Is the teen rebel a dying breed?

Hands with cigarettes

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.

The birthday card Mark Easton made for his son The card Mark made for his son

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.

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No-one is suggesting young people don't misbehave, but teenagers no longer seem to define themselves by wild disobedience”

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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.

Teenager in a hoodie in a Bristol shopping centre

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.

Beach Boys in concert in 2012

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.

Mark Easton, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    I want to believe this - but I don't! Possibly drugs yes: but to me it is clear that alcohol is more part of the teen culture than it ever was. They drink publicly at a younger age, more and more alcohol-fuelled parties feature younger teenagers, and you only need to give your teenager a lift into town late evening at the weekend to see hundreds. Alcohol is central in teenage culture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    "The rebellion thing gets over played, always has - there's a carved stone tablet in sandskrit (sic) dating to early Egyptian history in which the mason beomans the lack of morals in today's youth..."

    That would be an achievement - Sanskrit inscriptions in early Egyptian history? Not bad for an Indian-subcontinent language spoken a few centuries later than early Egyptian civilisation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Our teens are scared Easton

    They're scared of the mess left by Labour, the flood of immigrants stealing their housing, jobs, education and life chances

    People like you have them scared promoting more & more foreignising & more and more immigrants.

    Give them a break Easton?

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Maybe the youth of today are simply better at lying to official staticians?

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.


    Poor sods have EVERYTHING to rebel about these days. . . . . . .They just don't

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    From my point of view so many parents are alcoholics or have been treated for cancer due to years of smoking these days and it must put kids off..

    Also movies such as Trainspotting really show what can happen if drugs take over your life.

    Good on these kids if they are learning being a rebel isn't important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    I left school six years ago, during my time only a very small percentage of people took drugs or even smoked as it was widely considered a silly waste of money, I went to pick up my 11 year old sister from the same school recently and one of her class mates tried to sell me weed.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Ahhh, so there is such a thing as an young fogey or maybe there's nothing left to rebel yell about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    53 Minutes ago

    @77 Think
    There was a report only last week about the enormous reduction in hooliganism at football matches (off the field). Badly behaved people are in the minority and the majority is getting bigger.

    dont tell the EDL that!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    My son (now 20) and his friends were all intelligent and sensible teenagers. As my son particularly is very politically aware, maybe this is a rebellion against the socio/economic and political attitudes of recent generations, or at least the popular representations of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    I remember the days when the students mobilised for large scale demonstrations on issues of morality and international outrage, such Vietnam, aparthied, etc. rather than for selfish idealogical viewpoints to be used as pawns in someone elses game

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    None of us can afford to go out, even with full time jobs so most seem to stay in and then go out every now and again. Has anyone else noticed the lack of boy racers in the evenings too?

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    In my experience, teenagers are too busy with their computer games, films and social media to behave badly or rebel. Or am I simply redefining "behave badly"? In my era good behaviour involved more than endless self-gratification, and many of yesterday's rebels are todays entrepreneurs. Maybe the truth is the current crop of teenagers are sedated by technology. "Tech is the opium of the masses".

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    this is good news, youngsters are also more likely to be more tolerant of cultures and races unlike some of the daily mail and the sun readers. thing are looking up shame about the economy though

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    I hope so.
    This country needs to grow up and grow up fast.
    Decadence and infantile delusions have left this country in a fiscal mess and a moral malaise.
    I hope this is the dawn of people taking responsibility for their own actions and the retraction of the state

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    This generation has been shafted. If they have not hit the booze yet, they will when they realise how much debt they've been left with and the lack of jobs to pay it off. Best of British luck to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    The rebellion thing gets over played, always has - there's a carved stone tablet in sandskrit dating to early Egyptian history in which the mason beomans the lack of morals in today's youth...

    ...whilst aspects of society worsen over time the fact is that each generation only take things slightly further than their parents did, who took it further than their parents ad infinitum....

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Seeems to depend where you live. I spend time in two small West Yorkshire towns. In one the kids are loud, smoking, you can smell the dope, and in the other the worst they get up to is relatively mild comments from their purpose built skate park.

    Sometimes it's a very obvious minority who give the rest a bad name, other times it's a more general culture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Maybe teenagers don't need to rebel any more because the capitalist society provides convenient pre-packaged rebellion available for consumption; allowing teenagers to appear to be "rebels" yet still strictly within the broader framework for society!

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    in my GCSE British depth study book,in the section about teenagers it says "only a tiny minority of teenagers fought each others on the beaches of the south coast.student protests in Britain were extremely law law affairs compared with the unrest in France and the USA in the late 1960s and 1970s.Perhaps what had changed the most was not teenagers but the way the media reacted to them."


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