Today’s Clean-Cut Teens: “Twenty is the New Forty”

I’ve got some shocking news for you.  According to recent surveys, today’s British and American teens are the best behaved generation since the 1960s, when the world turned upside down.  Here are the facts, along with some comments, to prove it:

  1. Teens aren’t drinking as much.  In 1980, 72 percent of high school students were drinking. Today, that number has dropped to 32 percent.  In the UK, 43% of teens had tried alcohol last year compared with 61% ten years ago.
  2. They aren’t taking many drugs.  In particular, marijuana use in the US has declined from 50% of teens trying it to around 30%.  In the UK, 17% of teens had tried drugs last year, down from 29% in 2001.
  3. They’re not smoking cigarettes as much.  In the UK, 58% of pupils had never smoked in 2002; now it’s up to 77%.
  4. Young people born between 1992 and 1996 were less noisy and rude in public places than their predecessors.
  5. They’re not skipping school.
  6. The teenage pregnancy and abortion rates are extremely low, and fewer teens are having unprotected sex.  They are also not getting as many sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs). In 1988, half of boys age 15 to 17 had experienced sex, and that number was 37.2 percent for girls. But now it's 28 percent for boys and 27 percent for girls.
  7. They plan to vote for more conservative politicians than previous generations.
  8. More teens than ever are going to university.
  9. In the UK, crime by minors has decreased significantly.  There has been a 44% drop in crimes by under 18s, from 1,974 offences in 2008/09 to 998 in 2011/12.

One doctor who specializes in treating adolescents notes that if people haven’t started engaging in risky behaviors, particularly smoking, by the age of 18, they are highly unlikely to start them later in their lives.  Since children born to teenagers are at risk for such problems as dropping out of school, ending up in prison, and becoming teen parents themselves, the record low rate of teen pregnancies probably means these problems will diminish in the future.

Other commentators have noted that since the economic crisis began, more young people have remained at home, where it is a bit more challenging to behave badly.  Also, since the economic crisis has prevented teens from getting part-time jobs, they have less money to spend on alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.

So, the truly interesting question is whether this generation is an anomaly, or whether the previous generations were the ones that were out of sync.

One commentator has actually written that because teens no longer have early exposure to lead in their houses and schools, their behavior has cleaned up.  That is probably a somewhat crazy theory since generations of teens before the 1960s were exposed to lead in their childhoods and didn’t act out.

I think the economic crisis is probably one of the main reasons today’s teens are behaving better.  The Great Depression of the 1930s had a profound effect on the young people of that time; when they grew up, they valued job security and a home more than anything.  It has only been since the affluence of the 1960s that teens scorned that love of security and valued “walking on the wild side” more than home, job and family.
Things to Do:

It might be useful to discuss the above issues as they relate to your experience in small groups.  Of course, we’re not asking you to discuss your personal life in class; it would be useful, however, to tell your class about your observations of the behavior of other teens you know.

  1.  Which of the above findings do you find reflected in the lives of teens in your village, town or city? (are teens who live in a village more conservative than those who live in a larger town since people can keep a closer eye on them?).
  2. Is the behavior of the teens you know affected by their social class, i.e., low-income, middle-income or rich?
  3. If you know older teens or young people in their early 20s, is their behavior wilder or more conservative than your age group?
  4. As to peer pressure, do the teens around you encourage you to try adult behaviors such as drinking, smoking, having sex, and taking drugs, or do they disapprove of such activities?  Are the answers of the boys in your class different from those of the girls?
  5. Do you think the next generation of teens will be as conservative as this generation or engage in riskier behavior?  Why?

Debbie Gambrill