Should we despair at the kids of today?

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.

Mark - a teenager in the punk era - reflects on whether today's youth has lost the rebellious spirit of earlier decades

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.

Mark in the headmaster's chair 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.

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The persecuted swot of the past is often now celebrated as a model of geek chic”

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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."

Teenagers and their sleepless lives

Magazine story

Teenagers have never been so tapped into technology - but is it taking over their lives? As part of BBC School Report's News Day, teenagers described the impact of technology and social media on their sleep, relationships and free time.

"When I go to bed and I'm supposed to be asleep, I sometimes talk to friends online or text them" - Sadia, Hackney in east London.

"If I'd been born 30 years ago, I still wouldn't have done any more sport. I'd have probably just been in the library a lot more" - Heather, Portsmouth

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.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    With respect to Mark Easton, the school he attended (and visited for this article) was/is unrepresentative. Better to choose someone from an average comprehensive and see how that changed. So his conclusions need to be treated with a pinch of salt. Recent reports have indicated a strong rise in the number of disruptive pupils. How does that relate to the "conclusion" that behaviour has improved?

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    Comment number 33.

    maybe the youth are rebelling more subtly by not conforming to the populist Daily Mail view of all being drunken chavs with 17 children and mugging old people.

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    Comment number 32.

    We live in a time of xbox live, email, www and social media. Kids have far more things to do today to occupy their minds than they did even a couple of decades ago. Long chats with even distant friends are just a fingertip away.
    We live in a different time and kids are progressing for the better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I do not despair about the teens of today, rather the opposite. Teens and early twenties seem caring and responsible people on the whole

    But I do despair about the behaviours of the middle aged. They have speculated, trousered and horded so much of the nations wealth and then spending it on luxuries, pleasuring themselves. You can spot them in the street by their waistlines and brash manner??

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    The last paragraph of the article sums it up - today's teens are more mature, their parents are the ones who haven't grown up. :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Maybe, just maybe, the answer is to treat all people, young and old, as individuals and to not make sweeping generalisations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Many will read your article and think...what planet are you living on?
    Drugs are endemic, reports of gun and knife crime are commonplace, the only job opportunities are within the black market saturated with foreign immigrants and the planet teeters on the precipice of Financial ruin and Climate catastrophes.
    In all probability the teenagers of today are most likely to be terrified basket cases.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Being just under 21, I find today's teenagers (some, not all) to be rebellious for the sake of it. There are no reasons why like politics, it's just because they can and will get their own way. On the flip side, some teens are abused/have personal problems and therefore misunderstood as being rebels. It's all down to parenting on how those teens are treated and perceive themselves in society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    In answer to the question posed on the headline, simply, yes!

    Parents, society, technology, it's all too easy when they are just being given everything and having to strive for nothing until they find themselves having to be self-sufficient . Then it gets tough in not having anyone to gift them the easy way out. W're raising morally, socially, creatively devoid individuals bar a few exceptions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Q: Should we despair at the kids of today?

    A: No, people used to say the same sort of things when I was a teenager some 30-40 years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    For a balanced view I would take a trip to a 'new' school with a different demographic and see if the experience is the same.

    Few state schools trade on tradition and heritage anymore its about modernity and youth (even the teachers)

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I truly feel sorry for the youngsters of today. So much is expected of them when nothing is given in return. No job prospects after them working their socks off at school. Skilled immigrants coming in to take jobs when there is no prospects for training skills, if but for a few. In our day (50's) all of us had training opportunities and, even the not so clever ones could get labouring jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    As a working class university student, I feel that in the 1970's I would have been more rebellious than I was in the 2000's. My friends and I were still annoyed at the world but we used to put our energies into music, skateboarding and studying. My way of sticking the finger to the man was going to university against all odds which means I will become one of the "men". The cycle continues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Could ME's views be skewed by seeing teenagers through a lens that shows what it is to be inspired to aspire?I attended a grammar school in the 60's & the difference between members of my own generation was the opportunity to aspire.The local Secondary Modern was a holding pen,up until the age of 15,for those with little hope.There are still those whose lives hold little hope, & all that entails.

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    Comment number 20.

    I find it sad that the youth of today are simply one huge marketing demographic. Those who question the Establishment with any kind of activism or principles are few and far between. Sad when kids care more about Apple products than the state of the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    It exposes the un-truth behind the semantics of "But when I was young! [insert golden age cliché]".

    Society is in a constant state of flux, and the evolution of norms is a constant process. I'm only 26 but folk that are 18 are so vastly different to me despite being the same generation. Not all aspects of the 'yoof' are positive, for sure, but when has that ever been true?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I wasnt a rebel durng my teeange years but there was a greater willingness than I see today to question the status quo - social and intellectual. That approach of questioning received wisdom is critical to effective academic achievement and later success in life. We need this in our young generation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I can totally empathise with your thoughts on visiting an old school. I was a pupil of the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys in the 1960's and was saddened when it was closed down, but heartened when Sir Paul McCartney, a former pupil ( I had one of his old school books once), bought it and made it into the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. I later revisited and felt an eerie deja-vu

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Kids do what we expect of them. Any failings reflect badly on our parenting and example. We should encourage them more, stretch them mentally, physically and morally & teach them to be responsible for themselves, no soft options for examinations, no excuses for idleness. Let them face the world with confidence having proved themselves. Most do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Today's young peope are guilty of the sin of being young. Tut tut.
    But, when they are older, they can condemn tomorrow's youth, because that is the way the world has always worked!


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