Our teenage years have always been a time of great awkwardness, super hormones, and bad decision-making. But lately these years have moved even further down the path of supreme weirdness.

Puberty is now kicking in at an increasingly early age, yet because jobs are harder to come by, today’s adolescents are taking on adult roles far later.

The same hormone overload that turns meek 10-year olds into restless, exuberant, emotionally intense teenagers, desperate to attain every goal, fulfill every desire and experience every sensation, is the same body-morphing system that later transitions them back into relatively placid adults. It’s just that these “limbo years” are getting longer.

Researchers have found that teens do not underestimate the risks that they take; rather they over estimate the reward. A study at Temple University with fMRI brain-imaging scans revealed that teens simply find rewards more rewarding than adults do.

For this and many other reasons, 2014 is ushering in a vastly different teenager than those in 1994. Both internal and external influences are causing today’s youth to think and act very differently, leaving past experts on teen psychology in a quandary.

So will the teens of 2034 be even more difficult to define? Are they trending towards becoming a different grade of human?

This report maps some of the key evolutionary changes we’re seeing with teens living in America.

NOTE:  Part one in this series can be found here.

Communications 

The IBM Simon Personal Communicator and the Motorola MicroTAC

1994 – The very first smartphone was the IBM Simon Personal Communicator unveiled in 1994 and retailed for $1,100. While it never attracted noticeable market share, the Motorola MicroTAC introduced in 1989 became an early hit in the mobile phone arena. Big selling features were its light weight (12.3 oz.) and 75 min battery life. All this came with a $3,000 price tag that plummeted quickly over the years that followed.

The combination of pricey phone service and pricey equipment put mobile phones out of the reach of all but a few elite teenagers. Most were resigned to using corded home phones with limited privacy.

In 1994, long distance service was provided by a company different from the one providing basic phone service. At the time, most phone companies practiced some form of mine-field pricing strategy to trip up customers so extra penalties could be added to their phone bill. 


Comical view of how teen’s imagined themselves as cyberpunks in 1994 and how they actually look today

2014 – According to a recent Pew study, 78% of teens (age 12-17) have cellphones and nearly half (47%) own smartphones. While most use an Android device, the teen smartphone of choice is the Apple iPhone.

For young people, smartphones have reduced the need for sleepovers, replaced letter writing, supplanted radios, roadmaps, record players, game consoles, and virtually every other form of entertainment. They have become a source of information, porn, practical jokes, games, rumors, dating, and test answers.

Since no one has written the definitive guidebook for dealing with smartphone-related issues, parents of this generation have had to develop their own rules of etiquette and deal with such things as cellphone curfews, sexting and decency problems, and managing their kid’s online reputation. And no matter how well-intended and careful a parent happens to be, young people seem to find a way to circumvent their controls.

Our future smartphones?

2034 – A human generation is roughly 20 years. A smartphone generation is typically around one year. So what will a smartphone 20 generations from now look like?

First, the device itself will likely disappear. Images and controls will appear floating in space, that only we can see, and our primary interface will be the way we interact with these floating holograms. We will be able to change the type of visualization, add tastes, smells, and sounds that only we can experience, expand it 1,000 fold adding virtually limitless detail, and morph and shift it to whatever perspective we wish to achieve.

Increasingly our communication will be with objects and “things” rather than people. With growing levels of awareness, instant answers, and searchability expanding into the physical world around us, our technology will create lifestyles and cultures nearly unrecognizable from today’s perspective.

Height and Weight

Morphing bodies of teens is drawing major concerns

1994 – An average 16-year-old boy was 5’9” and weighed 145 lbs. At the same time a 16 year-old girl averaged 5’4.1” in height and weighed 123.8 lbs. A total of 13.7% of teens in 1994 were considered obese

2014 – Today an average 16-year-old boy is 5’10” and weighs 155.5 lbs and a 16 year-old girl averages 5’4.5” in height and weighs 129.1 lbs. Over the past 20 years obesity rates have skyrocketed to 27.9%

2034 – Following the same trend lines between 1994 and 2014, an average 16-year-old boy will be 5’11” tall, weighing 166 lbs. 16 year-old girls will average 5’4.9” in height and weigh 134.5 lbs.

While there are some hopeful signs that obesity rates are beginning to level off, an actual “cure” for obesity is still only a dream. The obesity problem is far more than sugary drinks and portion control. It involves sedentary lifestyles, food selection, parental involvement, personal relationships, peer groups, and much more.

Our hope for returning to pre-1994 body weights by 2034 is difficult to conceive within that timeframe barring some major breakthrough drug or treatment.

Fashion and Shoes

Ryan Gosling and Britney Spears in 1994

1994 – Shopping for clothing and shoes in 1994 centered around trips to the mall and big box stores. MTV was by far the most influential trendsetter when it came to fashion and music. 

The grunge movement symbolized by Kurt Cobain was gaining momentum in the first half of the 1990s and its defining piece of clothing, for both genders, was the plaid flannel shirt. Grunge plaid soon made its way into other clothing items, including mini-skirts, dresses, pants and sweaters. People wearing muted reds, browns, blues, and greens were part of the in-crowd, but those with bright colors were immediately labeled as poseurs.

Sharon Stone sparked a bit of an anti-grunge counter-culture movement with the skin-tight dresses she wore in her role as murderess Catherine Tramell in the hit movie Basic Instinct.

When it came to shoes, Dr. Martens were first choice among the fashionistas, but Air Jordans ruled the jock market and Converse All Stars catered more to the grunge crowd. 

The original cast of “Glee” – some of today’s fashion leaders

2014 – Shopping today is quickly shifting to online department stores. While teens still like to frequent local stores, major retailers are closing malls and big box stores.

Trendsetting TV shows include “Glee,” “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” “Pretty Little Liars,” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Today’s top selling clothing brands include, Ralph Lauren, Nike, and American Eagle. 

Leading the high-end fashionista shoe parade are brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Jimmy Choo.

Even though Michael Jordan is still making $80 million a year, Nike’s deal with LeBron James has made him today’s top athletic shoe salesman, followed by Kobe Bryant. 

3D printed clothing and shoes

2034 – Body scans and 3D printed clothing and shoes will consume a huge percentage of the future fashion market.

Future trips to a clothing store will begin by stepping into a body scanner where shoppers will get a full-frame workup with complete body dimensions. Once the scan is complete, customers will be free to select whatever styles, colors, and patterns they like, and a clothing printer will quickly dash out a new wardrobe, one that fits perfectly when they try it on.

Diversity

1994 – Realizing the Civil Rights legislation stemming from the 1960s and 1970s hadn’t gone far enough, the U.S. Congress passes a series of hate crime bills in the early 1990s aimed at any form of discrimination or aggression resulting from bias against a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity/national origin, or disability. 

At that time, 48% of Americans said they approved of Black-White marriages, a number that had been steadily growing over time. 

Demographic shifts had started decades earlier and statisticians were carefully tracking minority populations that grew 11 times faster between 1980 and 2000 than Caucasians.

2014 – The U.S. population is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, but very clearly our digital neighborhoods are integrating far faster than our physical ones. Wired Magazine ran a very enlightening series of maps (3 shown below) created by Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor at Duke’s Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Their research concluded:

  1. American cities are now more integrated than they’ve been since 1910.
  2. All-white neighborhoods are effectively extinct.
  3. Gentrification and immigration have made a dent in segregation.
  4. Ghetto neighborhoods persist, but most are in decline. 

Atlanta, Georgia
(White: blue dots; African American: green dots; Asian: red; Latino: orange; all others: brown) 

Chicago, Illinois
(White: blue dots; African American: green dots; Asian: red; Latino: orange; all others: brown) 

San Francisco, California
(White: blue dots; African American: green dots; Asian: red; Latino: orange; all others: brown)

The U.S. was once a mainly biracial society with a large white majority and relatively small black minority, and an impenetrable color line dividing these groups. Today the country is a society composed of multiple racial and ethnic groups.

In 2014, whites became a minority for the under 6-year-old population. 86% of Americans now say they approve of Black-White marriages.

While progress has been made, minorities are still disproportionately poor: around 27% of African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians are poor, versus 10% of whites.

Losing our obsession with tracking racial data

2034 – With interracial marriages becoming increasingly acceptable, and mixed race adults having kids with other mixed race adults we will begin losing our obsession with tracking racial data.

While many kinds of discriminations will still occur, such as skin color, ethnic customs, and speech patterns, it will be more oriented around individuals and families rather than groups. 

Driving a Car

By 2034, driverless cars will make drivers licenses for teens all but obsolete

1994 – If executives in the car industry aren’t worried, they should be. The trend started back in 1983 when 46% of all 16 year olds had their driver’s license. Getting the keys to a car was not only a right of passage, but a doorway to freedom and opportunity.

At the same time traffic fatalities were climbing to over 40,000 deaths a year and many fingers were being pointed at young drivers. As car prices rose and insurance companies wrestled with controlling skyrocketing payouts, their solution was to penalize those in the category of teen drivers.

This, coupled with rapidly escalating new and used car prices started pushing the driving option further down the priority list 

2014 – Today, the number of 16 year olds with a driver’s license has fallen sharply to less than 28%. Smartphones and other forms of communication have reduced the need for person-to-person contact. Some youth actually feel driving interferes with texting. 

Coordinating rides is also far easier now so most rides are only a few text messages away. In addition, many young people have moved to large urban areas like New York and San Francisco with good public transportation options.

2034 – Within 20 years the number of teenagers with driver’s licenses will be approaching zero. Driverless cars that can be summoned through virtually any smart device will cause individual car ownership to plummet. On-demand transportation will rapidly replace the need for personal vehicles. 

There is no one-size-fits-all definition for teenagers

Final Thoughts

Who are these people we call teenagers? Turns out there are lots of ways to describe them:

  • Of all 12- to 17-year-olds living in the United States, 95% use the Internet.
  • 10% of all children in the U.S. (7.7 million) live with a grandparent.
  • 37% of teens say their parents allow them to drink with them, a 10% increase from 2010.
  • A recent report from the CDC revealed that 25% of teenage girls, ages 14-19, has a sexually transmitted disease.
  • Teen girls, age 16 to 19, are more likely than boys the same age to have participated in sexual intercourse (31% vs. 22%)
  • When it comes to 15 year olds, more than one in seven (14%) reported already having had sex with four or more partners. (CDC)
  • On a positive note, more than half of young people (55%) participate in volunteer activities each year.

It’s easy for us to look down our nose at teenagers and say they’re wrong for being who they are. It’s easy to blame our schools, parents, government, television, and the Internet.

Pointing fingers is always the easy part, but that’s not helpful. The fact is that we are all in this together.

Being a teenager is not a permanent condition. By 2020, millennials will account for 40% of the voting electorate. By 2025 they will account for 75% of the global workforce. 

So be kind to teenagers because they’ll be the ones who decide on the fate of your social security.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

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