Should we be wor­ried?

Teens to­day... They don’t smoke, they don’t drive drunk, they’re not preg­nant, they’re al­ways in the house...

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - Sarah Cather­all re­ports.

Teens have never been more sen­si­ble. They’re drink­ing less. If you see a flicker of a cig­a­rette, it’s un­likely you’ll find a teen puff­ing at one end of it. Safe sex? They know about that. Teen preg­nan­cies have never been so low. They hear the drink driv­ing lessons loud and clear – if there’s no sober driver or par­ent wait­ing to drop par­ty­go­ers home, they’ll or­der an Uber.

That’s the good news. But teenagers have al­ways found ways to get so­ci­ety con­cerned and this gen­er­a­tion is no dif­fer­ent. With many of the mark­ers of the tran­si­tion to adult­hood be­ing de­layed, kids are tak­ing longer to grow up. They’re liv­ing at home for longer, lan­guish­ing in the fam­ily nest be­cause of high liv­ing costs and ter­tiary fees, of­ten past the teen years and into the early and mid-20s. It’s harder for them to find a part-time job – youth un­em­ploy­ment is triple the rate of adult un­em­ploy­ment – and so they’re forced to rely on Mum and Dad for hand­outs. They drive later than a gen­er­a­tion ago. They can’t be fully in­de­pen­dent, free to drive any­where, un­til they’re at least 17.

Jean Twenge has writ­ten about this group and young 20-some­things in her book, iGen. The San Diego psy­chol­o­gist says that teens and young adults born since 1995 – the group she de­fines as iGen – are safer, less reck­less, and more cau­tious than Mil­len­ni­als. The first gen­er­a­tion to grow up staring at a smart­phone screen, they’re less likely to drink, smoke, take drugs, and have sex than the same co­hort a decade ago.

Her in­sights are backed up here. When Teresa Flem­ing, head of the Auck­land Univer­sity-led Youth 2000 project, first came across drink­ing and smok­ing sta­tis­tics show­ing that teens have never been bet­ter be­haved, she re­calls: “I went to the statis­ti­cian and asked him to have an­other look. I lit­er­ally couldn’t be­lieve it.”

But to Flem­ing, the new mind­set comes at a cost, and the “big is­sue of the day” is that our young peo­ple are not be­ing given the chance to take a leap into adult­hood. There are huge pres­sures on teens and young adults – school and univer­sity has never been more com­pet­i­tive, they’re fi­nan­cially de­pen­dent on their par­ents for longer, strug­gle to get into flats, and face a fu­ture of never own­ing their own home.

“As a so­ci­ety, we need to wake up and think about what we are do­ing to our young adults,” says Flem­ing. “I’d go so far to say that our 18- to 25-year-olds are a se­ri­ously ne­glected group.”

But they’re a ne­glected group who seem bet­ter than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions at tak­ing care of them­selves. At Kapiti Col­lege, Jadeen Huss and Sam Pen­ney (pic­tured over-page) are both in Year 12. Asked if teens are bet­ter be­haved than in the past, Pen­ney says: “Yeah I reckon that’s true as a whole.”

Ac­cord­ing to these 16-year-olds, teens are not care­free about sex be­cause they’re wor­ried about get­ting preg­nant, or con­tract­ing an STI. They’re also wor­ried about do­ing some­thing stupid that ends up on so­cial me­dia. They might “dab­ble” in drink­ing, try­ing it out, but it’s hard to get al­co­hol il­le­gally, says Huss, whose par­ents give her a lim­ited amount to take to par­ties.

“My year group will start ex­per­i­ment­ing, but noth­ing sticks. Al­co­hol is hard to get and the con­se­quences are higher. My par­ents ap­par­ently used to sneak into clubs but you can’t do that now. All the laws are stricter, so there’s a sense of, ‘Why bother?’” she says.

Back in 2005, 15.2 per cent of Year 10 stu­dents smoked ev­ery day. To­day, that has dropped to 2.5 per cent, ac­cord­ing to smoke­free ac­tion group ASH. The num­ber of 13- to 17-year-olds binge drink­ing has dropped from 40 per cent in 2001 to 22 per cent in 2012 (the most re­cent fig­ures avail­able). And binge drink­ing has also dropped among older teens and 20- to 24-year-olds.

Over a decade or more, there has been a sweep­ing cul­tural shift. At their col­lege, Huss and Pen­ney say that smok­ers are no longer the cool kids but the “out­casts”, who pop out for a cig­a­rette on the edge of the school grounds. “The pop­u­lar ones are the sporty ones who party on the week­ends,” adds Huss, who won’t go to a party if she has a soft­ball game the next day.

Pen­ney says his par­ents are strict when it comes to par­ty­ing. “I ei­ther have to not tell them or make up a lie,” he ad­mits.

With 350 in their year group, it’s un­usual for a teen to drop out of school be­fore the end of Year 12. One of Pen­ney’s friends left school to go to a farm­ing col­lege, where he is learn­ing to be a farmer while be­ing paid a wage.

A top-grade stu­dent, who hopes to study to be a doc­tor, he says: “At school and home, it’s drilled into us that we need to have goals, and to make some­thing of our lives. There’s a pres­sure to get re­ally good grades in Year 12.”

And what are their wor­ries? “There’s a lot of pres­sure through NCEA to be the best. School is such a big part of be­ing a teen. Be­ing a teenager gets a bad rap, but for the most part, it’s in­cor­rect that we’re the rowdy ones who don’t fo­cus on school,” says Huss.

Twenge writes that tech­nol­ogy is not the only thing that makes iGen dis­tinct from ev­ery gen­er­a­tion be­fore them. They so­cialise in new ways and want dif­fer­ent things from their lives and ca­reers. They are ob­sessed with safety, fo­cused on tol­er­ance, and have no pa­tience for in­equal­ity. iGen is also grow­ing up more slowly than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions – Twenge writes that 18-year-olds look and act like 15-year-olds used to.

At Kapiti Col­lege, Tony Kane has ob­served teens for a decade as head of the school. “Peo­ple al­ways talk about ‘kids these days’, but that’s not what I see. Smok­ing has de­clined to al­most noth­ing. They think way more safely about drink driv­ing.”

Af­ter can­vass­ing the views of some of the 100 staff at his decile 8 col­lege, Kane agrees with some points. “So­cial me­dia has added to con­tacts, not re­placed them. The kids ap­pear more likely to ig­nore mean things they read on so­cial me­dia than a few years ago. They’ll say, ‘I just block them.’

“Stu­dents are far less tol­er­ant of oth­ers who in­ter­fere with their learn­ing, and more tol­er­ant of dif­fer­ence. We have no­ticed some be­ing quite scathing of peo­ple who they saw as risk-tak­ing in their so­cial be­hav­iour.

“We’ve got trans kids and a lot of di­verse kids. Oth­ers shrug their shoul­ders and say, ‘Good on them.’ I’ve had par­ents wor­ry­ing how it might be for their child to come out or what­ever, and I can re­as­sure them and say that they won’t be given a hard time.”

“My par­ents ap­par­ently used to sneak into clubs but you can’t do that now. All the laws are stricter, so why bother?”

With stu­dents gen­er­ally bet­ter be­haved and harder work­ing than a decade ago, Kane points the fin­ger at some par­ents for at times re­fus­ing to let their kids grow up. Male teens are gen­er­ally less in­de­pen­dent than girls, he says. And with stu­dents staying at school longer, some par­ents “res­cue” their kids more than they did a decade ago.

“We have a small num­ber of ‘he­li­copter’ par­ents who come to the res­cue of sons in par­tic­u­lar and de­fend the in­de­fen­si­ble.”

WHEN THE SCHOOL DAYS ARE OVER

Sit­ting in the dou­ble bed­room they share in a flat perched high on Welling­ton’s Kel­burn hill, Abe Hor­rocks and his part­ner, Leah Dodd, both 19, look like typ­i­cal univer­sity stu­dents.

Sport­ing a mop of shaggy hair and a green­stone carv­ing around his neck, Hor­rocks hopes his sci­ence and English de­gree will lead to a ca­reer as a high school teacher.

Es­cap­ing home doesn’t have the ku­dos it had a gen­er­a­tion or so ago, but in­stead brings new pres­sures that these stu­dents only en­coun­tered when they ar­rived at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity.

With youth un­em­ploy­ment at 12 per cent, Dodd’s 60 ap­pli­ca­tion let­ters mostly met deathly si­lence – though as we went to press, she had se­cured two part-time jobs.

The English and film stu­dent went to New Ply­mouth High School, where her par­ents were lib­er­als who gave her noth­ing to rebel against. “I’m prob­a­bly more sen­si­ble nowa­days,” she laughs.

The 18 to 24-year-olds like Dodd and Hor­rocks are drink­ing less – while 43 per cent of their age group were haz­ardous drinkers in 2005, that dropped to 33 per cent in 2015.

Hor­rocks stud­ied at Auck­land’s How­ick Col­lege and downed his first al­co­holic drink at 14. Univer­sity par­ties are fun and binge drink­ing still ex­ists, “but peo­ple are pay­ing for their stud­ies so they’re not go­ing to risk trash­ing their grades”.

Their wor­ries? Cli­mate change. Be­ing broke for­ever. “I worry that I’ll never be able to buy a place so my kids will have a home,” says Hor­rocks, who has a $25,000 stu­dent loan al­ready.

When they go su­per­mar­ket shop­ping, Hor­rocks won’t spend more than $2 mak­ing a meal, and hasn’t been to the movies since he ar­rived in Welling­ton.

“I’m emo­tion­ally in­de­pen­dent but I’m not fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent,” he says. “I can’t see my­self own­ing a car.”

And they worry about fail­ing. Stu­dent loans can be tied to aca­demic per­for­mance, and they each pay about $5200 a year in fees. “I can’t think of a sin­gle per­son who doesn’t get anx­ious,” says Dodd.

For those of us born in the 20th cen­tury, it was a nat­u­ral thing to flee the nest, and to spring out into the world, away from par­ents. While Hor­rocks and Dodd have done that to some ex­tent, they’re an in­creas­ing mi­nor­ity, ac­cord­ing to Alan France, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Auck­land Univer­sity.

In his book, Un­der­stand­ing Youth in the Global Eco­nomic Cri­sis, France ar­gues that 18- to 24-year-olds are the most dis­ad­van­taged group, and that adult­hood is be­ing de­layed across the West­ern world. The tra­di­tional mark­ers of in­de­pen­dence – leav­ing home, find­ing a flat, get­ting a job, driv­ing un­ac­com­pa­nied, be­ing able to put a de­posit down on a house – are all hap­pen­ing later, or are at risk of not hap­pen­ing at all.

France says the new norm is leav­ing school for ter­tiary study. With 35 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds in higher ed­u­ca­tion or train­ing, the prob­lem is that this move is based on “bro­ken prom­ises” as there aren’t the jobs when they grad­u­ate. “Young adults are more likely to get jobs in the pre­car­i­ous ‘gig’ econ­omy. We don’t have jobs to match their needs, skills and de­mands.”

Find­ing an af­ford­able place to live is a par­tic­u­lar is­sue in Auck­land, where rents are high and land­lords have their pick of ten­ants. “How do you grow up, and how do you get to be an in­de­pen­dent adult?” he says.

“There are big im­pli­ca­tions for par­ents, be­cause they feel like they need to sup­port kids for longer.”

Auck­land twins Holly and Gemma McQuaid are part of a ris­ing co­hort of univer­sity stu­dents staying at home to save costs.

Their par­ents, El­lie and James McQuaid, thought noth­ing of al­low­ing their 19-year-old daugh­ters to stay un­der their roof. “It costs a for­tune to rent, and it seems par­tic­u­larly point­less for them to ac­cu­mu­late more debt,” says El­lie.

Says James, an ac­coun­tant: “You don’t want to push them out. It’s hard for them fi­nan­cially.”

Both girls have stu­dent loans, of about $16,000 each. Study­ing sci­ence at Massey Univer­sity in Al­bany, Gemma es­ti­mates about half of her first year class­mates still live at home.

While they say their par­ents give them to­tal free­dom, the twins have to check in with them if they’re com­ing home for din­ner. Their par­ents ex­pect them to cover their own ex­tracur­ric­u­lar costs, but will pay their med­i­cal and den­tal bills. Gemma doesn’t drink. De­sign stu­dent Holly will or­der an Uber or walk if she is out and drink­ing.

Next year, the twins may pay board. “But it’s still cheaper for them to stay in Auck­land, and in fact, if they had gone to study else­where, it would have cost us more,” says El­lie.

There’s the hard fact that the world has be­come more com­pet­i­tive in just a gen­er­a­tion. When she grad­u­ates with her sci­ence de­gree, Gemma ex­pects to do a post­grad­u­ate diploma or a mas­ter’s de­gree to get a good job. “We’re all plan­ning that al­ready. Ev­ery­one freaks out about fail­ing some­thing. No one wants to fall be­hind.”

“I’m emo­tion­ally in­de­pen­dent but I’m not fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent,” he says. “I can’t see my­self own­ing a car.”

GROW­ING UP SAFELY

On the eve of en­ter­ing their 20s, Ki­wis like Dodd, Hor­rocks and the McQuaid twins were the first gen­er­a­tion to grow up in a safer en­vi­ron­ment, where poli­cies have forced par­ents to pro­tect – crit­ics say to over­pro­tect – their off­spring.

They sat in car seats or booster seats un­til they were 5 or 6. They swung on swings in play­grounds over­seen by OSH. They’re the prod­uct of an en­vi­ron­ment where many par­ents have been un­der pres­sure to ferry them to school or af­ter-school ac­tiv­i­ties, rather than ex­pect­ing them to walk or take public trans­port.

Add to this a sweep­ing shift in parental be­hav­iour over the past decade, says Flem­ing, where teens have much less un­mon­i­tored time than pre­vi­ously. “Par­ents tend to know where their young peo­ple are now. We ex­pose lev­els of much lower risk. [Chil­dren and] teens to­day are much less likely to be climb­ing trees and smok­ing cig­a­rettes.”

So­cial me­dia also means that teens are find­ing com­mu­ni­ties on­line rather than leav­ing the house and hang­ing out with their mates. This is both good and bad. “It means that if you’re un­usual, you can go out and find a com­mu­nity on­line, [un­like] in pre-in­ter­net days,” says Flem­ing.

The in­ter­net and smart­phone cul­ture has also opened up the world. To­day’s teens have smart­phones – 94 per cent of Kapiti Col­lege Year 12 and 13s have one and it’s not un­usual to meet an 11- or 12-year-old with a phone – so they feel more con­nected to the world than their par­ents did. They can watch what’s com­ing down the cat­walk at Lon­don Fash­ion Week or fol­low Ari­ana Grande’s daily moves on In­sta­gram.

In a decade, there has also been a raft of pol­icy changes that have im­pacted on iGen – drink­ing in public places has been banned, cig­a­rette costs have surged to $30 a packet, and public health cam­paigns have swept through schools and com­mu­ni­ties. In 2011, young driv­ers were hit with a zero al­co­hol limit.

But the thing that puz­zles Jude Ball, a PhD med­i­cal stu­dent study­ing this area, is that al­co­hol has never been more widely avail­able and the drink­ing age has ac­tu­ally dropped in that time. “Al­co­hol is avail­able ev­ery­where. And the mys­tery with al­co­hol is that there hasn’t been a big pol­icy shift.” Ball has been look­ing at data on teen be­hav­iour for a year and a half, and says: “The more I find out, the more mys­te­ri­ous it’s be­come.”

Was it the “Hermione Granger ef­fect” that has made be­ing nerdy more ac­cept­able, she won­ders. The first Harry Pot­ter book was pub­lished in 1997, around the time teen be­hav­iour be­gan to straighten up.

With both con­tra­cep­tion use and teen preg­nan­cies down, she says: “We’ve got to as­sume that young peo­ple are hav­ing less sex.”

Ball has heard from school prin­ci­pals that young peo­ple seem more stressed. “They feel hope­less that they’ll never get a house or a job, and there is an un­der­ly­ing anx­i­ety.”

With all the gains – teens and young adults who are more tol­er­ant of dif­fer­ence, and po­lit­i­cally and so­cially

Year 11 teens Heidi Simp­son, left and Caitlin McGall be­long to the first gen­er­a­tion to grow up look­ing at smart­phone screens.

Part­ners Abe Hor­rocks and Leah Dodd are sec­ond year stu­dents at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity who worry about their fi­nan­cial fu­ture. Hor­rocks won’t spend more than $2 to make a meal.

Kapiti Col­lege Year 12 stu­dents Jadeen Huss and Sam Pen­ney say kids who smoke are “out­casts” these days.

Kapiti Col­lege prin­ci­pal Tony Kane says safety and tol­er­ance are far more im­por­tant to teenagers than they used to be.

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