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 Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    What about;
    The rebel teenagers have grown up and had their own families, and funnily enough, are better adept at explaining the pros and cons of the problem behaviours of the past than their own parents were. Armed with the correct knowledge (and not just propaganda) with their open minded parents keen for their children to make up their own minds about things, the kids have made better choices?

  • Comment number 304.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 303.

    The teen rebels are there. You will finding them among the street protesters of UAF, stamping out attempts to express views which they disapprove of, destroying our democratic traditions.
    The middle-class mammies-boys of the UAF are hardly teenagers or rebels. I doubt you could make a film about James Dean joining the Ex Polytechnic University New Labour Society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 302.

    Do you seriously believe that alcohol causes more harm to society than the heroin trade? Really?
    Doesn't matter what people believe about this, it is a matter of fact as proved by many reports based on well-conducted research on the subject. The criminalisation of drugs causes far more damage to society than the drugs themselves. See Prohibition in the US for details.

  • rate this

    Comment number 301.

    Whatever generation you speak of there will always be rebels. There are plenty of them on here & I'm sure they are not all the same generation. The Harry Enfield sketch of Kevin the teenager is probably as true today in some cases as it was in my day some 50 odd years ago. Likewise there always has and always will be good clean living teenagers often described as nerdy. We can't all be the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    Maybe some of this is down to the work of our schools? My wife teaches PSCHE and Ethics (within the RE syllabus) and there is a lot of content about self respect, and the harm that drink, drugs and smoking do. And kids seem to both understand and take note of the message.

  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    "288.Giles Jones: Have we forgotten last years riots so soon?"

    Funnily enough, in my entire county, there were NO incidents of any kind during the rioting. That adds up to a hell of a lot of calm, sensible young people. A pattern replicated across huge swathes of the UK outside of the hotspots.

    Guess actual evidence to the contrary is hard to swallow when you have the bit between your teeth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    I see drunken, stoned idiot teeneagers every weekend, and more often if the schools are off, where they can be heard caterwauling around town, out their bins on Mad Dog 20/20 and rubbish cider. I refute the information in the above article as bunkum as teenagers are just as drunk and stupid as ever. Many a statistic can be tampered with, much like the ones pertaining to poverty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 297.

    @291 Alan

    Spot on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    Why do people feel the need to make such generalizations about groups of people, especially the younger generation, all the time? It seems no one can just go about living the way they want, and choosing their own lifestyle. Maybe people have seen the damage such actions can really do. Of course young people care about things, let them do it their way!

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    As a 19 year old myself I hope I can add a little insight into the changing attitudes of teens today. Regarding 'illegal drugs' I'd say the decrease in usage is largely down to the government's in-school 'education' of teens where they somehow manage to convince a large proportion of students that every recreational drug other than alcohol and tobacco is dangerous and wildly addictive -...

  • rate this

    Comment number 294.

    Old people think kids today are no good, the world's a terrible place and society is falling down around us.
    In other news the pope likes Jesus and bears do their business in the woods.

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    And who came up with those numbers?!

    It's naive to think that the problem is dwindling. Kids today are buying legal drugs in higher numbers than ever and getting high. They don't smoke because its archaic. What kind of 21st century kid with half a brain cell would start smoking? Anyone can order or make drugs easily.

    Sounds like a biased survey.

    Yes the youth of today are boring. Too much media

  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    Our son showed us around the hippie/ drug area of Copenhagen, perhaps with the purpose of shocking us. Instead of that, boring old Mum and Dad felt like students again - we´d seen it all before in the 70s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    We cannot be stereotyped. some will go into valued employment and make everyone proud, study hard and be successful. others will become hoodies, hanging around on corners getting high and stabbing peple. we don't try to stereotype old people, yet you stereotype us. why? haven't you ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy? when you tell someone what they will end up like, they will end up like it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    The teen rebels are there. You will finding them among the street protesters of UAF, stamping out attempts to express views which they disapprove of, destroying our democratic traditions. The teen rebels are today's political thugs, easy to manipulate, useful idiots, until they grow up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    When adults always said "Tuck your shirt in" and "Comb your hair", rebellion was having your shirt out and gelling your hair into a mess.

    But when those people become parents and Dad looks lke that, you run out of stuff to do, so the only thing that's left is... smarter. Beau Brummel was king of the Dandies over a century ago, their thing was being immaculately dressed. What goes around...

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    Have we forgotten last years riots so soon?

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    I not surprised they are more sensible, now they seen what degenerates thier flower power, baby boomer, divorced and married twice, two mortgage, credit card freaks for parents they have that have left them in this mess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    Every generation rebels against the values of one before it. Since we've spent the last twelve years being as rude, as selfish, as self-centred, as self-indulgent, and as nasty as we can be, prizing the ability to deliver insults and violence above all else, it is no surprise that the rebellion is to be nice. And dull.


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