Generation Boring? British teenagers are partying less

Published in Refinery 29 on March 17, 2016

The series Fresh Meat returned to our screens recently – with the gang of Manchester students soon to graduate and face the real world. In the second episode, reluctant teen Luca is sent by his mum round to the flat share, to see how brilliant university life is.

“Welcome to the mad house,” chime the uni lot, clutching traffic cones, vodka bottles and fags, “What’s your poison?”

Luca looks confused. It’s only 3pm – bit early, perhaps? “Not for us lads, cos we’re on it, dawn till dusk. And after dusk,” says one of the older guys, Howard. But not only is Luca unimpressed by daytime drinking, he’s unconvinced that pissing about at uni will help his career ambitions: “The number of unemployed graduates is going up,” opines Luca, “Starting salaries are going down… they reckon it will take 30 years for the average student to pay off their loan.” Cue graduate panic.

It might be fictionalised, but the scene speaks measures about our latest generation gap: that between Generation Y – aka millennials in their twenties and early thirties – and Generation Z, the digital natives just hitting university age. If the former are characterised as feckless but entitled wasters, duly dissatisfied with their lot in life, then the latter seem possessed of a sensible clear-sightedness; they are sober, serious, ambitious and careful.

Yes, these are sweeping statements about whole generations – but they do seem to be backed up by stats. Just last week, it was announced that teen pregnancy in England and Wales is down an astonishing 45% since 2007 – the lowest rate since records began nearly 50 years ago. Hooray for better sex education and greater availability of contraception, perhaps? Those are two possible reasons. It’s also been observed that this steep downward trend started as social media blew up – suggesting young people may be flirting safely online rather than round the back of the bike sheds.

Another relevant factor is surely the plummeting of other “risky behaviours”. Over a quarter of under-25s don’t drink at all, according to data released by the Office for National Statistics last year, while “heavy drinking” is down 15% in the last decade, with drug use also falling from 16.4% to 10.2%, in the same age bracket. A Department of Health survey of teenagers in 2013 found only 16% had ever taken drugs, compared to 30% a decade previously; 9% had consumed alcohol in the previous week, down from 25% in 2003, and only a teeny 3% were regular smokers.

Still, young people can’t do anything right: such stats have spawned endless think-pieces accusing them of being, well, boring. Instead of being castigated as binge-drinking, drug-huffing, sex-mad monsters – as millennials were in our moral-panic-inducing youth – this generation have been dubbed The New Puritans, Generation Zzzz, a bunch of kill joys. We are, according to the Spectator, living in Ab Fab Britain: the relationship between judgmental, frumpy Saffy and her drunken chimney stack of a mother Eddy is now the norm.

Middle-aged columnists who yomp through a bottle of red a night may be up in arms about young people soberly knitting and playing Scrabble, but there is at least a clear narrative for why today’s teens are so dull: it’s the economy, stupid. Generation Z can’t afford to have fun – both literally and metaphorically. No wonder they are ranked among the least happy and most stressed out teenagers in the West…

In the aftermath of 2008’s economic crash, they’ve watched the generation above them struggle in unpaid internships, terrible flat shares, with mountains of debt and high competition for bad jobs. They don’t remember the day-glo optimism of Cool Britannia because they grew up with austerity Britain, where belts are tight and noses are permanently pressed to the grindstone.

Author Chloe Combi, who has written a book entitled Generation Z: Their Voice, Their Lives, for which she interviewed thousands of British teens, concurs. “I think the ‘pinch’ is affecting every part of young people’s lives because it is an economy stacked against them,” she tells Refinery29. “University is so expensive now, it has to be geared towards maximising opportunity, like tons of work experience, which massively curtails heavy partying or drinking.”

It’s true, young people do seem to have a more conscientious attitude today. Where skipping lectures to watch The OC with a hangover was the norm when I was at uni, I get that it’s not so cute if you’re now stumping up £9,000 a year for the privilege. You even see the difference in social media: Gen Y embraced the overshare – think Lena Dunham, for a prime example – while Gen Z might be more likely to expunge social media accounts of embarrassing bong-toting pics lest they put off potential employers.

If they move out of home, rents are so high there’s no spare cash to fritter on booze, drugs and club entry – as indicated by a new study suggesting young people and students spend more on coffee than clubbing. If they live with their parents, as young people increasingly do, there’s no venue for wild hedonism: having drunken sex on a sofa overlooked by a framed photograph of your folks’ wedding day – taken when they were your age! – is only ever going to be super-awkward.

I’ve just hit 30, so belong to the upper end of the millennial generation who seem to be having the opposite problem to the straight-laced teenagers of today. We’re the Peter Pan generation, refusing – or unable – to grow up. We still party, even if our teenage counterparts don’t. Yet, unlike our parents, we’ve hit remarkably few traditional life goals.

The average ages for having children, buying a house and getting married have all nudged into the thirties recently. And no wonder, given that – even if we do actively want such things – we also often can’t afford them: the average house price in London is over half a million, the average wedding costs £20,500, and a child will set you back £230,000. Ouch.

But while I may not own my own sofa, or front room, I did spend my twenties earning just about enough cash to have a good time – and it hasn’t stopped yet. Dancing at a club till the morning Tube, lost weekends in fields, raucous meals out and holidays with the girls are still a regular part of life. Metropolitan millennials work hard, but play hard too (and sometimes, still, play too hard).

We’ve seen plenty of these women on telly, with Girls, New Girl, Broad City, Two Broke Girls, Crashing and Drifters mining flat shares, shit jobs, awkward romantic encounters and getting smashed for comedy. But different stories of the next generation are beginning to come through. Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum centred on a naive twenty-something virgin with crap job prospects – refreshingly different to the usual raunchy telly teens. The characters in Jack Thorne’s Glue might have been very naughty indeed, but they were also unabashedly driven and ambitious. Look too at recent movie Mistress America; if Greta Gerwig is the perennial millennial mayfly, gadding between careers and a super-fun social life, it’s her younger, student, soon-to-be stepsister who has a serious, even ruthless, focus on what she wants to achieve in life.

This might seem like the world’s turned upside down – thirty-something’s behaving like giddy teenagers while teenagers concentrate, soberly, on their career. But these two trends are surely not as contradictory as all that. Combi suggests that Gen Z will grow up to be much like Gen Y: “Almost none of my millennial friends own property, but for those in their teens, the prospect of ever owning property seems like a distant fantasy. They’ll be forced into house shares or living with parents older and older, which of course infantalises them and massively waylays what were the traditional hallmarks of adulthood – i.e. marriage and children.”

So, while all those stats show what young people aren’t doing by the time they’re 25, might it just be that they are in less of a rush? As we’ve seen, there’s no longer any reason to cram all your bad behaviour into your teens, as you’re no longer expected to be grown up by 25. Why not focus on Freud and Foucault while you’re paying thousands of pounds for the academic privilege, and party hard afterwards? There’s no shame in saving your teenage kicks till you’ve finally got a job that gives you the cash to splash on Prosecco.

I can see why commentators are worried young people are missing out. There is value in blowing off steam: getting wasted is a time-honoured way to make friends, make memories, make out, and make (necessary) mistakes. But given those things don’t actually stop when we hit 25 anymore, maybe young people are smart in delaying, or spreading out, their bad behaviour. Late-starters get a chance to work out who they are and what they really want from life, from love, from a job, from their friends. Maybe that will be cocoa and Netflix – or maybe it’ll be booking your first big, boozey holiday for your 30th birthday… Ibiza isn’t going anywhere.

Where next?