Should we despair at the kids of today?

  • 26 March 2013
  • From the section UK
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Teenage girl in glasses

I hadn't been back to my old school for 35 years. But the new BBC One series The Editors invited me to consider a question I posed on this blog. And the answer, I thought, might be found in the place I spent my teenage years.

You may recall the post - it asked whether the teen rebel is now a dying breed. I rattled off a string of statistics suggesting that youth behaviour (despite all the headlines) is far better than in my day. Sex, drugs, booze, fags, crime - teenage problems with these have all fallen hugely in the past few years.

Problems persist, of course, but the current crop of young people may be the most compliant since youth culture was born last century. And I think we need to consider why.

So, I am retracing a journey I took countless times as a teenager. The walk up the hill to Peter Symonds College in Winchester is familiar and strange in equal measure. Neglected synapses fire in warm recognition with each stride, but stepping back into my past is also disconcerting.

The landscape doesn't match my mental picture. New buildings alter and obscure views; there are unsettling alterations to once habitual trails; doorways to classrooms have been bricked up and reconfigured. (An elephant might feel like this when discovering a hotel has been built across his ancient migration route.)

The cavernous school hall, where I had quivered at the sight of dyspeptic masters in mortar boards and gowns, has become a welcoming pastel-carpeted management hub for a college that now teaches 3,600 sixth formers.

Image caption In the headmaster's chair

I spot the old headmaster's chair, once the seat of school authority, tucked in a corner. In a meaningless act of subversion, I pull it out and sit on it.

It isn't just the scenery that is different. The relationship between the adolescent and adult world has changed too.

I have brought some archive film of teddy boys, mods and rockers, hippies, punks and skinheads to show to the students. They smile at the sight of teenagers putting two pubescent fingers up at the older generation, but the footage is treated like source material in a 20th Century history class. A few appear to be taking notes.

I confide to them how I felt as a teenager when I first heard Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols.

"It was an epiphany," I suggest, improbably. "I remember feeling that at last I had found music which reflected my anger and frustration at the way my parents' generation were running the world. The music and fashion of my day were designed to annoy the grown-ups," I explain.

The young faces are etched with what I take to be incomprehension, but may actually be pity.

When I ask them to suggest why they don't behave like that, a number of theories emerge.

One is that they are all too busy to rebel. A couple of the students say that the uncertainties of a job market, where employers routinely reject all but the best graduates, mean studies cannot be neglected. The persecuted swot of the past is often now celebrated as a model of geek chic.

I conduct an unscientific survey of Peter Symonds' students. Of the 337 teenagers who agree to answer my questions, almost two-thirds (64%) say studying is more important than hanging around with friends. Nine out of 10 think they are under more pressure than their parents to succeed academically.

Another explanation put forward for their generally conformist behaviour is that teenage subversion has itself been subverted by consumerism. "We buy what we are told to buy," one girl claims. "Capitalism has won."

Perhaps it has in the sense that the electronic gadgets and media tools flogged by global corporations now occupy huge chunks of their spare time. There is far less reason for a teenager to be bored, less opportunity for mischief or nuisance if they are in their bedrooms on Facebook or online gaming.

When I was a teenager, we did lots of hanging around. The Facebook of my day was the bus shelter. Research suggests that in the 1990s, about half of British teenagers spent most evenings out with their peers. Our survey of the Peter Symonds students finds, in that school at least, the figure is now closer to one in five.

Social media has also given today's teens a voice. "That is what the 60s and 70s rebels were all about," a boy tells me. "Young people wanted to be heard. Now we have that voice through Facebook and Twitter."

It is an interesting point. New technology gives young people an opportunity to engage with wider society on equal terms. Teenagers are free to participate, protest and petition online.

In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, we defined ourselves in contrast to our parents' generation. We placed ourselves outside - literally and figuratively. Today's young people are not the same.

They still profess to feel different. My survey finds 84% agreeing their values are different to their parents' generation. "[But] these days, a teenager's mum and dad will often share the same tastes in music and in fashion," Sussex University historian Dr Lucy Robinson tells me.

As if to prove the point, when we go to Winchester University students' union midweek "bop", one girl politely introduces me to her parents who have come along with her. The generation gap has been bridged.

It is not just the subtle changes to the city's architecture that discombobulate me. Meeting some of today's teenagers in the place where I spent my adolescence, I find myself admiring their self-discipline and generosity while regretting the apparent muting of youthful challenge and confrontation.

Perhaps I am deluding myself. In the 70s, I may have occasionally put gel upon my hair, smeared mascara upon my eyes and arranged a sneer upon my lip, but I was really a middle-class grammar school boy masquerading as part-time punk.

The demonization of youth, which has so disfigured the relationship between adults and young people in Britain, has always been based on an urban myth. Teenagers became an easy scapegoat for an establishment spooked by rapid social change. True rebels were few and far between.

But I do think it is time we stopped kidding ourselves. Today's young people are, generally, behaving very well. And given how badly some of their parents behaved, that may be what contemporary teenage rebellion looks like.

The Editors is broadcast on BBC One on Monday 25 March at 23:15 GMT. It is also on BBC World News.