The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Nov 222012

BBC news home editor Mark Easton writes: “Adolescents are increasingly turning their noses up at drugs, booze and fags, with consumption by young people the lowest at almost any time since we started measuring these things.” He cites data from the Home Office and the National Health Service showing large declines over the last fifteen or twenty years in the share of young British teens who use illicit drugs, smoke cigarettes, or regularly drink alcohol. Easton also notes that the number of “juvenile delinquents” (youths with a criminal record) has fallen by half in England and Wales since 2001.

Boomer and Xer parents, who now do most of the drinking and misbehaving, wonder why “teenagers no longer seem to define themselves by wild disobedience.”  Maybe, he suggests, today’s teens think it’s just so stupid to do what their parents did. Here’s a nice line by Easton: “Could it be that teenage rebellion needs to look different to what your mum and dad did? Smoking, boozing, dropping pills and hooliganism – that’s so Generation X.” Note also his surprise that so many kids showed up with parents to watch a Beach Boys concert

Yes, there is a European Millennial Generation.  Teens in the UK and throughout much of Europe are today showing many of the same behavioral and attitudinal trends—a strong movement away from personal risk taking and toward family—that teens in America showed a decade ago. So why is it happening a decade later in Europe? We actually addressed that question at some length way back in 2000 in our book Millennials Rising (see pp. 291-293). In surveying teens abroad back then, we pointed out that many feature stories on European youth were not showing any of the same trends that we noticed here at home. We actually quoted a 1998 British study of a so-called English “Millennial Generation,” which found youths between the ages of 16 and 21 to be cynical and risk taking, much more interested in leaving home and starting their own businesses than in being with their family or helping their community.

The explanation, we posited, was that most European recent generations are dated 5 to 10 years later than their American counterparts due to the later end of the World War II crisis in Europe. That’s why their baby boom came later; their “sixties” sex-drugs-divorce-crime waves came later; their deregulatory and tax-cut wave came later (more around the fall of the USSR than back in the early ‘80s with Reagan); and—what’s most relevant here–why their rediscovery of family and moral panic over children came later. As we wrote in 2000 (italics in the original): “Abroad, the leading edge of a new Millennial generation, in most countries, probably has not yet reached its teens.” Today, perhaps, they are just reaching their early 20s.

Anyway, here is the story (BBC News Magazine; Oct 2, 2012):

Is the Teen Rebel a Dying Breed

by Mark Easton

My son has just turned 13 and I made him a card to mark the moment he became a teenager. I put a picture of him as a choir-boy next to a Photoshopped shot of him as a saggy-trousered gangsta rapper – the innocent child mutating into a growling ball of rebellious fury. But a series of recent official statistics are making me question whether the old joke is true any more.

Teenage rebels are not what they were.

Adolescents are increasingly turning their noses up at drugs, booze and fags, with consumption by young people the lowest at almost any time since we started measuring these things.

Drugs: Last week, the Home Office published analysis which suggests the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds that have ever taken illicit drugs has fallen from 54% in 1998 to 38% now. Among 11- to 15-year-olds the figure has fallen from 29% to 17% in a decade.

Tobacco: Last month, NHS analysis suggested the proportion of English 16- to 19-year-olds who have never smoked has risen from about two-thirds in 1998 to three-quarters now. And the data is just as striking among their younger brothers and sisters. In 1982 most 11- to 15-year-olds (53%) had had a sneaky cigarette at one time or another. Today, just a quarter has ever spluttered over a fag behind the bike sheds.

Alcohol: It is a similar story with booze. In 1998, 71% of 16- to 24-year-olds questioned said they’d had a drink that week. Today it is 48% – far lower than their parents (about 70%). Among 11- to 15-year-olds there are similar big falls. A decade ago, 26% reported they’d had alcohol in the previous week. Now the data suggests the figure is 13%.

So what is going on? When it comes to smoking and drinking and taking drugs, British teenagers are behaving better than their parents.

That’s not to say there are not still real challenges, of course. But the trends are encouraging enough to question whether the archetypal teen is evolving.

The concept of adolescence goes back to the 1900s and the American psychologist G Stanley Hall, who argued that the biological changes associated with puberty drove problematic behaviour. He described it as a period of “storm and stress” when young people demanded freedom but needed discipline.

The theory was embraced in 1950s Britain, where the establishment had become seriously concerned about the threat from rebellious youth. Along with exotic clothes and loud music, a new word had crossed the Atlantic – teenager. It was a term that inspired the development of a new economically independent sub-culture, simultaneously exciting and terrifying.

Over the next four decades, teddy boys, bikers, mods, rockers, hippies, punks, ravers and grungers put two pubescent fingers up at authority in their own fashion and took delight in watching the staid grown-ups flinch and frown.

Today, though, where are the rebellious sub-cultures?

No-one is suggesting that young people don’t misbehave, but teenagers no longer seem to define themselves by wild disobedience. If anything, we are in the middle of a period of increasingly good behaviour.

A simple measure of “juvenile delinquency” is the number of youngsters who enter the criminal justice system as a result of a police reprimand or conviction. The figure for England and Wales has halved in 10 years – from about 90,000 in 2001 to 45,000 young people in 2011.

There are going to do be many factors that contribute to this trend. Those people working in schools and youth services will argue that their work on smoking, alcohol and drugs is the reason all the arrows are pointing the right way.

The police, probation and social services may claim that they have been responsible for improvements in behaviour.

But I wonder if there is something else going on here. Could it be that teenage rebellion needs to look different to what your mum and dad did? Smoking, boozing, dropping pills and hooliganism – that’s so Generation X.

These days, perhaps, adolescent identity is defined more by the use of social media rather than the use of illicit drugs. It might be that texting and messaging, Facebook and Bebo provide the exclusive amity once provided by gangs and musical sub-cultures.

In my day, the classic bored teenager hung around the bus-stop with a few mates and someone produced a packet of 10 and a bottle of cider. Nowadays they are upstairs on the laptop, PS3 or mobile, gossiping and playing and flirting. It is a digital world where grown-ups are not allowed, a playground for the virtual teen rebel.

Over the weekend I went to see the Beach Boys perform at Wembley Arena. I don’t know whether it made me feel very old or very young. The original teenage boy band put on a good show, but there was something disconcerting about the line-up of pensioners, some of whom bore witness to a misspent youth.

The age profile of the audience was far more mixed than I had expected. There were thousands of teenagers among the baby-boomers. What was going through their minds as they looked at Brian Wilson trying to focus and Mike Love dad-dancing?

I wonder whether the word “teenager” is being redefined and the card I sent my son for his 13th birthday is an example of a prejudice that has had its day.

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  • Justin Petrone

    Funny, I had a conversation with a Chilean two years my senior (so born in 1977) and he said the same thing — that our generation is the drug user generation, and the younger generation has avoided drug use. According to your theory, it was lack of parental supervision and other social pathologies that spawned my generation of drug users. But we also grew up with pro-drug messages. The first real vinyl I owned was my parents’ hand-me-down “Magical Mystery Tour” LP. And did The Doors ever really go out of style? A lot of guys my age saw the Oliver Stone film in 1991 and thought, “That’s exactly how I want to live my life.” I’m serious.

    • Luripompa

      The Doors made a big comeback riding on a wave of 60’s Awakening nostalgia in the late 80’s (although framed in typical Unraveling Xer ‘irony’). One could say that by 1987 the world had had its fill of 50’s nostalgia. I remember it well, and it was the basis for the 1991 Oliver Stone film. Before then, 60’s drug culture was universally frowned upon.


  • naturallycurly

    I’m interested in the way the generational cycles may have played out in other cultures. My husband grew up in the USSR and had a childhood closer to my Boomer mother’s (maybe even my Silent dad’s) than to my Xer one. But then again, I didn’t do drugs and I did attend a few concerts with my mother (Everly Brothers rule!).

  • Wiz83

    Being part of a Hero generation is so fucking boring.

    • pbrower2a

      No. Just more rational. That’s not so interesting outside themselves, but there is much that one can do if one stays rational.

      One need remember that the Millennial Generation may be the toughest-luck generation in economics of any American generation since the Lost. They don’t have the disposable income or generous allowances that the Silent, Boomers, and even X had. The real cost of living has soared while economic opportunities have constricted.

      Drugs, cancerweed, and alcohol are expensive. Note well that the tobacco taxes have been raised in part to deter youth smoking. Aside from computer power and internet communication, the only thing cheap these days is labor. The ruling elite of the American economic system are trying to make labor even cheaper while imposing monopoly prices.

      The Millennial Generation can’t afford bad habits — and its members know that all too well. Eventually not having bad habits will be something not taken for granted.

  • neil ridley

    The teen rebel extrordinare is James Dean born 1931, closely followed by Marlon brando born 1924. These are the silent generation. As a native of the BBC homeland. I would point out that the BBC is presently going through generational changes due to extreme managerial incompetance and the BBC is so large with 23,000 employees and lives in London it does not really know what is going on anyway else on our tiny Island. More likely to know what is happening in Syria or states than here. Easton born 1959 is late boomer and was 7 when sloop John appeared and when he was 13 it was 1972 and the world went through an economic crisis spread out of the middle east as well it. It is kicking off again, by Israel blinked this time.

  • Luripompa

    In my experience, I don’t think any of the “waves” mentioned above came later in Europe than in the US. I personally attended a “tax revolt” mass meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1983 (the 4th of October movement), Thatcher was elected on a Neoliberal ticket in 1979 (earlier than Reagan) and my 16-year old brother worked with a yuppie style sales company for a while in the early 80’s, which lived up to every cliché from the movie Wall Street imaginable. At the time (1983) it was considered a very trendy thing to do, and among trendy catchwords thrown around in early 80’s Sweden were “Number 1” and “Winner” (compare lyrics from “The Tide is High”, covered by Blondie).

    In fact, the Social Democrats being voted out of government in 1976, in something
    which has been labeled the “Pomperipossa election” (from an Astrid Lindberg short story about how it was actually possible to be taxed at over 100% your wage), was unprecedented in post WWII Swedish politics and a signal as good as any that the times were changing, although not yet decidedly in a Neoliberal direction. The election might in fact just as well have been called the ‘nostalgia election’.

    A lot of the change in mood however, as well as ideas of deregulation and privatization that started being popularized around 1980, was driven by a fundamentally Boomer anti-authority/anti-order instinct which has been with that generation from the very start, only it now traded the free expression velour pants/commie chic worker’s garb from the 60’s and early 70’s for the business suit and tie of the 80’s, signifying the Turning shift from Awakening to Unraveling. In this new apparition, it also influenced some young Xers in a generational reaction that was not least directed back at the Boom (many of whom of course never gave up their ultra leftwing 60’s convictions).

    It might be that the policies of Neoliberalism did not take complete hold in order to fundamentally rearrange the structures of society until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in many parts of Europe, but the dominant mood was there a decade earlier, and the theory is supposed to be mapping social moods, not politics in the concrete. That said, in regard to Sweden, some major political steps (such as the lifting of trade barriers and financial credit restrictions – not least feeding a speculative bubble in private ownership apartment housing) were taken by the returned and Libertarian influenced Social Democratic governments from 1982-1991.


  • More signs of that the Millennials are well-behaved — youth crime in CA at an all-time low:

  • Andrch02

    I’m reminded of the film “Make Way For Tomorrow” (1937)

    Some of the most interesting scenes are between the early 1860s cohort grandmother (played by a Lost, and played less like a Missionary and more like a Progressive) and the GI granddaughter. Just how frank the two are
    with one another (and completely aware of what’s going on)–while the
    Lost all try to tiptoe around and protect both of them (very ineptly I
    might add).

    The frank conversation that struck me the most was when the grandmother
    outright came out and challenged her granddaughter about going out with
    “older men” (the granddaughter is a senior in high school), and goes on
    to argue that it would be better if she’d find a boy her own age that
    she then could fall in love with, settle down, and marry. The
    grandmother says that “men talk to other men about the girls they’ve
    been with” and how she doesn’t want to be one of “those girls”.

    The granddaughter simply smiles at her grandmother as she puts on her
    gloves and says she knows full well that “men talk” and that “after they
    do, they then call up the girl that’s talked about the most.” The
    granddaughter goes on to say how she doesn’t want to fall in love
    (considers it old-fashioned and childish), but simply wants to test the
    waters, find the man who “does it the best”, and get some experience
    under her belt before she even considers marriage.

    Keep in mind the granddaughter is doing this all the while keeping up
    the image of being the best in her class, perfect daughter, and other such nonsense. There’s only one worry
    that the Lost mother has–that her GI daughter is using her mother-in-law’s presence in the home as an excuse not to bring her friends
    home so that she can meet them. It worries the Lost mother some, and
    drives some of the conflict of the movie between the Lost and her mother-in-law.

    Similarly, that’s how Millies rebel–if they chose to. They put up the
    image of perfection, in order to hide what they do behind “closed
    doors”. They tend to be “smarter” about doing what they do in secret, though some of
    them do get caught. And when they get caught, the “fooled” parents
    usually respond with “my son/daughter would never–they’re an
    outstanding student who works in a soup kitchen!, etc.” but in all
    actuality the parents are still victims of the Millennials who work at
    giving the appearance of not being bad, when in actuality they couldn’t be further from the truth.

    In my experience if you’re going to find teen rebels amongst my juniors, then look behind the superficial image they portray for your benefit and bamboozlement. This is the kind of stuff that Artists and Prophets get horrified over come the Awakening: (a la “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or Nixon).

  • David John Austin

    I’m a Millennial according to the American generation boundaries (1988), but I identify with so little of the Millennial characteristics. As such, I appreciate the posited explanation that the European (or at least British, in my case) generations are shifted 5-10 years later.

    In the UK, I believe the most recent Third Turning was marked by the ejection of Margaret Thatcher from government, by her own party. We look at the 80s in the UK as a time of political polarisation, but it only looks that way ‘from the inside’. You have to bear in mind that Thatcher won three general elections in a row: 1979, 1983, 1987; because there was a broad public consensus in favour of her politics. The Labour party may have been diametrically opposed to the Tories, but no one was voting for them. The real political divisions, within British parties, only began to emerge from 1990 onward, particularly with regard to Europe and Britain’s place in the world.

    If the British WW2 Crisis only ended after austerity (1954), then if we posit that the High ended with the beginning of the post-war boom (1972), that would mean the British Awakening would have taken place between 1973 and 1990. Thus, I am a British Gen-Xer, which makes so much sense to me. I feel far more a Nomad than anything else.

    For what it’s worth I also believe we are still going through an Unravelling right now. No significant institutions have completely collapsed as yet. Yes, some banks went down, but we saved enough of them to prevent a complete economic implosion. Until the penny drops that the big problem in the West is not our debt, rather our lack of significant economic growth, we will continue to ‘Unravel’.

  • Mollie Montague

    I’m 18, a Gen X as you say. Your analysis is interesting, and I would like to suggest that perhaps the reason we seem so much better behaved is because we were raised being told that teenagers misbehaved and therefore weren’t taken seriously. We want to be taken seriously. That’s a huge part of it.