In Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption, Murray Milner, Jr. examines the relationships that lead to the formation of school cliques while, at the same time, attempting to tackle the problems of caste-like divisions and the increase in alcohol and drug use and casual sex among teens. Milner argues that traditional explanations for teenage behavior, such as hormones, psychological development, parenting styles, and social background, are less important than the way adults have used schools to “organize young people’s daily activities” and the systems that teens have constructed in response to that organization. Milner also explores the role of consumerism in teen identity formation.
Generally, the formation of school cliques boils down to one concern: status. Why are teens in the United States so concerned with status? “It is because they have so little real economic or political power,” Milner explains. Teens have very little say over what happens in school or the subjects they study, so they concentrate on the one area where they do have power: the power to create their own status systems.
In order to maintain status, “insiders” must make it difficult to gain that status, so they frequently change and complicate the norms. That is, according to Milner, the source of teenage concern over possessing the latest fashions, music, and lingo. Businesses have spun this concern into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Milner proposes a relatively simple solution: stop segregating young people from the rest of society. “…reforming the curriculum and teaching techniques… will not change the structures that produce and sustain the patterns of behavior we associate with teenagers,” he warns. Milner’s theory is compelling but not without its faults. The case could be made that teenagers, especially those under the age of 17, have more power and influence today than at any other point in history, especially when it comes to life choices and disposable income. For the first time, the majority of adolescents can look forward to at least having the opportunity for a higher education.
Questions remain: are children and teenagers more “segregated” from adult society today than they were in the previous century? Do they have less independence and opportunity? If Milner’s theory is correct, but the answer to these questions is “no,” we should see less social cliquishness and status-obsession among teens today than in the past, not more.
While there is less pressure to conform to social norms in adolescence as there was even a decade ago, targeted marketing has exacerbated cliques by dividing teenagers into groups based on narrowly-defined interests. Teens may not have political power, but they certainly have economic power. According to Statisticbrain.com, total U.S. teen spending in 2016 amounted to $258.7 billion. Advertisers compete to tap into that lucrative revenue stream, which means they are, at least to some extent, responding to teenager’s needs and desires.
First released in 2006, Milner has recently published a revised edition of Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids emphasizing the role of social media and standardized testing. I have not read the new edition, but it would be interesting to see if he has reconsidered some of his earlier conclusions, especially since teen pregnancy rates and drug use are on the decline (teen pregnancy in the U.S. is at historic lows). Still, Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids remains an insightful and thoroughly-researched book on contemporary youth culture.