Despite a bad rap, British youth can no longer afford to act out

Leah McLaren on the fate of their generation

Photograph by Luke MacGregor

The vision of Britain as a teenage wasteland full of drunk and disaffected kids is as old as the notion of modern youth culture itself. And in times like these—coloured by high unemployment, rising tuition costs, cuts to social welfare and a steadily declining marriage rate (resulting in an increase of single-parent families)—it seems a no-brainer that the youth of today would be doing what bored, broke, idle kids are famed for doing best: getting wasted and raising hell.

And yet, oddly enough, nothing could be further from the truth.

According to a recent crime survey, all statistical indicators show that British kids are all right—though not in the way the Who meant it. Instead of acting out in hard times, young Britons of today are, counterintuitively, much better behaved than before the recession.

In 1998, 71 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds said they’d consumed alcohol in the previous week, but in 2010, that number fell to just 48 per cent. Teenage drug use has dropped almost 10 percentage points in the same period. School truancy rates have fallen in recent years, along with youth criminality and teen pregnancies, which are down an encouraging quarter since 1998.

In the country’s recent police elections, many aspiring crime commissioners campaigned on a platform to curb “anti-social behaviour” among young people. And yet, according to a recent survey, Britons in their late teens and early 20s are less likely to be rude or disruptive in public than previous generations.

If all this is true, why does the misperception of disaffected youth still hold?

Rosina St. James, a 22-year-old student at the London School of Economics and Chair of the British Youth Council, an organization that advocates for youth in social policy and government, lays the blame squarely at the feet of Britain’s rowdy media. “There’s definitely a misrepresentation of young people in this country, an imbalance between the perceived attitude and the actual reality,” she said. “Bad news travels fast, and if you’re part of the media, you want a sensational story that people will pick up and read.”

Visit any newsstand and you will see plenty of tabloid stories about youthful pill-poppers, sidewalk-pukers and petty criminals alike. The Daily Mail, in particular, has made a cottage industry of publishing photo spreads devoted to the drunken nights out of young celebrities and everyday hooligans, their ripped stockings, bloodied noses and badly applied self-tanner evidence of a so-called “broken Britain” that may not actually exist.

Binge drinking, the pastime British youth are best known for, peaked a decade ago and has been declining ever since, according to a report by the Institute of Alcohol Studies.

But another factor guiding public perception is the lingering aftertaste of the 2011 riots—which saw thousands of young people participate in dozens of riots over five days across the country, and resulted in more than 3,000 arrests. A government report published last spring concluded that myriad factors were to blame, including youth unemployment, poor parenting, weakness of the justice system, materialism and mistrust of the police. Crucially, however, the report also found that most of those convicted of crimes had long criminal records—which suggests the worst of the riots were spurred by a violent, anti-social minority of young people, rather than an entire generation of disaffected British youth.

Ask St. James what her generation is like and she speaks of resilience and optimism—a wave of young people fighting to make their place in the world through earnest community engagement, rather than old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll rebellion. Her organization recently made a submission to the Leveson inquiry requesting “fairer representation for young people in the media.” She says: “There are lots of positive signs, but they are almost never highlighted.” One such story is an increase in civic engagement. The British Youth Parliament saw voter turnout increase by nearly 50 per cent last year—595,600 11- to 18-year-olds voted, which is pretty impressive.

So what’s gotten into this new generation of well-behaved youngsters? Some experts speculate it’s the social sanitizing effect of the Internet, which keeps kids cooped up indoors online instead of out on the street. Others point to the success of public health campaigns, such as those by the alcohol education group Drinkaware. St. James says part of the shift is due to immigration from non-drinking cultures, like Pakistan and Bangladesh. “If your parents came from another country where drinking isn’t part of the culture, you aren’t brought up to do it here,” she said. But she adds that her generation’s restraint is mostly about economics. “When you’re paying £9,000 a year in tuition and coming out of school with debt, you can’t be splashing money everywhere if you don’t have it. My generation can’t afford to go mad.”

This new and subdued British youth culture isn’t good news for everyone. A third of British nightclubs have closed down in the past five years. It’s surprising that a generation coming of age in the middle of the greatest recession since the Second World War doesn’t feel more entitled to a bit of escapism, but St. James says that’s beside the point. “The crash and the cuts have affected our generation quite a lot, more than any other. We can either drown our sorrows or we can go out and try to do something about it.”

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