teenagers as relationships change from parent–child to adult–adult.

Identity and self-awareness

Identity and self-awareness develop in the early teenage years. Often this involves some emotional separation from their parents. Teenagers start to communicate less with their families and more with their peers. While this can be worrying for parents, it is entirely predictable.

The teen years have been described as “a phase of life that young people experience and navigate as they make their way in the world”.1 This can involve rejecting older people’s views about teenagers and developing new life styles and political agendas. Some young people form youth-focused political organisations organised around sexual and gender diversity, environmental issues and the future of the planet.

Bedrooms are important for teenagers as a place to escape from the rest of the family. Teens listen to music, read magazines, play computer games, watch television, do homework and often analyse the events of the day in their bedrooms. In the 21st century social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Tumblr, Groupme and Twitter had become important channels for socialising. Many teenagers had computers in their rooms or used tablets or smart phones to communicate with others.

Teenage language

The teen years are years of growth, empowerment and independence. An appreciation of irony, sarcasm, nuance and sophisticated humour all develop, facilitating teasing and flirting, and often in-group words and slang. Many adults struggle to understand teenage language – but teens’ communication is intentionally exclusive.

From the late 1990s mobile phones (especially texting), followed by social media websites in the early 21st century, became popular avenues of communicating, gossiping and sometimes bullying. Texting saw the rise of a new language of abbreviated words and acronyms such as ‘lol’ (laughing out loud) ‘gr8’ (great) and ‘cul8r’ (see you later). Text language was so widespread that in 2009 the New Zealand Qualifications Authority allowed its use in exams, citing it as an example of the evolution of language.

Geeks, goths and more

Teenagers form a wide range of groups, each with their own dress style and favoured activities. Some examples from the 1980s, 1990s and 21st century included geeks, nerds, skaties (skateboarders), homies (who emulated Los Angeles youth gang homeboy dress), gamers (who played computer games), goths (who wore black clothes and whitened their faces with makeup), bogans (or westies), surfies (surfers), metlars (who listened to heavy-metal music), punks, Rastas (Rastafarians), rugby heads, boy racers and bps (beautiful people).

Youth subcultures

For teenagers, their peer group (along with their parents) plays a vital part in determining their value system and aspirations. Many teenagers are involved in team sports with peers. Teenagers at school tend to form groups and cliques, which are often readily identifiable by hairstyles and clothing. Labels come and go and can change. For example in the 1980s someone dressed in black with teased hair was a goth. In the early 21st century some aspects of this style was termed ‘emo’ – a term for fans of emotive hardcore punk. Emos had  teased hairstyles that were thick at the top, but thinner at the bottom, fringes and hair dyed black or in striking colours. Fitted jeans and Converse or Adidas shoes and vintage band T shirts were part of emo style.

  1. Chris Brickell, Teenagers: The rise of youth culture in New Zealand. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2017, p.3.  Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Teenagers and youth - Transitions and social relationships', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 May 2022)

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