Youngsters use sex and drugs to feel like adults

Teenagers find transition to citizenship ever more difficult, while women struggle to balance competing demands on their time
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The Independent Online

YOUNG PEOPLE are becoming responsible adults at a later age than at any other time during the past 100 years, because their chance of getting ajob and being financially independent before their early twenties is now very small.

YOUNG PEOPLE are becoming responsible adults at a later age than at any other time during the past 100 years, because their chance of getting ajob and being financially independent before their early twenties is now very small.

Teenagers have instead turned to sex, drugs and alcohol as the only way to mark their transition into adulthood, according to Dr John Coleman,director of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence.

Their sexual maturity is more advanced than at any other time this century, with an increasing number of teen-agers having sex before they are 16.But their emotional maturity has been stunted, because most are financially dependent on their parents well into their twenties.

In a report in Community Care magazine, Dr Coleman found that the lack of economic independence for young people has increased adolescenceand caused profound social changes. Teenagers who cannot afford to leave home have to renegotiate their relationships with their parents and areforced to look at different ways of expressing their autonomy.

The lack of work opportunities has had the greatest effect on teenagers' lives, said Dr Coleman. The latest figures show that the numbers of youngpeople under the age of 24 in work has shrunk by nearly 40 per cent in the past 15 years, as the opportunities for working have declined.

In the 1980s, the proportion of unemployed young men jumped from 10 per cent to 25 per cent. The lack of work has encouraged more youngpeople to go on to higher education, and few now leave school at 16. The Government is concentrating on the 10 per cent of young men aged 16 to18 who are not in work, higher education or training, because of the link with crime and drug-taking.

"For some young people the transition to adulthood is problematic today," said Dr Coleman. "The traditional move from school into work may notbe relevant for some.

"While there has been much talk of citizenship, and of young people assuming the rights and responsibilities of adulthood, legislation enacted duringthe 1990s has sent a contradictory message. Transition to adulthood may be extended for long periods of time, so that independence takes manyyears to achieve. This can cause frustration and resentment."

As obtaining a job becomes more competitive, and the pressure for qualifications gets more intense, two different school populations will evolve,claims Dr Coleman: one destined for long periods of education and training, and so eventually into high-status jobs, and the other trained forsporadic work and long periods of leisure.

The mental health of young people has also deteriorated during the past 100 years, and suicides rates for young men increased during the 1980s. In1996, 547 men aged between 16 and 24 took their own lives.

The increased marketing of sex in the media has affected young people's attitudes, said Dr Coleman: "Denied the chance to be independent,youngpeople may turn to other means to exhibit adult behaviour, such as drinking, drug-taking and sex."

Nearly 18 per cent of young women and 25 per cent of young men in the UK reported having underage sex.

Terry Philpot, editor-in-chief of Community Care, said: "Blaming young people for their behaviour does not solve the problem. We must avoid amoral panic and get to the heart of the matter."

SOCIAL CHANGES

SEXUAL BEHAVIOUR

IN THE early part of the century, only 5 per cent of men and 0.8 per cent of women reported having sex before they were 16 years old.

The latest figures showed that in the Nineties, 18 per cent of girls and 25 per cent of boys said they had sex before they were 16. Teenage pregnancyrates in Britain are the highest in Europe and there are fears over a rise in sexually transmitted diseases among young people.

EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT

IN THE early 1900s, only 3 or 4 per cent of the population went on to higher education. By 1997, at least 40 per cent of young people went on touniversity or college. Children could leave school at 13 in 1900 and many went out to work to add to the family income. Teenagers in 1999 areunlikely to start earning money until their early twenties.

MENTAL HEALTH

One child in five is now suspected to have mental health problems. There has been a sharp rise in suicide rates in young men in the past two decades.Young men are four times more likely than young women to commit suicide.

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