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...
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.