Oh! You pretty things

July 12, 2014 

Today’s young people are held to be alienated, unhappy, violent failures. They are proving anything but.

GÖRLITZER PARK, a patch of grass and concrete, has a seedy air. Its tall walls are covered in graffiti. Near the entrances, young African men stand around hassling bystanders, asking if they want to buy some “kiffen”. Yet in many respects, the “drug park” (as locals in Kreuzberg, a trendy district of Berlin, often call it) does not live up to its ugly reputation. On a Saturday afternoon, it is mostly full of 20-somethings sitting around on the grass in groups sipping coffees and beers. Young parents pass by with pushchairs. University students on picnic blankets peer into their textbooks. Over the course of an hour or so, not a single one of the drug dealers in view seems to make a deal. For most of the locals, they are a hassle—not a service.

Few European cities do youth culture and hedonism better than Berlin. Young people flock—or, if truly cool, just drift—here from all over the world. The nightlife runs until dawn, techno beats flood its streets. Yet as with Görlitzer Park, the wild appearance belies reality. The city’s middle-aged artists and musicians complain that its young hipsters are taking the edge out of its nightlife by trying to make money out of it. Their entrepreneurialism is driving up rents. “The city of heroin addicts, David Bowie and Iggy Pop has disappeared,” says a Berliner who was not yet born when the Thin White Duke came to stay. In its place is a town where people come to study, work and boost their creative careers, not just party.

Berlin is still an unusual city; the temperance of its youth is not. In 2002 just 13% of German teenagers had never had an alcoholic drink; by 2012, that figure had risen to 30%. Among 18- to 25-year-olds, the proportion drinking at least once a week has fallen by a third since the early 1990s. Cannabis use has dropped, too, and the number of deaths attributed to the use of illegal drugs has fallen by half since 2000. Similar trends are seen across the Western world.

Stay clean tonight

Take Britain. In 2008 Time magazine described Britain’s youth as “unhappy, unloved and out of control”; a nation gripped by an “epidemic of violence, crime and drunkenness” was scared of its feral youth. Polling by Barnardo’s, a charity, found that 54% of people thought that children were “beginning to behave like animals”—perhaps because, in television programmes such as “Skins” and films such as “Kidulthood”, hoodie-wearing teenagers occupied themselves largely with cocaine, wild sex and stabbing one another. David Cameron—now prime minister, then leader of the opposition—denounced a “broken society”, arguing that “we have seen a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline, respect for others, deferring gratification instead of instant gratification.”

Mr Cameron’s claim, hyperbolic then, has since become ludicrous. In 2007, 111,000 children aged between 10 and 17 were convicted or given a police caution for a first offence in England and Wales. By last year, that had fallen to just 28,000 (see chart 1). The teenage murder rate quietly plunged, and London’s knife crime epidemic of the summer of 2008 proved a blip, much like the riots of 2011. As elsewhere, drug use by the young is falling (see chart 2).

Perhaps most remarkably, Britain’s notoriously surly youths are getting more polite: according to one government survey, those born in the early 1990s are less rude and noisy in public places than previous cohorts were at the same age. “People are still being young, but they’re recognising there are boundaries,” says one youth worker in Hackney, a borough of London long known for its high crime rate.

In America, the proportion of high-school students reporting “binge-drinking”—more than five drinks in a single session—has fallen by a third since the late 1990s. Cigarette smoking among the young has become so uncommon that more teenagers—some 23% of 17- to 18-year-olds—smoke cannabis than tobacco. Over the past ten years pot-smoking has increased, a bit, among these older teens; but even though now legal in some states (see page 35) its prevalence is still far lower than in the 1970s, when Barack Obama was a member of his high-school “choom gang”. Use of other recreational drugs has fallen sharply. Dr Wilson Compton, the deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says that perhaps the most worrying trend in young Americans’ drug habits is the increasing abuse of attention-focusing pills such as Ritalin by students keen to improve their performance.

Teenage kicks of other sorts also appear to be on the decline. “Teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did,” according to a report on young Americans from the Guttmacher Institute, a think-tank. America’s teenage pregnancy rate is half what it was two decades ago (see chart 3). Britain has experienced a lesser decline. Most mainland European countries never saw the high rates of teenage pregnancy that America and Britain saw in the 1980s and 1990s, but they too have fewer expectant youngsters than they did.

Teenagers appear not just to be waiting longer for sex, but also by-and-large to be being careful about what they get up to once they get started. According to data from the European Centre for Disease Monitoring and Control, across the European Union (EU) they are the only age group to be diagnosed with fewer sexually transmitted diseases in recent years.

You never leave your room

This sudden outbreak of restraint is doing havoc to businesses which thrive off youthful excess. “Kids these days just want to live in their fucking own little worlds in their bedrooms watching Netflix and becoming obese,” fumes a barman in Leeds, a northern English city. In France and Spain bars and cafés have been closing in huge numbers, especially in provincial towns. In Faliraki, a Greek island resort where locals once so despaired of young drunk northern Europeans vomiting everywhere that they banned pub crawls, some are now desperate for the tourists to come back.

The media, too, are struggling to cope with the rising temperance of youth. Television stations aimed at young people have dropped programmes that glamorise rebellion and high-living, says Christian Kurz, of Viacom, a media company which owns MTV. More and more teenagers are turning to YouTube for entertainment. Young Germans use it to watch bawdy comedy shows made by other teenagers, filled with stupid jokes and—unsettlingly for leftish parents worried about commercialism—lots of product placement. German kids seem to want to grow up to make money, one father suggests, looking slightly unnerved.

What is behind this generation of hard-working, strait-laced kids? It is hard to pin down any single explanation. Lots of interlinking factors contribute to social trends, and the changes are neither uniform within countries nor between them. In most countries there are areas where teenage crime is high. In a few there is no overall trend to temperance: drug-taking and youth violence both appear to have increased in France in recent years. In America, heroin has staged a comeback in some rural areas, largely as a by-product of prescription-drug abuse. The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), a cross-national survey, finds that although binge-drinking has fallen among young people in most European countries, it had gone up a lot among children in Cyprus and Greece. But there are some factors common to most countries in the rich world which may help to tie the experience of teenagers in Auckland to that of those in Amsterdam.

In many countries, shock at the earlier extent of youthful hedonism and disorder has led to dramatic attempts to curb it. In Britain anti-social behaviour orders—a judicial sanction for disruptive conduct that falls short of criminality—were widely used against the rowdy, and worse, in the 2000s. In Spain and Italy drinking in the streets has been met with ferocious policing in recent years—in central Madrid an al fresco swig of beer can get you a €500 ($680) fine. In Germany many states have started sending out teenagers to test whether shops and bars are selling alcohol to people too young to buy it. Australia has put heavy taxes on teen-friendly alcopops.

But such policies are hardly the whole story; there are much bigger trends. The generations known for rebellion and rule-breaking were large in comparison to the populations of the time, thanks to the post-war baby boom and its “echo” boom in the 1970s and 1980s. They grew up in young societies. Today’s youth by contrast are few in number and are growing up in ever older societies. In Germany, for example, the median age is now 46, and increasing about three months every year.

Not sure if you’re a boy or a girl

Growing equality between young men and women may also be having an effect. For a while, this appeared to be driving bad behaviour: in both Europe and America increases in binge-drinking and drug-taking during the 1990s and early 2000s were driven more by young women rather than men. Yet the rise of ladettes—a 1990s British term for brash young women who supposedly liked to get blind drunk and misbehave as much as men—has petered out. Data from ESPAD show that in most European countries both boys and girls have stopped drinking and taking drugs as much in recent years. Adult data from Britain shows a similar trend. A generation that enjoys greater gender equality than any before may as a result be putting less value on anti-social teenage machismo.

As well as being more supportive of young women, most Western societies are also less white than before. Although prejudice, and patterns of policing, might lead people to think otherwise, surveys show that in most Western countries people from minorities are less likely to drink or use hard drugs: 17% of non-Hispanic white Americans admit to having tried cocaine, compared with 10% of blacks and 11% of Hispanics. By 2020 more than half of those under the age of 18 in America will be black, Hispanic or Asian; as the country becomes less white, it seems likely to become more responsible. In Europe the fact that a rising proportion of the young are Muslims is clearly part of the effect.

Added to these social trends are economic ones. The transfer of unskilled jobs to developing countries and of menial jobs to immigrants has put a new premium on education: today’s rich-world youth has far more schooling than previous generations. Across the OECD, a club of 34 mostly rich countries, enrolment of 15- to 19-year-olds in education increased by 11 percentage points to 83% between 1995 and 2011. Among adults in their 20s participation in higher education has increased by a third. Young people who are studying rather than in paid employment have less money for hedonism.

That has not always, in the past, made universities particularly clean and sober places. But today’s students have more at stake than previous college kids. American tuition fees have increased at a rate of roughly 7% per year since the 1970s, and now average $30,000 at a private university. That is a lot to spend on just getting high and laid.

In many countries, an increasing number of these students—and of young people in general—still live with their parents, who tend to keep careful watch on their spending and living habits. According to Eurofound, an agency of the EU, almost half of Europe’s young adults now live with their parents. In America the share of people sharing their homes with their adult offspring is the highest it has been since the 1940s. Fiona Measham of the University of Durham, who studies the intoxicant-related habits of people in British nightclubs, says that she has noted that clubbing is now more of a luxury good than a way of life for British teenagers. And it surely helps that there is plenty else to do: video games and social networking indulged in in bedrooms are far better entertainment than cheap cider and cigarettes consumed at bus stops.

Right on mother

Yet perhaps the best explanation for this youthful self-control is not the role parents play in young adults’ lives today; it is the way they brought those young adults up. A combination of government initiatives, technology, social pressure and reaction against the follies of the past has improved parenting dramatically.

The amount of time parents devote to child care has increased significantly (see chart 4). Today, working mothers spend almost as much time on child care as stay-at-home mothers did a generation before. Data from the Multinational Time Use Study—a collection of surveys from 20 countries—shows that in 1974, mothers without jobs typically spent just 77 minutes with their young children each day, while employed mothers spent about 25 minutes. By 2000 that had risen to 161 minutes and 74 minutes respectively. According to William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of various studies of the “millennial” generation, children born in the 1970s and 1980s were mostly raised by baby-boomer parents who married young, had children quickly and were often rather blasé about the consequences. The suburbs they moved into—and the inner cities they left derelict and unwanted—were breeding grounds for isolation and disaffection.

By the late 1980s that generation was giving way to a new group of parents who waited longer to have children and paid more attention when they did. In the 1970s the average American mother had her first child at the age of just 22. That has since increased to around 26. Today’s young adults were thus raised by a generation of parents who had fewer children later in life, and took the process more seriously.

“There’s been a huge increase in social pressure to be a good parent,” says Frances Gardner, an academic at the University of Oxford who studies parenting. She points to “Supernanny”, a television programme about parenting, and to the “helicopter parent” phenomenon as evidence of how attitudes towards children have changed.

For much of the 20th century, children were largely ignored and allowed to roam free. If they acted up, they were typically punished with violence. Now, however, parents are expected to be intimately involved in their children’s lives, says Ms Gardner. They supervise homework; attend parents’ evenings; go to prenatal and parenting classes; read blockbusters about child psychology. These improvements are not restricted to parents working as a team: single parenting has improved even more. A British survey shows that in 1994 almost 70% of lone parents did not know where their children were after 9pm—roughly double the rate of nuclear families. By 2005 the rates had almost converged.

What this adds up to is a generation that is more closely watched and less free to screw up. So perhaps it is unsurprising that better behaviour has not, as yet, translated into greater happiness. For all their disavowal of inebriation and criminality, young people are still proving more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety. They are often obsessed with their careers—and rarely satisfied. Young people repeatedly report less job satisfaction than their parents or grandparents. Several studies, including one by the University of Michigan, show that people who use the internet more tend to be less happy, though without establishing more than a correlation. In helping people to stay connected to their peers, social media sites such as Facebook also let them compare themselves to people who are doing better than they feel they are (or at least appear to be, in their carefully crafted profiles).

Let the children use it

Nor do the young trust the institutions or people they live with. Research by the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, finds that just 19% of “millennials” in America agree that “generally speaking, most people can be trusted.” For the baby-boomer generation, the equivalent figure is 40%. Some 22% of French 15- to 24-year-olds say that they believe society’s problems can only be fixed by revolutionary action, up from just 7% of the same age group in 1990. In many countries young people are bothering less and less to vote at elections. Instead, notes Costas Lapavitsas, a political scientist at the University of London, it is older people who are leading populist political movements such as the National Front in France or the Tea Party in America. Young people, he despairs, seem to have swallowed what he calls “neoliberalism”. Faced with economic crisis, they prefer to put their heads down and push through, rather than try to find collective solutions.

Perhaps that is progress. This is not a generation so jaded that it can never be bothered to protest. Despite its troubles, it is increasingly liberal. Those born in the 1980s and 1990s are sharply less prejudiced against people of other races or sexual orientations than their parents were. Their political disengagement in part reflects disenchantment—but it is also a straightforward response to an era when politics simply seems to matter less. And a lack of political action does not mean no implications for the body politic. Young people tend to take their habits with them as they age, so as this generation grows up, problems in the past thought irreparable—crime, addiction, family breakdown—may diminish further.

If the change is lasting, some of the verve of the past 50 years of youth culture might be lost. But that does not make the young boring. To concentrate on the things they do not do misses the amount of work they put into getting other things done, from the maintenance of their social networks to the various crafts with which they occupy their free time. The proliferation of innovation in areas from writing apps to mixing music, from mashing up media to popping up restaurants, shows that they are as capable of creativity as ever. For all that young Berliners joke about gentrification, they admit that the city’s romanticised past is an illusion. They do not want to bring it back. They want to build something better.

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