This article explores contemporary teenagers and their attitudes towards the world and how to be and act in it. Being a teenager is not what it used to be – change is in progress, but not all change is progressive.
They met in a quiet coastal town – and that town was never quite the same again. Fifty-five years ago, Mods and Rockers clashed in what the British newspapers dubbed ‘Days of Terror’. Editorials fumed about the “mutated locusts wreaking untold havoc, fighting, drinking, roaring, rampaging teenagers”. Youth tribes were tearing things up. “It was like we were taking over the country,” noted one of these kids. “You want to hit back at all the old geezers who try to tell us what to do. We just want to show them we’re not going to take it.” How things have changed in half a century…
TEENAGERS THEN AND NOW
If the teenage stereotype has held true for much of this time – those character-building liminal years between childhood and early adulthood, characterised by rebellion, avant garde thinking, weird creativity, excesses, the counter-culture – something seems to have changed. Around the world – excepting inevitable local variations – teenagers (or Gen Z, or iGen, to give them the various demographic labels) are not being teenagers anymore. At least not in a way that corresponds to our stereotypical representation mentioned above. They are not, as the psychologist G. Stanley Hall described adolescence, indulging in “the time when an individual ‘recapitulates’ the savage stage of the race’s past”. Rather, as Shoko Yoneyama, an expert in teens at the University of Adelaide, has put it, they are "kind of boring".
Indeed, many of the exploratory behaviours that have traditionally characterised teenage years – drinking, drugs, sex, kicking against the establishment – are now being rejected by teenagers as they embrace a more conservative lifestyle.
"There’s this notion now that teenagers are conservative in their approach to many things, and I’m not [just] talking about politics here,” says Richard Cope, senior analyst for market researchers Mintel. “It’s a generation that’s growing up living among an aging population profile and this is making them averse to many of the vices of previous generations. They’re also growing up more sheltered from work and the experiences of previous generations as well."
And not just sheltered from it – they are positively reactionary against it. Health, for example, is a major factor in their thinking. Cope notes how, in his conversations with teenagers, it is commonplace for them to point out the unhealthy habits of their elders. This is why countries like Italy, Spain, and France, where wine is part of the culture, are seeing long-term declines in sales.
"Yes, you still hear stories of teenage binge drinking but there’s a coherent picture of alcohol consumption going down among younger generations,” says Cope. “Even in the UK we’re seeing 20 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds saying they don’t drink at all – which is one reason we’re seeing the closure of so many pubs. We’re seeing the same with smoking – the proportion of teenagers who smoke has undergone a longterm decline. Drug-taking too – only [around] 20 percent of 15/16-year-olds take illicit drugs."
The same goes for money – studies suggest that teens are more inclined to saving rather than spending – and even for sex, this trend of moderation seems rather prevalent. In 1991, 54 percent of 14 to 18-year-olds in the US claimed to be sexually experienced. In 2015 that was down to 41 percent. This decrease might be explained by teens being better educated about sex, or by their living with their parents for longer and – should the decline reflect a broader trend – even by an influx of Muslim youth migration into Europe, bringing with it more proscriptive attitudes.
Or perhaps sex – as with other traditional teen activities – may be off the agenda for sheer lack of opportunity. With social media seemingly having, at least in part, displaced real life socialising, today’s average teen hardly goes out, not even on the weekends. Indeed, physical activity of other sorts is off the agenda as well. Only 10 percent of 15-year-old girls and 20 percent of boys across the EU get regular physical activity, according to the OECD – such that WHO predicts that 20 percent of today’s Italian teens, for example, will be obese adults by 2030.
"[These new teens are a group that’s] more solitary and sedentary than any group that’s gone before them,” says Cope. “Some of the traditional freedoms [that teens have pursued] – getting part-time jobs, getting driving licenses to give you that economic and transport freedom – they’re diminishing too, even in America, with all the romance of the open road. Instead freedom for young people now comes at the digital level – you escape digitally. But that comes at a cost to face-to-face contact. They don’t go out enough to get drunk and have sex."
There are reasons suggested for these behaviours, however. One can seem a little creepy to generations that have not grown up with social media. “Much as they don’t have to indulge in the reckless kind of behaviours teens have traditionally got involved with – because they get their dopamine highs from [the likes and re-tweets and notifications of] social media – so social media also means they live these self-documenting lives now,” explains Sarah Johnson, co-founder of trend analysis company The Akin. "Everything they do is tracked by social media and, in a way, policed by it – that constant record means ‘naughty’ behaviour is not only public, it might haunt them forever."
Other reasons are more compelling, perhaps especially to the older generations. For one, parents now spend much more time actually parenting, which is paying dividends in producing balanced teens who, it seems, actually listen to their parents. After all, the little-discussed life history theory argues that the more secure a child’s home life, the slower they will be to grow up – leading to a timidity and lack of readiness for adulthood that employers now often complain about.
Secondly, today’s teens have seen the consequences of the more traditional teenage lifestyle writ large in previous generations, especially the self-absorbed millennials, and do not much like what they see. "Sure, teenagers might on the surface seem dull in a lot of ways, but then they’ve seen that previous models of behaviour are not so successful," notes Johnson.
"Their parents were much more hedonistic [as teens and beyond]. They’ve seen the impact of that and don’t want it,” agrees Chloe Coulson, associate director of the foresight team at innovations consultancy Seymour Powell. “What we’re seeing with teens now is a rebellion of sorts – it’s a rebellion against rebellion."
"Then you need to consider other factors – the gig economy and the intense political uncertainty they’ve grown up with, which means it’s no wonder they aim for a sense of solidity and security, especially when it’s not clear what their economic future might be,” she adds. “I think that’s why they’re [relatively] so entrepreneurial – it’s taking charge of their own destiny in some way, which they have the tools to do. It’s all about looking for some sense of control, about grasping for a sense of normalcy and authenticity in a very insecure world."
CONTEMPORARY CONCERNS AND CONSERVATISM
On one hand, this state of affairs – not cutting loose, not getting out, and, since statistically teenagers are also fighting less, not rioting on the beaches – is doing teenagers no favours. Several studies suggest that teenagers are among the most stressed members of society, ills largely blamed on social media. Twice the national average in the teen demographic is, they report, stressed on a daily basis – troubled by internet addiction, cyber bullying, the resulting sleep deprivation, isolation, and decline in mental stimulation, among other problems. They are not the healthiest, despite the lack of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – all of which may come of course, depending on whether teen attitudes morph into life strategies.
But it is also, in some instances, leading to a strain of very real conservatism among teens, and not just because conservatism might seem to offer a rock to cling to in turbulent, perplexing and challenging times. Rather, having grown up in a climate of political correctness and both a largely left-leaning media and academia, it would be little wonder if, cutting against this, conservatism became kind of cool.
Certainly, that was the conclusion of a 2016 study of 14 and 15-year-olds by British brand consultancy The Gild: 59 percent of these teens said they had conservative views in relation to topics like same-sex marriage, transgender rights and cannabis legislation – second in their conservatism only to those born before 1945. In comparison, 85 percent of those in the Millennial and Generation X age groups described themselves as 'quite' or 'very liberal'.
Conservatism is the counter-culture, and perhaps all the more so given that social media is the perfect, self-reinforcing meme factory for the right (and, of course, the extreme right), but also because the internet offers up so many viewpoints that it is hard to know what to believe – adding to the demand for stability.
This plays out in politics too. According to a 2016 ‘Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin’ paper, 18-year-olds in the US are more likely to identify as politically conservative than the same age group a decade ago and even back in the more conservative 1980s. Some 23 percent of entering college students identify as leaning far right.
There is a similar picture in parts of Europe – in Germany, 55 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds (so more millennials than pre-voting age teens), do not believe that “the EU is on the right path”, according to Körber-Stiftung. They appear – as proto-conservatives – to largely back the status quo, more pro-Germany (in favour of the nation taking more of a leadership role in the EU; less in favour of the formation of a European Army) than pro-EU. Do not expect them to lead the revolution.
Is this cause for disappointment? Surely teenage years are precisely when you rail against the machine, before, inevitably for most, being sucked into it? Yet, from another perspective, teenagers now simply represent the first generation to express a new dynamic, a fresh definition of what it is to be a teen – an idea that has, on closer inspection, always been in flux thanks to shifts in economics, technology and culture. For while they may not be tearing up the town, they are certainly progressive in other ways.
DESIRE FOR CHANGE
Arguably, today’s teens are, for example, more environmentally aware than any prior generation. They are more ethical-minded – in terms of their shopping habits or their diets, with vegetarianism and veganism on upward trajectories. Their social politics can seem by turns fascinating and perplexing to older generations, but for every very young conservative, there is one whose open-mindedness – to gender fluidity, for instance – is second nature. And they want positive change. One recent Adolescenza Lab Association study found that 85 percent of Italian 12 to 14-year-olds, for example, believe they can do something useful for the environment with their own behaviour, and 39 percent are willing to use their spare time to do something to this end.
"In a sense, what can teens now rebel against when there’s no establishment?" asks Coulson. "But this doesn’t mean there aren’t things they’re very passionate about. Yes, these things can seem a little worthy and so boring, but they’re concerned with real issues" – not only, for example, gun control (after the Parkland School shooting in Florida early last year) or sexual harassment (the Me Too movement), but, as Coulson stresses, "issues that are fundamental to the future of humanity". As such, the emphasis is put on the grand existential threats that humankind is facing.
"Teenagers are a strange mix today. They definitely are more conservative in many ways – in terms of their attitude to traditional trajectories of success. They’re positive towards ideas of marriage, owning a home, things they want to achieve that millennials appeared much less interested in," says Johnson. "And yet, with that comes the many ways in which they are clearly progressive, such that I don’t think to call them boring is fair." This testifies to the multiplicity of the definition and the mix of attitudes among teenage populations as being ever changing, dependent upon the time and context in which they live.
Indeed, Johnson warns against the demographer’s fallacy – the desire to lump many people into one category and expect their attitudes to be coherent throughout. "Dig down and what’s really interesting about teenagers now is just how splintered they are," she says. "Yes, you have one group that’s very much about self-curation, their own brand, selfies and so on. But then there’s this other [more cautious, more private, less social media-minded] under-reported group that’s very much about collaboration and community. They’re interested in and really want to shape the future. And they’re the ones moving forward."
Teenagers might not be tearing things up and wreaking havoc with reckless drinking and physical rioting anymore. How- ever, instead of breaking down the existing structures, it seems they are exploring the opportunities at hand in order to create a viable future. As such, teenagers are not what they used to be, but they are teenagers after all: negotiating their position in the world.