January 29, 2015 6:26 AM EST

ANDY WARHOL’S 1965 TIME COVER

“Smarter, Subtler and more sophisticated”: that was the verdict when TIME profiled America’s teenagers in 1965. The Jan. 29 story, “On the Fringe of a Golden Era,” struck a tone of celebration, with a Pop art cover by Andy Warhol using photo-booth pictures of TIME staffers’ young relatives.

Teens–or “teen-agers,” in the style of the time–were a growing segment of the population, with economic power to match. They were starting adolescence earlier and leaving it later. More of them were staying in school, and those schools were better than ever. Their culture was vibrant: they liked to listen to the Beatles, dance the jerk, “pierce their ear lobes (with an ice cube to deaden the pain) and call themselves beat.” (As in beatnik.)

To mark the 50th anniversary of that story, we tracked down several of the teens interviewed then, some of whom were also profiled in a subsequent TIME-LIFE special report from which the archival photos here are taken. As we know now, despite the optimism of 1965, the past half-century wasn’t all golden.

“From the mid-’60s onward–probably from the time of the TIME story and maybe a little bit later–teenagers in America were under the gun,” says Jon Savage, author of the book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. “That gun was Vietnam.”

In the months after the story, the conflict in Vietnam escalated, as did the antiwar movement. At the same time, civil rights activism gained national urgency as TV news broadcast images of police officers beating both black and white protesters. The teens of 1965 were coming of age in a country in turmoil.

Still, many of those teens managed to hold on to their idealism. Here are three of their stories.

JON HOLDAWAY (BELOW RIGHT), 1965

THEN

“Holdaway has been ‘bouncing around like a rubber ball. I’m immature, plenty,’ he admits cheerfully, ‘but I don’t feel I’m mixed up.’ Holdaway, 18, is a track star at Seattle’s Ingraham High School, a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, and last summer was a tenor soloist in the first U.S. high school choir to tour Japan. He is torn between a career in political science or music.”

NOW

Holdaway, 68, became an educator, inspired by President Kennedy. He’s now a seventh-grade teacher in Spanaway, Wash. “Many of my friends were hippies and antiwar, and now they’re working for an insurance company and are donating to the GOP,” he says. “I’ve kept my core political values all the way through.”

2015

SARA GREENSFELDER, 1965

THEN

“She lives in a modest frame house in Mill Valley, near San Francisco, and licks stamps for [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] when she is not demonstrating for one cause or another. Zealously committed, she wanted to join the sit-ins at Berkeley, but her mother would not let her.”

NOW

“My ideals and beliefs haven’t changed much since I was a teenager,” says Greensfelder, 63, who was interviewed at age 13. “I’m still committed to ideals of social justice, human rights and environmentalism, as I was then.” She co-founded the California Indian Basketweavers Association and has lived off the grid in a solar-powered home in the Sierra Nevada foothills for the past 40 years.

2015

LESLIE HARRIS, 1965

THEN

“Harris, 16, a talented musician and a student at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips High School, has picketed the Chicago board of education to protest the skimpy treatment of Negro history in the standard public school curriculum.”

NOW

“My values and my approach to life came from my civil rights activities,” says Harris, 66, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in South Deering, a neighborhood in Chicago. He recently retired as a juvenile-court judge in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. His negative experiences with police informed his work on the bench, and he’s worried that the latest demonstrations for racial justice won’t translate into long-term activism.

2015

FOR MORE ABOUT THE TEENS OF 1965 AND TODAY, VISIT time.com/teens

This appears in the February 09, 2015 issue of TIME.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com.

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