I recently attended a seminar: "What Teens Want". The audience were publishers, business people, broadcasters, desperate to learn the secrets of youth. Digital-age teenagers have unprecedented power because of their ease with media technology. Governments, multi-national businesses and parents genuflect towards them because they can work the television. Elders are no longer considered better but significantly worse. A generation that uses the words " hot" and "cool" to mean the same thing is in charge.
Its attention span is tiny, its collective mind a hectic, multi-media platform. This generation has a huge knowledge of technology but is hazy about world events. Its world broadly consists of MTV, MSN, Bluetooth, YouTube, MP3s. Teenagers display the same physical reactions as addicts if their mobile phones are removed. A characteristic of this generation is self- validation. Teenagers are not having fun unless there is video evidence. Speakers at the conference praised the savvy of teens, their absorbent natures, their love of new "stuff". The trouble with older people is that they are sceptical and harder to sell to.
What really interested me at the conference was its unexpected conclusion.
The managing director of a trend-watching firm, wearing a pin-stripe suit and trainers, produced some bewildering statistics. Which is the generation into sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, rebellion and youth? Why, the over-40s! These are the buyers of Harley Davidsons, the greatest consumers of male cosmetics. This generation does not merely like the company of teenagers but is desperate to be 17. It wants all the gadgets, despite being unable to work them, wants to go clubbing and boasts a vertiginous amount of sexual disease. We think we can reach teenagers by being permissive and badly behaved but it is in their nature to rebel against the last generation.
Today's teens are staging a revolution. According to the finest teen-trackers in the market, their characteristics are as follows: conservative, adult, creative, virtual, intuitive. They are more censorious about cannabis than their predecessors. They lose their virginity at a higher age. They take fewer gap years. They believe welfare spending is too high. Their expectation of choice makes them intolerant of bureaucracy and statism. They believe you should make your own fortune.
Most revealing is that many teens see themselves as the carer of the family, taking responsibility because their parents will not. We have interpreted the internet as a sweeping away of rules and boundaries, yet this has made teenagers more anxious. Their lives have shrunk as the possibilities of technology have expanded. Like child soldiers, they would secretly prefer adults to take charge again.
After decades of unchallenged liberalism, with its regard for individual satisfaction over social order, its insistence on the relativity of values and its contempt for institutions, can we re-assert ourselves over our children? David Cameron and Tony Blair have audited schools relentlessly, only to conclude that it would be nice if some children said "please" and "thank you". They only will if you tell them to.