Government policy has been inconsistent. Schools used to be discouraged from suspending and excluding disruptive pupils, but now such action is regarded as justified. Witness too the uncertainties over the effectiveness of the children's hearing system as a way of dealing with young offenders. Against this background, it is not surprising that superficial soundbites about drunkenness, vandalism, and boorish behaviour should be commonplace.
Sensational press reports about sexual promiscuity and drug taking add to the hysteria, and the stage is set for a spell of hand-wringing on the part of parents, politicians and church leaders. "Where will it all end?" they ask, resorting to tired cliches instead of attempting to analyse what is happening. Is it the decline of civilisation as we know it? At best, I would suggest, this kind of reaction is unhelpful; at worst, self-deceiving and hypocritical.
The truth is that most young people behave badly some of the time. It is part of growing up, testing boundaries, exploring identity. That is why parenting and teaching are such challenging occupations. The Kevin character as portrayed on television by Harry Enfield is funny because he conveys, in exaggerated form, the determinedly obnoxious nature of some adolescent conduct. A measure of bad behaviour is the norm. In fact, some psychologists suggest that we ought to be concerned if children are excessively good: they are likely to be repressing impulses that may surface in damaging ways later on. Adult mental illness may have its roots in such repressions.
In any case, what about adult behaviour? Think of the tribal chants and mutual abuse at football matches, in which the participants are as likely to be "respectable" professionals as unskilled workers. Or, again, consider the ritual exchange of insults across the Commons, a venue in which "tired and emotional" behaviour is not unknown. Then there are less obvious forms of adult misconduct - mental cruelty within marriages, subtle bullying in the workplace. As soon as such examples are considered, the position from which adults make judgements of young people becomes rather suspect.
Underlying these issues is the question of where young people get their values from. What kind of role models are held up to them for emulation?
Here again adults have a lot to answer for. Think of the selfish individualism that was the dominant ideology of the 1980s and its continuing expression through such things as corporate greed - the bonuses that senior executives receive regardless of whether they have been successful or not.
Is it any wonder that many adolescents are cynical and contemptuous of the adult world? Instead of blanket condemnation, what is needed is a more fine-grained analysis of why a minority of young people become `locked into forms of behaviour that are seriously anti-social, that prevent them from realising their potential, and may ultimately be destructive.
As part of this analysis, we also need to develop a better appreciation of those influences and developmental "triggers" which enable the majority of young people to move beyond rebellious gestures to become, if not model citizens, decent human beings. Pious homilies may have therapeutic value for adults. They do nothing to promote the mutual understanding between generations on which progress will depend.
Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.