Updated: Oct 25, 2020
By Kaitlyn Levine
“These are the best years of your life,” I often hear. Growing older, I’ve become more accustomed to this phrase and ones like it: quotes regarding my youth and its importance. However, youth is only the beginning of one's life; full of innocence about the world, overflowing with time as our lives lay stretched beyond us. What is our fascination with youth, and why do we romanticize it?
Much like many teens, the desire to create the most of my teenage years resides within me. I often find myself hesitating in the simplest of my decisions, asking myself “is this making the most of my time?” As I move from my childhood into my teenage years, my fears grow that my youth will not resemble fantasy portrayed by the media.
With a TV and media industry dedicated to depicting idealistic lives of teens, unrealistic standards are unavoidably set through romanticism. Reflecting on the recent entertainment trends, we are often presented with a teenage or young adult protagonist. The most popular shows of 2019 and 2020 consisted of teenage and young adult protagonists; Stranger Things, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Sex Education, Riverdale, I Am Not Okay With This, Insatiable. In fact, some of the most iconic movies and TV shows are based on teenage life, some being The Breakfast Club, Gossip Girl, and Pretty Little Liars.
The glorification of teenage life in the visual media leads youth to believe it will be their best years. Yet, these films and shows have little-to-no accuracy. Often in TV shows, the daily lives of teens are observed through a lens of surrealism which presents them as over-romanticized.
In Gossip Girl, for example, we see rich, beautiful teenagers exploring New York City. Their daily lives consist of sex, scandalous adventures and luxury. As all the characters in Gossip Girl are very sexually active, this could influence young viewers to believe that the years of their youth should be full of sexual encounters. However, this almost never happens in real life. In reality, teenage years are awkward, embarrassing, and the time in which most people are still growing—emotionally and physically.
The origins of this romanticization of youth can be traced to the Romantic Era of the late 1700s. This era was defined by its growing industrialism and developed opinions of character. Thus, the idea of youth as the “golden age” was born, with adulthood following as “corruption and betrayal.” This created an ideology that is instilled in American culture: youth is forever yearned. In society, youth is the physical equivalent of having time and potential, both of which are highly desired. However, youth is not only physical but also a psychological mindset. The adolescent egocentrism and lack of emotional maturity form a psychological stage in which youth are unsure of themselves and subject to pressure—both socially and mentally. In a culture that idealizes youth, yet suppresses reality, teens are left without an accurate model of their teenage years.
This romanticization of youth is problematic for multiple reasons.
Firstly, it creates false expectations of youth, and more specifically, teenage life. Teenagers expect these years to be full of adventure and excitement. This can lead to teenagers feeling dejected when their lives do not reflect those of a sitcom.
Not only does romanticization create an unreliable narrative, but it also fails to acknowledge life beyond adolescence. There is a lack of mainstream media catered to people older than thirty. Those that do, depict singular aspects, such as motherhood or corporate work life. The idea that life ends after youth can make growing older seem incomprehensible and is exacerbated by the few examples of happiness in adulthood. By fictionalizing one time period as the ‘best years’ of your whole life, self-growth is stunted.
Lastly, it contributes to a society that values quantity over quality. Teenage years can be wonderful. However, it is more important to live for life to the fullest extent without constantly worrying about age and expectations.
The romanticization of youth contributes to a narrative that bases one’s value on one aspect of their life. While youth can be fascinating and help the development of your character and personality, learning to grow past adolescence is essential to cherishing life as a whole.
Written by writer Kaitlyn Levine