Time we all learnt to grow up

We cannot cure the ills of disaffected youth if we continue to indulge our fantasies of adolescence
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The Independent Online
It is always consoling to see the simple-mindedness of political debate exposed. The report, published yesterday, into the rise of "psychosocial disorder" among the young since 1945 offers nothing either to the moronic right or to the moronic left. As a result, of course, it will be used by both sides as "evidence".

The report - from a European academic group - was first intended to establish whether certain types of disorder had increased among the young in the past 50 years. The disorders were crime, suicide, depression, eating disorders and drug and alcohol abuse. The report concludes, unsurprisingly, that they have indeed increased and goes on to discuss the possible reasons.

The first point to make here is that a dissident, aberrant or merely badly behaved youth culture is such a familiar part of contemporary life that it has come to be regarded as more or less timeless. We assume that discontinuity from one generation to the next is a fact of biological destiny. Indeed, in films, books and music this discontinuity, in its milder forms, is celebrated as a life-enhancing, progressive and renewing force in society.

To a limited extent it may be true that generations will always clash: there is an inevitable conflict between aspiring youth and cautious age. Equally, it may be true that there is something positive in this conflict: much creativity depends on the youthful, energetic desire to be different.

But the depth of the division in the modern world is something new and strange. The mere fact that it has been institutionalised by powerful and perhaps attractive cultural and economic forces should not blind us to this strangeness. Rivalry and misunderstanding arising from the conflict between the generations is one thing, but hatred, bitterness and nihilism is quite another.

Whole libraries could be written - indeed, have been written - on this phenomenon and its causes. But the right-left division has always centred on the extent to which society or the individual is to blame. The right has wished to lay the emphasis on personal responsibility both of parents and children. Some concept of innate goodness and badness is evoked as well as the incompetence or irrelevance of government in the private choice between right and wrong.

The left has tried to blame environmental factors like housing and unemployment. Aberrant behaviour is blamed on the brutal failures of capitalism and the market. Government, therefore, is crucially involved in that it is responsible for the economic and social environment.

On the face of it the report comes down on the side of the right. Unemployment and bad housing cannot simply be correlated with bad behaviour among the young - the "golden era" of economic growth between 1950 and 1975 was accompanied by spectacular rises in the levels of youth disorder.

But, equally, the report questions the impact of increasing levels of individualism and responsibility being placed upon the young. In doing so, it raises the most difficult issue for the modern, free-market right. What kind of moral framework is strong enough to co-exist with, and contain the ideal of, maximum economic freedom and growth?

The problem for the left is that its simplifications are plainly wrong; the problem for the right is that it requires a moral order which either cannot be defined or has ceased to exist because of the pressures of affluence. The problem for the rest of us is whether anything meaningful or helpful can be said about the usually tedious, always unattractive and potentially dangerous spectacle of perpetually disaffected youth.

The report says more work needs to be done. And it does indicate what seems to me to be the crucial point: the bizarre and entrenched autonomy of contemporary youth culture.

In the post-war years, being young has become not simply a phase but rather the central experience in life. The discovery of the economic power of the young in the Fifties and Sixties led to a systematic glorification of the adolescent experience in films, television and music. The social and sexual intensity of those years was celebrated as the core of the modern self, the high point of contemporary experience.

The economic pressure combined with new social forces. The report speaks of "the changing nature of adolescence" as periods of education lengthened, causing children to be dependent on their parents for longer. Meanwhile, the cost of being young rose as the consumer society devised ever more elaborate ways of exploiting naive, youthful acquisitiveness.

All of this tended to isolate the experience of being young from all other experiences. Youth culture became absolutely separate, deliberately disconnected from the rest of society. The end of youth became the end of everything. Growing old became so unthinkable that either the young hoped to die before it happened or, in the case of the survivors of the Sixties, the habits and appearance of youth were embarrassingly sustained into middle and old age.

It can reasonably be said that this radical isolation has been creative. Certainly, in Britain and the United States pop culture has been extraordinarily fecund. And it still is. There is some powerful kind of demonic, nihilistic energy in American groups like Nirvana and a bracing, hopeless, apocalyptic wit in British bands like Blur. But the very point of such music - grimly but at least honestly endorsed by the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain - is the sense of disconnection. This experience is so total, so powerful that all others become trivial, pointless.

The adult world in the West is either wildly sycophantic towards the autonomous realm of youth or it is, equally wildly, angry. On the one hand, in left-wing mode, we indulge and encourage the nihilistic extravagances of youth; on the other, in right-wing mode, we fall into moral panic and condemnation. Neither response is appropriate: the first because young people are, as the report makes clear, getting hurt, lapsing into crime and, occasionally, dying; the second because it effectively accepts the definition of youth culture as fundamentally disconnected from the culture as a whole.

The reality is that youth culture is profoundly connected. For, imperiously, it has become the whole of culture. The reason we swing wildly between anger and indulgence is because we don't really know what else there is. It is not only the young who can't imagine anything better than sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, it is also their parents. The absolute, deranged and intense pleasures of adolescence are not balanced by any competing, convincing pleasures of middle and old age. The point about drugs, for example, is not that they improve the world, but rather that they create a different one in which normal standards are meaningless. You will not read Shakespeare while tripping on LSD partly because you can't, but also because there will be no reason to.

A society that has lost the ability to grow up will inevitably glorify youth, turning it into an autonomous realm of fantasy and fulfilment. And that, as this report implicitly makes clear, is what has happened to us.

'Psychosocial Disorders in Young People' by Sir Michael Rutter and David Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, pounds 49.95.