originally published August 2, 2014
Brazenly cutting through the city’s shadows with a cocksure strut, hocking Mountain Dew-flavored loogies onto public sidewalks already stained with the scuffed memory of generations of overpriced footwear. Their pants sag lower than their wilted ambition, their ball caps are aimed in all directions except those most appropriate for playing ball, while dubstep rhythms reel and bounce off their plastic-coated eardrums, fuelling their demonic scowls and shiv-happy instincts.
They’re out there, and they’re coming for us. Teenagers. Youths. Hooligans in training.
So sayeth the paranoid rumblings of the ephebiphobics, scrawled almost illegibly into notebooks, their furrowed frowns crinkling into permanent facial lines. To these skittish grownups, society is but a scraggly blond dreadlock away from Lord of the Flies meeting The Outsiders meeting The Wire. Their fears are not racial, they are not economic, and they have but a tenuous foothold in reality. After all, isn’t the typical teen an ethical off-shoot of Kiefer Sutherland’s sociopathic ‘Ace’ from Stand By Me?
It is perhaps a testament to my unwavering commitment to immaturity that I carry not a scrap of ephebiphobia in my pocket. From the Greek ephebos, meaning ‘youth’ or ‘adolescent’ and phobos, meaning ‘something that piles the heebies upon your jeebies’, ephebiphobia is an astonishingly common fear. Excuses can be made: “Kids today have no respect”; “Remember what those kids did in Columbine?”; “It’s all that YOLO and swag talk, and I don’t trust that Marky Mark or his Funky Bunch.” But the truth runs deeper.
Ephebiphobia has lurked its greasy head in the shadows for eons. Machiavelli posited that a fear of youth is what kept the city of Florence from setting up a standing army; no one wanted to give teenagers access to weapons. Ancient Greece and Ancient Venice also struggled under the weight of a similar fear. These “kids today” are fuelled by the same immortal passions and confusions that have irked elders since humankind’s loincloth years. Yet every time it strikes, society paints it with the reverence of a fresh phenomenon.
In post-World-War-II France they called it mal de jeunesse. During the Industrial Revolution the institutional structure of formal schooling was developed in response to a fear that children and teens would get up to no good once machinery (and those pesky labor laws) liberated kids from hard factory jobs. Head back even further and you’ll discover the Puritans had an issue with the ‘decadent morality’ of young people. History is teeming with regional infestations of evil kids poised to dismantle society (though oddly that hasn’t yet happened).
Part jealousy and part cultural disconnect, a societal mistrust of youth appears inescapable. Not only does it inspire the cautious scowls of shopkeepers and the occasional crossing of a street by adult pedestrians who are terrified of a potential conflict with a cluster of boisterous brats, but ephebiphobia often becomes manifested in public policy. This isn’t a mere unease – it can be a gut-swamp fear of legislative proportions.
The city of Seattle took a hint from John Lithgow’s political stance in the movie Footloose. In 1985, the city pushed through the Teen Dance Ordinance, which effectively killed the possibility of anyone other than a school throwing a dance for teens. It wasn’t an all-out ban, of course. You could throw a teen dance if you really wanted to, provided anyone under 15 had a guardian with them and anyone over 20 had a youth at their side. Also you’d need two off-duty cops to patrol the area and a million-dollar insurance policy. No promoter would even try to make a profit with these restrictions.
The term ‘dance’ also included concerts, which meant that as Seattle became the nexus of the cultural universe in the early 90’s, teens had to travel out of town to see local bands at an all-ages show. This draconian statute crawled out of city hall with the aim of curbing child prostitution and underage drug and alcohol use, but what it really did was plant its sweaty posterior upon local youth culture, hoping to stifle it into a whimper.
As with any other cultural phobias – Islamophobia, coulrophobia (that’s the fear of clowns that roughly 75% of our population now possesses, thanks to Stephen King’s It) and that cuddly little rodent, xenophobia – the media plays a part in keeping us all comfortably afraid. Pulp novels flooded drug store racks in the 50’s, cashing in upon the baby boomers’ collective cultural sledgehammer of change and feeding that inherent mistrust of the alien ‘other’ that so many adults felt as they watched Elvis Presley gyrate on their TV screens.
The leap between the choreographed sneers of West Side Story and the bloodthirsty rage of Boys n the Hood is chasmal. Youth culture has grown inarguably more violent, leading to the natural conclusion that teens themselves have become more of a menace. But have they? A quick search turned up shiny line graphs that displayed alternately an increase and a decrease in violent crime among youth. An even shinier bar graph told me that teens are only slightly more likely to get nabbed for a violent crime than a 40-44 year-old.
It could be that some people fear teenagers because they remember their own younger days, the bubbles of hormones that tickled their uvulas and steered their brains away from notions of consequence and common sense. Perhaps at some point in early adulthood they sensed a palpable cultural shift, one that relegated the flickers and zings of their youth into a cubbyhole of nostalgic quaintness, while a more sinister and vile trend captured the fancy of the younger set. Maybe they’re simply looking to justify their cultural disengagement.
I fault youth culture for a few things: the perpetual permeance of auto-tune in music, the continued media fascination with useless celebutantes (I’m looking at you, Kim, Kourtney and… Chewbacca, or whatever the other one’s name is), and the fact that a number of my brilliant WKRP In Cincinnati references are falling flatter than the tape marking off Les Nessman’s walls. But to me, there are few fears more irrational than ephebiphobia. Teenagers can be little assholes, sure, but adults are nothing more than teenagers with a few extra years of assholing experience and sometimes a little less guyliner.
I prefer to focus my fear on real dangers: spiders, zombies and the religious right.