Are millennials boring?

Generation X-ers are smoking less, drinking less and committing less crime. What gives?

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I live in a market town in Hertfordshire and not so long ago, around the turn of the century, the old town centre on a Friday and Saturday night was something of a no-go zone, the domain of the young binge-drinker and brawler. So dreadful was the situation that I once wrote an article about it, having spent an evening observing what was going on in the pubs and bars.

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What I saw wasn’t pleasant. One man vomited and another threw a bottle across the street. Women were routinely leered at, verbally abused or sexually propositioned. Scarcely anyone was sober. The threat of violence was ever present.

It’s not like that today. On a Friday and Saturday night, the town centre is quiet again. The only nightclub (like so many across the country) has long since closed. I can’t pinpoint exactly the moment when the mood began to change – was it around the time of the financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed? But something significant changed all the same. What’s more, today, the young people seem to have disappeared from the pubs. Where have they gone? What are they doing instead?

As editor of the New Statesman, I work with and meet a lot of young people. I read their columns and listen to their ideas, and I visit universities and schools to chair events. Through talking to them about their lives, I’ve begun to understand something important about how the millennial generation differs from the Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers before them.

What’s striking is just how well behaved and socially responsible this generation of millennials is. I call them the New Young Fogeys because they seem to exhibit an extraordinary level of self-awareness and self-restraint. You could even call them boring.

For a start, they’re much more noticeably health-conscious than my generation ever was and so much better informed about issues relating to diet as well as sex and sexual health.

New Young Fogeyish icons include the Facebook geek Mark Zuckerberg; the gym- frequenting vegan Ellie Goulding; the YouTube phenomenon Zoella; the Hemsley Sisters, who run a healthy eating empire including books and a TV show; and the high priestess of clean living, the self-styled Deliciously Ella.

Twenty-two years after Liam Gallagher of Oasis sang, “All I need are cigarettes and alcohol”, millennials are abandoning both – in preference, perhaps for a session at the gym or a long conversation over a flat white coffee. They are also, in the era of the smartphone and social media, acutely conscious of the risks of being captured on camera behaving outrageously. The fear of being “shamed” applies as much to your typical student as it does to wayward celebrities such as Harry Styles, and thus can act as a brake or moderating force on behaviour.

The data is revealing. According to the Office for National Statistics, more than a quarter of young adults in Britain are teetotal. Teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections have fallen markedly.
 Millennials are smoking
less and drinking less. They commit fewer crimes. Drug use is down. They’re having children much later – the average age at which a woman has her first child has passed 30 for the first time. Women are also having fewer children. It’s in London, the richest and most cosmopolitan city in Europe, where these trends are most marked – a third of all young adult Londonres are teetotal.

Moreover, young people are more tolerant than previous generations – much more accepting of racial and sexual difference. Yet, at the same time, they have become more economically conservative, perhaps because of the pressures they’re under to find a good job and somewhere to live.

I graduated from university in 1989. Back then student loans had not been introduced and the government paid your tuition fees. You could claim unemployment and housing benefit during the holidays. Unlike today’s students, you didn’t graduate burdened by too much debt.

The housing repossession crisis of the early 90s – when many homeowners defaulted on their mortgages because of ruinously high interest rates – meant there was a lot of cheap and available property on the market when I started working in London. It was relatively straightforward to put one foot on the housing ladder.

Millennials face much greater challenges. They’ve lived through the financial crash and are grappling with the consequences. Their jobs are precarious and their wages are stagnant. They know that globalisation has intensified the competition for the best and most secure work.

But there are other forces at play. The internet and social networks have transformed the way we live, work, socialise and love. On my Radio 4 Analysis documentary, Kerry Rheinstein of the Futures Foundation, a consumer trends agency, tells me that necessity has forced young people to innovate. “There’s been a rise in dinner parties, in cooking and home entertaining. We’ve had less disposable income so we’ve had to come up with our own ingenious ways to socialise and have fun but with less money. After the financial crisis, you definitely had a retreat into the home. This has also been influenced by the fact that home is now more tech-friendly. You can stream pretty much any movie or TV show that you want instantaneously.”

It’s difficult to generalise about an entire generation. But making my radio programme reaffirmed what the data about social behaviour was already indicating to me – that the millennial generation – the New Young Fogeys – is pretty much the best behaved since the rebel- lions of the 60s. Young people have, it seems, learnt from the mistakes of previous generations – from the sins of their fathers and mothers. It’ll be fascinating to see how things turn out when they’re middle-aged and running the country.

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Analysis is Monday at 8:30pm on Radio 4