Teachers are used to getting blamed when youths behave badly. So should it be a badge of pride that, these days, binge-drinking, feckless, wild-living teens seem to be a thing of the past?
Over the past few weeks, commentators have been puzzling over the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which suggest that a quarter of under-25s don’t drink at all and that heavy drinking is down 15 per cent over the past decade.
Never mind sex, drugs & rock’n’roll – what to make of economist Noreena Hertz’s recent research into “Generation K”, which suggests that 14-21-year-olds have less sex and do fewer drugs than previous generations? Hard to believe, but apparently only 9 per cent of school pupils believe it’s acceptable to smoke cannabis, compared with 32 per cent of the population at large. Teen pregnancy in England and Wales has halved since 2007, and is now at the lowest rate since records began nearly 50 years ago.
Meanwhile, George Hull, founder of the dance festival Bloc, has caused controversy among his fellow promoters by declaring in a Spectator article that young people these days are just “too safe and conformist for the rebelliousness of raving” (19 March 2016). He might have a point: the ONS has actually dropped the price of admission to nightclubs from the list of goods and services used to calculate official inflation figures, because of the decline of Britain’s clubbing scene.
The New Puritans
Should teachers be congratulated for helping to create such sensible young citizens? I’m not sure. Educators maybe shouldn’t be too quick to boast that they have socialised a generation into such sensible abstemiousness that they have been variously dubbed Generation Boring, the New Puritans, Generation Zzzz and “a bunch of kill-joys”. At risk of sounding like Ab Fab’s middle-aged, chain-smoking, drink-addled Eddie, moaning about her frumpy daughter Saffy, I have to confess that this new generational sobriety seems more sad than something to celebrate.
One reason I have qualms is that a key driver for this generational shift is that today’s youth are too risk-averse to have fun, and seem to have been scared into lifestyle change.
For example, it seems that kids are unhealthily anxious about their own health. Last year’s Demos report Character and Moderation: Alcohol explained what it called the “seismic cultural shift in youth drinking habits” by citing evidence of the “positive progress towards a policy ambition of successive governments, with 66 per cent citing increased awareness in the health consequences of excessive drinking as contributing to the fall”.
This might be positive for policy wonks and nanny-staters, but I am less convinced it is good news for kids. Reared on a diet of public-health panics, we now have the weird phenomenon of the young – who should be at the peak of good health, before the aches and pains of age get to them – behaving like worried hypochondriacs, fearfully checking food for sugar and salt content while monitoring their heart-rate on Fitbit.
The cult of good health
Zoe Williams, writing in the Observer, notes that “health has got to them all, like a cult: young people in hordes jogging, climbing, journeying eternally from one institution of wellness to another, serious-faced in lycra, taking responsibility, counting footsteps, living the dream” (13 March 2016).
Isn’t something lost here? For example, if young people only view alcohol through the prism of health panics and counting units, won’t they lose out on the positive cultural aspects of drinking such as its contribution to conviviality, great conversations, nights out with friends?
But even sociability itself is made problematic. The Guardian asked millennials why they don't go clubbing (24 March 2016). The responses were depressingly revealing about an over-anxious generation, frightened of fun, who sound more like pensioners than teens.
A small majority reported that they found the clubbing scene “too stressful”. Dave, 19, (aka Victor Meldrew?) complained that “nightclubs are just awful with all the noise, sound and crowded people”. He reported finding it easier and more comfortable to talk to friends on Skype or Facebook rather than “to force myself into an uncomfortable and intimidating situation” (my emphasis).
Abi, 24 agreed that she found “clubs totally overwhelming” because, “I can’t talk, people get lost or split off and it just generally ends up with me trying to find people rather than dancing ... staying in is more under my control.” But Abi, if I may – a cosy night in means you will never have any adventures or experience the excitement of meeting new friends, even if you get split off from your mates. And honestly, losing control is not such a bad thing and dancing with strangers can be quite exhilarating.
A good boozy night out
How horrible that society has so demonised a good boozy night out, which should be an important rite of passage – that young women associate it with sexual assault, of all things: one 19-year-old told The Guardian: “Not going to a club means you’re less likely to get your drink spiked or get chatted up by creepy strangers”, while 21-year-old Ashley says that, “As a girl, going out to clubs can be…sometimes scary if you constantly have to keep avoiding drunk people who may try to take advantage of you.”
This nervous, frightened response by young people who should be having the time of their lives, with all the boundary-pushing, risk-taking experimentation which that might involve, seems a real loss. I am worried that young people are missing out, their sense of freedom and adventure curtailed by timidity.
I am not suggesting teachers go into the sixth form at the start of term and advise students to get trolleyed or to dabble in reckless behaviour. But maybe teachers might avoid adding to the anxiety if they make sure they don't overdo it on preaching restraint. And perhaps PSHE lessons should take a break from their usual fare of pushing puritanical public-health scaremongering.
As I conclude, I realise that many of you will be young twentysomething teachers yourselves – those very same sensible Millennials who never step out of line. Maybe you are too busy worrying about all that marking to take time out, to let off steam. My advice to you (and the teenagers you teach) is: chill out, seize the day, have a drink. Cheers.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher. She tweets as @Fox_Claire