THE BLOG
11/04/2014 10:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Uncoddled: Portraits of America's 'Luckiest Generation'

If there's one thing we humans like to do, it's label ourselves and one another. Sometimes those labels are quite obviously laudatory ("The Greatest Generation"). Sometimes they're pitying ("The Lost Generation"). Sometimes they're rightly withering ("The Me Generation"). And sometimes, considered in the moment, they're simply accurate.

In June 1954, LIFE magazine published an article titled "The Luckiest Generation" that, revisited 60 years later, feels like a near-perfect snapshot of a certain segment of American society at a singular moment in the nation's history.

[See photos of "the luckiest generation" in a gallery on LIFE.com.]

We'll let LIFE set the scene:

The morning traffic and parking problems [LIFE wrote] became so critical at the Carlsbad, N.M., high school that school authorities in 1953 were finally forced to a solution: they set aside a special parking area for students only. In Carlsbad, as everywhere else, teenagers are not only driving new cars to school but in many cases are buying them out of their own earnings. These are the children who at birth were called "Depression babies." They have grown up to become, materially at least, America's luckiest generation.

Young people 16 to 20 are the beneficiaries of the very economic collapse that brought chaos almost a generation ago. The Depression tumbled the nation's birth rate to an all-time low in 1933, and today's teenage group is proportionately a smaller part of the total population than in more than 70 years. Since there are fewer of them, each--in the most prosperous time in U.S. history--gets a bigger piece of the nation's economic pie than any previous generation ever got. This means they can almost have their pick of the jobs that are around. . . . To them working has a double attraction: the pay is good and, since their parents are earning more too, they are often able to keep the money for themselves.

2014-11-04-1410281953teens01.jpg

"In aura of fun and well-being, students dance in gym of Carlsbad's high school at weekly 'Sock Hop' to music of a 12-piece student band."

A few things to point out here. First, and most obvious, is the racial makeup of the teens that LIFE focused on: unless I've missed them, there's not a single person of color in the gallery on LIFE.com.

Second, the nature of the boon--of the unprecedented good fortune--these kids enjoyed is not that every possible creature comfort was handed to them. Instead, it's that they had the opportunity to work at virtually any job they chose, and they were able to keep the money they earned.

Compared to countless generations of youth who came before and after them, all over the world, white working- and middle-class teens in 1950s America were, for the most part, incredibly lucky. But unlike the entitled creatures that most of us would count as the "luckiest" (and the most obnoxious) among us today, the teens profiled in LIFE in 1954 don't look or feel especially coddled.

They look secure. They look confident. They look, in some elemental way, independent. They're learning, day by day, what it means and what it takes to make one's way in the world.

In that sense, maybe they were the luckiest generation, after all.

2014-11-04-1410281953teens15.jpg

"Bookkeeper Rada Alexander, 19, gets $200 a month in auto firm job she got after graduation."