Charting the rise of Generation Yawn: 20 is the new 40

Forget sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Youth culture today is all about clean-living and wholesome hobbies. Don't believe us? Read on...

Rachael Dove: 'On the nights when I decide to stay in and go large on a knitting pattern I can't help but feel I am doing something wrong'
Rachael Dove: "On the nights when I decide to stay in knitting I can't help but feel I am doing something wrong" 
Note to self: act more cool at work. I have just confessed to a thirtysomething colleague that the two glasses of wine I drank last night have left me with a murderous hangover and now she’s looking at me weirdly. “How old are you again?” she asks. “Twenty-four,” I reply. She thinks I’m a square. I try to convince her that no one my age really drinks anymore but she doesn’t believe me.
Lately I’ve been worrying about the rate at which I seem to be slipping into middle age. My Spotify playlist is pretty much the same as the CDs in my mum’s car: Fleetwood Mac, Joan Armatrading, Elvis. I can’t recall the time before this when I was hungover, nor the last time I went clubbing, nor even a time I went to bed after midnight during the week. On the Saturday nights when I decide to stay in and go large on a knitting pattern I can’t help but feel I’m doing something wrong.
According to Skins, the Channel 4 series popular in my teens, my life should involve drug abuse, an alcohol-fuelled pregnancy or law-breaking, and if none of the above, I should at least be going to dingy house parties and aggressively gyrating on an emo. Am I not supposed to be “finding myself” through a haze of LSD as they did in the 1960s, or dancing in fields on ecstasy like they did in the 1990s?

Generation X women did it differently (ALAMY)
I’m not alone in this belief: the words most commonly associated with “young people” in British newspapers are “binge-drinking”, “yobs” and “crime”. We are tainted with talk of NekNominations and the London riots. In 2008 the cover of Time magazine claimed “an epidemic of violence, crime and drunkenness” had made Britain “scared of its young”, illustrated with chilling mugshots of hooded teenage boys. The same year, David Cameron decried the youth of Britain “growing up without boundaries, thinking they can do as they please… No adult will intervene to stop them.”
Before you begin to think it’s just me who’s boring, allow me to introduce some statistics. Ironically, we same boundary-less youths of Generation Y – those born between 1980 and 2000 – have now been labelled “Generation Right” by Radio 4 (FYI: the preferred radio station among my friends). Though we are more socially liberal and accepting than previous generations when it comes to things such as gay marriage and euthanasia, according to the polling company Ipsos Mori we are likely to be more politically Right-wing than our parents or grandparents were at the same age.

(Source: Ipsos Mori)
And despite the fact that teenage girls in Britain are the second-heaviest drinkers in the developed world, the level of drinking among under-16s is actually a third the rate of a decade ago. In short, we are starting to behave more like fortysomethings than our own parents.
“There was a big increase in drinking in the late 1990s and early 2000s when there was a new investment in the night-time economy, with bars opening to appeal to young women and the introduction of alcopop drinks,” says Fiona Measham, a professor at Durham University who has been studying the changing patterns of alcohol and drug use in young people for more than 20 years.
She argues that, although drinking and drug-taking had been on the rise since the 1950s, they are finally falling. The generation beforeGeneration Y were bar-hopping, binge-drinking and taking cocaine. Now there isn’t that frenzied drunkenness. There’s a new sense of sobriety among young people.”

(Source: ONS)
Binge-drinking has fallen sharply: 27 per cent of young women drank more than six units on their heaviest day of drinking in 2005; by 2010 that figure had dropped to 17 per cent. Teenage smoking is at its lowest level since 1982. According to the Home Office, the number of young people who have tried cannabis has dropped by a third since 2001. Like most of my friends, I don’t even drink caffeine as I can’t handle how it makes me feel.
What is going on? Why are we such control freaks? Certainly, the degree to which our lives are shadowed in image-sharing sites, from Facebook to Instagram, has impact. The idea that your worst moments can be captured and shared via social media, and seen by a potential future recruiter (or partner), is real. One of my housemates is so paranoid about this that she deletes every photo taken of her from friends’ phones.
But the sensible behaviour goes way beyond drugs and alcohol. According to the 2013 Youth Justice Statistics, young people are more law-abiding, and the teenage murder rate has plunged. We are increasingly polite: one government survey found that those born in the early 1990s are less rude and noisy in public than previous cohorts at the same age. We’re more likely than the over-55s to give to charity or volunteer.
Even our role models are wholesome: polls show that young people favour Jessica Ennis-Hill and J K Rowling over Miley Cyrus and Kanye West. Take what happened when a video leaked of two members of the band One Direction allegedly smoking marijuana: rather than applauding their rock-star behaviour, the fans were up in arms, with one tweeting that it had “completely ruined [her] love for One Direction”.
We’re not even experimenting with fashion like our mod, rocker, punk or club-kid predecessors. Young hipsters are embracing “normcore”, a unisex trend characterised by bland, functional clothing. Bizarrely, normcore’s style icons include Zara Tindall, the American comedian Larry David and the off-duty wardrobes of Barack Obama and Nick Clegg. The look dominated the autumn/winter catwalks: tennis shoes at Chanel, comfy nondescript knits at Stella McCartney, Steve Jobs-esque black roll-necks at Lanvin.
Taking things a stage further, the 26-year-old designer Simone Rochacited her granny as inspiration for a recent collection called “Respect your Elders”, while the singer Taylor Swift, 24, has spoken of her affection for vintage dresses in an interview for Harper’s Bazaar: “[they] make me feel like a ’50s housewife – which I enjoy feeling like, for some reason”.

A look from Simone Rocha's 'Respect Your Elders' collection
But according to the “trendcasting” group K-Hole, normcore is more than just a fashion statement: it’s a philosophy of conformity. Why stand out when you can slot in? My new Birkenstocks (so normcore!) are my best footwear purchase ever: practical and comfy, just what a twentysomething needs for pottering around the house or garden.
And that, by the way, is where you’ll find us. DIY mania has enveloped my female friends. They go to the knitting social club Knit and Natter and each have a signature cake recipe. My boyfriend bakes bread, while his sister has been hosting sushi parties since she was 14. Last year I was into making bunting. This year I’m growing my own herbs. Gardening is now the fifth most popular leisure activity among the young, according to the garden furniture company Alfresia. The New York Times calls us the “New Domestics”.
“We don’t want to be running round buying shoes and drinking cosmopolitans like the Sex and the City types of the 1990s,” says Kate Payne, a champion of the new domestic scene and the author of The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking. “There is a real drive to do something productive. It’s hard to find time for a hobby if you are going out drinking.”

JK Rowling, a Gen-Y role model (GETTY)
That’s not to say we aren’t conflicted. “I feel a guilt that I am not living my youth the way I should be,” says my friend Alice, 24, and a production assistant. “But I don’t enjoy clubbing. It’s all about drinking and drugs and I find it can be quite pressurised. I like to have more control over what I am doing.”
But not everyone is living like this out of choice. Measham suggests the main factor behind the decline in drinking and drug use among young people is economic. Wages for 22- to 30-year-olds have fallen by 15 per cent since 2008 while the cost of living has rocketed. Rent is now an average £862 per month, rising to £1,412 in London. The typical price of a pint of lager has increased 20-fold since 1973, to £2.87, but in my local it’s more like £5. The first thing I think about when invited for a drink is the state of my bank account.
“Going out is more of a special occasion now,” says Measham, who undertakes her studies in clubs such as The Warehouse Project in Manchester, for which tickets cost £28.50. “It used to be that people would go out clubbing or to bars every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Now people might only go out on a Saturday.” If that: one student I know says she can only afford a big night once a month, if not every two months.

Taylor Swift in a vintage dress (REX)
Along with the hike in tuition fees, competition for jobs has increased. According to the graduate recruitment website totaljobs.com, nearly 40 per cent of graduates are still looking for work six months after graduation.
I studied design, and my class of 38 was often told only one of us was likely to make it in the industry. So, like many of my peers, I didn’t spend my student days boozing, but split them between studying, doing two jobs and interning to boost my CV. Cari Davies, who has just handed over presidency of Cardiff University Students’ Union, says, “It’s no longer enough to graduate. Many students say their degree has to be a First.”
No wonder The Economist recently declared Generation Y to be “obsessed” with our careers. And a National Citizen Service study described us as more ambitious than any previous generation.
Many of my friends intern and freelance, which leaves them in a constant state of worry about their job prospects, as well as their finances. Jess, 23, a design assistant says: “I police myself around drink and drugs because every interaction counts. While older staff stay out all night and take cocaine, when I’m working I’ll be home and in bed by 10pm.”
Parents also have raised expectations, says Frances Gardner, a professor of child and family psychology at Oxford University, who believes that improved parenting techniques could be the reason for Generation Y’s sobriety. “Studies suggest parents now spend more quality time with kids, they listen to them more and hit them less. They set limits more clearly and monitor their children’s whereabouts more closely,” she says.
Perhaps it’s the way parents themselves lived that has prompted our youthful self-control. Such is the chasm between us and older generations, it’s hard for us to understand them. When a friend’s mum told me on her 60th birthday that she was surprised she’d lived that long I almost cried – why would she want to live fast, die young?
“Most of them seem like they were so naïve when they were my age,” says my friend Ellen of her older female colleagues. “Now they’re divorced and talking about melting down their engagement rings to make earrings. I don’t think I’ll ever be in that situation. I’m more together than they were.” The arrogance of youth? Time will tell.

The Shoreditch Sisters WI
Or is there simply nothing left to rebel against, so we are left to rebel against rebelling? As the author Will Self has put it, “The avant-garde was always about there being real taboos around sexuality and intoxication, and those taboos just aren’t there anymore… You guys have got nothing to rebel against.” Jazz Mellor, the daughter of Joe Strummer of The Clash, is a case in point. She was 24 when she founded the Shoreditch Sisters branch of the WI, whose activities range from bike maintenance to tie-dyeing. “I had a fairly chaotic childhood,” she said. “My parents were part of the counter-culture, so I suppose this is my way of rebelling.”
There is a blurring of generations at play here: our parents typically drink more than us, while across the EU, teens are the only age group to be diagnosed with fewer sexually transmitted diseases than previously.
“The old generational identities that once defined us have now broken down,” the journalist Peter Hyman recently wrote in the New York Observer. “And the net result is a messy temporal mash-up in which fortysomethings act like skateboarders, twentysomethings dress like grandfathers, tweens attend rock concerts with their parents and toddlers are exposed to the ethos of hardcore punk.”

(Source: Public Health England)
With the milestones of adulthood (buying a house, getting married, having children) seemingly ever further away, acting responsibly is sometimes the only thing that makes me feel grown-up.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have fun. Dalston recently saw the opening of Farr’s School of Dancing, which hosts 1940s swing and jazz nights fuelled by the nostalgia that’s so embedded in my generation’s psyche. Is it a coincidence that we pine for the days before drugs and booze were essential ingredients of a great night out? Is being cool now about enjoying yourself without being off your head?
Earlier this year I visited a friend who’s a student in Edinburgh. We spent an evening dancing with his friends. It was a heart-racing, sweaty night, a carefree whirl of arms and legs, all completely sober. And maybe that’s OK.


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