Teens: Old before their time

They're branded as threatening, disrespectful and uneducated, and there's a growing consensus that Something Needs To Be Done about today's teenagers. But maybe the real problem lies with us. In this introductory essay to our special issue, Mark Hooper argues that one familiar teen lament has never rung more true: 'You just don't understand!'
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The Independent Online

Who'd be a teenager in 2006? As if it isn't hard enough dealing with all those misdirected hormones and skin eruptions, they're now being blamed for most of society's ills. That is if you believe a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) that, in a nutshell, confirms all your deepest fears about those strange beings huddled on the back seat of the bus. To paraphrase a little here, the gist of its findings is: "The Modern British Teen - obese, oversexed and over there." Oh, sorry, we missed out the bits about them being drugged-up, violent, under-educated and riddled with STDs.

The underlying message behind the IPPR report is that adults are increasingly frightened of children. There's even a term for it - "paedophobia" - although best not say that out loud unless you want your house burned down by a mob of barely literate vigilantes armed with tabloid-endorsed surveys.

But there's a serious point here. Apparently over 1.5 million of us want to move house to avoid young people hanging around on street corners. Hello? They're OUR KIDS. Has it really come to this, that we've become prisoners in our neighbourhoods to our own offspring? Are teenagers really that terrifying?

Of course, all communities need scapegoats and, in these increasingly uncertain times, no one fits the bill better than a surly semi-adult who can barely raise a mumble, let alone an objection. Obviously, It's Not Fair. And, clearly, We Don't Understand. But the one lesson teenagers have always had to come to terms with is the great truth of adulthood: nobody cares. We all know they're not really to blame. They never are. They're not the ones who ignore UN resolutions or sexed-up dossiers. But they're easier to tut at. And, besides, they dress funny.

The recent spate of widespread tutting, however, ignores the fact that the modern British teen is a very different animal to the one earlier generations recognise from their own misspent youth. While the rise of the "kidults" - grown-ups who hold on to the trappings of adolescence well into their thirties - shows no (omega) sign of abating, the teenager as we know it no longer exists. In its place is a bafflingly complex array of disparate groups, struggling to make sense of the world around them and inventing their own system of codes, values and mores in the process.

Up until the end of the Second World War, it was simple: you left school, took on an apprenticeship and learnt pretty sharpish to live in the adult world. But in the 1950s it all changed: you left school, you did whatever you felt like for as long as you felt like and then you entered the adult world on your own terms. In the post-War boom years, school leavers suddenly found themselves with money in their pockets and new, strange and exciting developments to discover. Blues and jazz dominated the airwaves, while Marlon Brando was busy rebelling against anything and everything on the screen. As a direct result, demob suits disappeared in favour of a new youth uniform consisting of workwear and undershirts. The teenager was king, spearheading a cultural revolution fuelled by the gods of leisure and entertainment. But things aren't so clear-cut and linear any more. Now, you live in the adult world, leave school and still continue to do childish things, in no particular order.

Writing in US Esquire this year, the essayist Chuck Klosterman used such evidence to proclaim the Death of the Teen. "It's not that kids are necessarily growing up too fast; it's that kids are growing up too randomly. The Teenage Experience doesn't exist: everything they do is either wholly adult or wholly childish."

While it might be more than a little disingenuous to claim we can't blame teenagers for anything on the grounds that they no longer exist (evidently there are still people in their teens out there), Klosterman is more concerned with a subtle - but stark - shift in the teen dynamic. Discussing the films of Larry Clark as an example, he says: "What you see... are children with unsophisticated minds dealing with complicated, adult problems, which is why their dialogue seems so striking."

But let's not dwell in the fictional world when we've got living, breathing case studies of our own sat on the back of the 134 bus to Finchley. Another survey, this time commissioned from media agency Ramp Industry by Channel 4, attempted a more "street up" approach by interviewing a cross-section of teenagers over a six-month period. It also provided an outlet for the subjects themselves by encouraging them to produce video diaries, provide regular text updates or to contribute to messageboard discussions. Unsurprisingly, the survey - entitled UK Tribes ( www.uktribes.com) - draws some very different conclusions to the IPPR. It tries to make sense of the bewildering variation in the teenage experience of today, in the attempt explaining why sweeping generalisations are even harder to make now than ever.

For a start, it's far too simplistic to describe every kid playing with supermarket trolleys on a street corner as a "hoodie". It's a meaningless term in a world where self-proclaimed Chavs distance themselves from Street Rats, Grungers from Emo Kids and Trackies from Skaters. Andy Crysell, MD of Ramp, is keen to stress that these various "tribes" are all terms used by the interviewees rather than media fabrication. "What's perhaps surprising is that all these tribes actually do exist," he says. "It's not an invention by trendy London-centric style mags. And they exist in a micro sense, rather than the rather monolithic tribes of the past such as mods and rockers. The difference is there is a lot of fluidity and transference between different tribes. Alliances are less hard and fast than they once were, because the social glues which unite young people are more varied."

Crysell also points out the positive aspect of these tribes, regardless of how they may appear to the outsider. "It's about (omega) encouraging the individual within the group," he says. "The tribe provides a sense of identity, a feeling of control, of being able to contribute to something that's not outside of your realm."

The same conclusion is drawn by Nick Barham in his recent book Disconnected (Ebury Press), the result of spending a year travelling with and talking to a wide selection of Britain's youth between 2003 and 2004. Barham, who is a former advertising executive and ran Bartle Bogle Hegarty's "cultural research unit" Profusion, takes as his central thesis the disconnection felt by today's youth - from the past, from mainstream politics, from traditional forms of education, from the prevailing morality, from duty, from reality. But rather than portraying this as a negative, he sees it as a very practical response to the world they're faced with. "In the 1960s, people were rebelling against the standards of their parents' generation," he notes. "But now youngsters don't have anything to rebel against because they didn't grow up knowing any standards."

Instead, many teenagers simply ignore rules that they feel have no bearing on their lives. But rather than existing outside of the system, they look beyond it. In keeping with Klosterman's theory, what we see is the child's response to an adult world they reject, but often wrapped up in the language and posturing of the adult. The result is, "a generation profoundly different from those that have come before [with] a soundtrack that you don't like, a new language that you don't understand and a radical morality that you don't accept."

This is a crucial point - rather than the standard teenage nihilism, the various youth tribes are, in Crysell's words, "about contributing and creating". In terms that an older generation might understand, many of today's teenagers follow the dictum: "Why don't you just switch off the television set and go out and do something less boring instead." The fact that "something less boring" might entail taking drugs, or joyriding, or drinking alcopops, doesn't necessarily have to detract from the simple truth that they're setting their own agenda, often with a rare passion and enthusiasm. Barham singles out two groups - psychedelic clubbers and petrolheads - as examples. From the outside (adult) world, they seem little more than troublesome, hedonistic delinquents. Certainly, both groups get their kicks partly from illegal acts, whether it's popping pills in clubs or racing cars where they shouldn't. But essential to both is a sense of belonging, where, "For a few hours at least, they can determine their own laws, their own parameters of conduct."

This new morality is not only "Life after God", as author and professional youth chronicler Douglas Coupland describes it; this is also a world where the established beliefs of secular society don't count for much either. But it's one thing to play the childish game of constantly asking "why?" until there's no satisfactory reply - and quite another to suggest your own answer. But that's exactly what today's youth has done: created its own alternative version of reality, where each member of society counts as an individual in their own right and on their own terms.

Barham notes with surprise that many of those teenagers he talked to were far more conservative than he expected, with well-developed personal moral codes, even if they don't tally with those of previous generations. Yes, they download porn on their mobiles, they do handbrake turns in car parks and they've often experimented with drugs before they've tried a Bacardi Breezer. But, unlike their stereotypical portrayal in the media, they have a far stronger sense of community than they're given credit for.

"There's a lot less tension between the different groups than we expected," admits Crysell. "As individuals, they tend to be (omega) incredibly loyal to certain brands - be it PlayStation, Topshop or whatever - and this can form a social glue, cutting across barriers between otherwise contradictory tribes and interests."

While the UK Tribes survey still came across evidence of antagonism - Crysell cites a mass punch-up between Goths and Chavs and general animosity towards Emo Kids ("they get most of the grief"), the expected tensions usually fail to materialise. Chavs, for instance, seem proud of their reputation and are reclaiming the word from the condescending middle classes. More significantly, the geeks (or New Techies) are inheriting the earth, thanks to the increasing role technology plays in teenage lives. "People have been talking about virtual reality for a long time," says Crysell, "but it's happening. Someone's virtual life on MySpace can now take priority over their real life." Friendships and conversations flourish between people who've never met beyond a chatroom or a file-sharing website. And the nerd's unique role as a facilitator has seen his stock rise inexorably.

"They don't necessarily create the content," explains Crysell, "but they know how to channel it by building web pages, which aids those around them like musicians - so their social standing within the playground improves."

Just as in the 1950s, music is still the most important "social glue" around which fans cluster, but fashion and technology now also play major roles.

So far, so positive. But what about the troublemakers? Like teenagers themselves, they prove a lot harder to pin down once the searchlight is turned on. "Much of the information we receive about this generation is mediated, and the mediator has its own agenda," says Barham. "Kids can read, watch TV, listen to politicians... Is it any wonder they feel disconnected?"

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London recently undertook an in-depth study of the UK's youth crime figures to establish a more objective position on the subject. Free from Home Office spin and tabloid hyperbole, the picture is rather different.

For a start, the age at which a child can be held legally responsible for criminal behaviour in England and Wales is one of the lowest in Europe: a mere 10 years old. So youth crime figures are immediately inflated. That's one league table we rarely read about being bottom of. For the record, comparable ages of responsibility are 13 in France, 14 in Germany, 15 in Italy, 16 in Spain and 18 in Belgium. If you want any more evidence of the death of the teenager, here it is in black and white: in the law's eyes, you cease being a child and become a calculated, conniving criminal while still in junior school. Why is this legal age so low? For one reason alone: because in 1993, the toddler James Bulger was murdered by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson when they were both aged 10. The media, having already worked themselves into a frenzy about the "evil child killers", demanded a change, so we got one.

How much crime are youngsters responsible for? In 2004/ 2005, 287,013 people aged between 10 and 17 were convicted for offences; amounting to 20 per cent of the national crime total. In actuality, this youth crime figure hasn't risen significantly in the past five years, and is in fact decreasing over time.

Even our understanding of what "youth crime" means is incredibly blurred. Antisocial behaviour can range in terms of criminality from congregating in noisy groups to violence. In fact, the vast majority of what is recorded as youth crime is of the petty variety: theft, handling stolen goods, criminal damage and the like make up over 68 per cent in the King's College findings. Furthermore, very few cautions or convictions are related to violence. Even those crimes reported as violent incidents tend to be largely down to fights between children, usually in the afternoon, close to where they live. Without wishing to belittle the genuine cases, kids having a scrap on the way home from school doesn't necessarily represent a pandemic. But the chances of seeing "Youth Crime Down A Bit" headlines are about as slim as those for "House Prices Entirely Unaffected".

Similarly, our children's appalling education standards aren't all they are purported to be. Every year the pass figures for GCSEs improve, and every year this is used as evidence that exams are getting easier. Admittedly, GCSEs are a very different proposition to the previous systems of CSEs and O-levels. They're supposed to be. They were invented by a group of very clever people, all of whom had a lot CSEs and O-levels between them, not to mention degrees. The difference between the examination systems is that, in GCSEs, pupils are encouraged to think for themselves. Instead of giving straight "yes" and "no" answers, they are expected to answer open-ended questions of the "Why do you think..." variety, as well as doing coursework which avoids the mere memorisation and repetition of facts.

As for current youth literacy rates for the UK, they do vary depending on source. But the variation is between an average 99.9 and 100 per cent. (This is compared to 97 per cent in the US for the same period, according to Unesco figures).

So, British teenagers in 2006. Not quite as violent as we thought. Considerably smarter. In trouble with the law since the day they were born. But inventive, creative and unclassifiable except on their own terms. That is, if they exist at all. Confused? The rest of us are. "Any misunderstood system looks chaotic from the outside," says Nick Barham. "So perhaps mainstream media portrays British youth as amoral, superficial, wasted and dumb because their behaviour seems inexplicable."

They may be disconnected from society as we know it, but equally we've become disconnected from them, which is every bit as bad. Besides, it sounds like we could probably learn a thing or two from them.