June 13 2016 / The Times
A couple of years ago, during editorial meetings, I began to notice that several of my younger colleagues were wearing smart watches and fitness trackers that monitored how many steps they took in a day and hours they slept at night. I was so intrigued that, for a couple of weeks, I wore one of these devices until I realized it told me nothing I didn’t know already – that I walked more than enough most days and had little trouble sleeping.
But after this, I began paying closer attention to what my colleagues were talking about, particularly the younger ones on the web desk. They seemed to live differently from how I did at their age. A couple had personal fitness trainers or had taken up running seriously. One of them worked standing up, like the American novelist Philip Roth, who at least had the excuse of a bad back. Sitting down, I was told, was the “new cigarettes”. Another seemed to drink nothing but green tea.
My colleagues aren’t exactly allergy-obsessed, health geeks, like “Deliciously” Ella Woodward, but they mostly live cleanly. Some of them have quit drinking alcohol. None of them smoke (not that I ever did). Dairy products are generally viewed with suspicion. One of them has become a vegan.
In addition, they’re seriously agitated about the unfairness of the housing market, which they feel is rigged in favour of the old. They are irritated that Baby Boomers and Generation X had all the benefits of the post-war welfare state, including free university tuition.
Already burdened by student debt, many of my young colleagues and their friends graduated into the Great Recession and have been making their way in a time of austerity when wages are stagnant (earnings for those in their twenties have not increased in real terms in almost 20 years).
Now you might say that these smart, mostly Oxbridge-educated, politically engaged young journalists are not the most representative group, and I would agree – “too Hampstead and not enough Hull”, is how Andy Burnham, that estimable philosopher of the Left, might put it.
What’s striking about this millennial generation is just how socially responsible they seem – I’ve called them the New Young Fogeys in a Radio 4 Analysis programme I’ve just made. The statistics back this up. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, this could be the best-behaved generation of young people since the rebellions and upheavals of the 1960s.
More than a quarter of young adults in Britain today are teetotal (among Londoners that figure rises to a third). Teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections have fallen markedly, not least because young people are much better educated about sexual health (whereas STIs are rising among the over-45s who are also more likely to drink alcohol at least five days a week).
Millennials are smoking less and drinking less. Statistics suggest they are committing 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.
Something about young people’s attitudes and social behaviour has changed and continues to change – for instance, truancy among school children is at a record low.
One recent morning my BBC producer, Katie Inman, persuaded me to return to my old sixth-form college in Harlow in Essex, to talk to students there about their lives. Harlow was one of the new towns established after the Second World War and it could be rough, yet it felt like a good place to grow up.
I went to one of the town’s eight comprehensives – there were no selective academic grammar schools – and life there was often chaotic. You found yourself in classes of more than 30 children, some of whom could scarcely read.
There was no sense that you were being prepared for university and then one of the elite professions; rather, in retrospect, it was more a matter of getting through the day and avoiding fights, which I managed to do by being street-smart and a good talker. I spent most of my time playing football, reading the NME and listening to pop music – Bowie, the Specials, Japan, Joy Division/New Order.
My friends and I weren’t delinquents but we did get up to a lot of mischief, and my greatest aspiration in late adolescence was to be in a pop band, even though I never bothered to learn an instrument properly or sing well. What I liked doing was posing – and dreaming of doing great things.
My old sixth-form college is now part of Anglia Ruskin University. It has become a serious institution and the students I met were sober and astute. They were shocked when I told them what the college was like when I was there – like something out of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, staffed mostly by bohemian radicals.
During my very first A-level English lesson, one of the students asked if he could smoke. The teacher, a bearded poet manque, assented, and then five or six others promptly lit up as well and continued to do so in every class afterwards. In the afternoon, we went not to the library but to the local pub.
A pattern had been established. Soon enough I stopped turning up for lessons before dropping out altogether, which meant a couple of years later I did my A-levels in nine months flat while also working as a lowly clerk at the Electricity Council in London.
Still, my parents were kind and I enjoyed myself – and scarcely worried about the future or how I might earn a good living. I always had a sense that everything would turn out just fine, as it did, and the state was benevolent – as a university student, from 1986-89, I signed on during holidays and there were no loans or tuition fees to concern me.
By contrast, the students I met in Harlow were restlessly preoccupied with the near future – with exam and job anxieties as well as all the pressures, they told me, that come with being a socially networking. None of them smoked or drank much or scarcely ever went to a nightclub. They fretted about what they called their “body image”.
They objected to being called boring but conceded that they were, like my NS colleagues, fogeyish in outlook and behaviour – because, as one 18-year old said, “social and financial pressures had made them so”.
Are millennials too self-obsessed, narcissistic even?
They are certainly level-headed, anti-utopian, debt-chastened and realistic about their life chances, if also a little too conformist. And they’re always fiddling with their wretched smart-phones, taking selfies, and over-sharing the intimate details of their lives.
If this millennial generation seems more cosseted and anxious than mine was, they also seem much less free. We had the freedom to make mistakes and the luxury of knowing that the welfare state would catch us if we fell. You could even, from time to time, fall down drunk without any fear of being photographed and shamed on social media. I guess it was easier being young in the 1980s. It was probably more fun too.
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. His Analysis documentary,
The New young Fogeys, is on Radio 4 tonight [13 June] at 8.30pm