British teenagers across the decades

Passions of Youth inspired an inter-generational film called Forever Young which was made in 2015 with the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy and the Manchester Metropolitan’s Centre for Youth Studies. Forever Young covers eight decades of youth culture through snapshot interviews with people recalling their teen years and combines talking head interviews with archive material from the North West Film Archive.

The oldest participant was in her eighties, the youngest in her late-teens. These interviews and the film’s title are a powerful reminder of how a sense of being young doesn’t disappear with the passage of time, as individuals age and leave youth behind. Rather, memories of being young remain strong, albeit coloured with hindsight and a sense of how those younger years may have shaped their adult lives.

Forever Young was not intended to be a representative account of what it is, or was, to be a teenager. Rather, it is an impressionistic portrayal of teenage lives across the decades, from the 1940s until the early twenty-first century. The film challenges generational stereotypes of older and younger people and raises questions of what age means. What does it mean to be defined as young, and what does it mean to be described as ‘old’?

Forever Young illustrates the everyday aspects of being a teenager, rather than the sensational. Threads of similarity and difference give texture to the film’s stories, which explore what it was and is to be a teenager.  Some experiences may seem strikingly familiar yet others suggest how much life changed over the seventy years since the eldest participant was young. 

The term teenager had little meaning for Joan, the oldest interviewee, an adolescent in the 1940s, because it wasn’t commonly used in Britain until the 1950s.  Alan, on the other hand, who entered his teens after the Second World War identified as one of the ‘new’ teenagers of the 1950s whose excitement at being young in the postwar fused with the novel exhilaration  of rock n’ roll, which marked the growing significance of music in young people’s lives. 

Alan, 2015

The film’s testimony suggests the shaping effects of the teen years and the power of those experiences to establish patterns and interests, from music to politics, which can last a lifetime, as the Passions of Youth project sought to capture.  For younger interviewees, Forever Young illustrates  the hesitancies, fragilities and uncertainties; the tentative self-making and perilous self-confidence of these transitional years, which are so vivid precisely because a pattern has not yet been set. 

Forever Young’s broad brush strokes give a taste of teenage lives in different families and communities and at different times and of how, for some, very local experiences have gradually translation into more international perspectives, suggesting how a sense of place has changed over time. Powerful themes emerge in relation to the communality and individuality of belonging and separation, in youth and old age,  intimate tales of teenage rites of passage, which are both mundane and life-changing.

Forever Young encourages those who watch it to consider similarities and differences in experiences of being young in different times. It suggests the value of placing teenage experiences and enthusiasms within broader life narratives to show how they influence adult identities. In showing how the young and not-so-young can find spaces in which to think about shared experiences of youth, the film raises questions about changes and continuities in the lives of teenagers over the past seventy years.

Forever Young was part of the nationwide 2015 Being Human festival administered by the School of Advanced Study, London. 

It has been shown in venues across north-west England and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and has been used as teaching tool for youth groups and care workers in homes for elderly people.

See the film here: Forever Young: eight decades of youth culture told by people who were there

1940s, Joan’s first date

Get in touch with photos of your teen years!

Melanie Tebbutt, Manchester Metropolitan University

m.tebbutt@mmu.ac.uk