So, the teens are drinking less. A third of 16- to 24-year-olds say they don’t drink and, since the early noughties, there’s been a steady decrease in tobacco and cannabis use. I believe it, too – I don’t even think the teens are lying, as I would have lied to a grown-up with a clipboard. As I write this, I am in my “treat” cafe – the beautiful one with the good sourdough, that I only work in during the four days immediately after payday – and four 16-year-old girls are sitting at the table next to me. What are they doing here? Shouldn’t they be in school? Are they skiving and, if they are skiving, how on earth are they affording granola with organic honey and award-winning sour cherries? How do they know what a flat white is? Shouldn’t they be out, bribing someone’s brother to buy them a bottle of supermarket vodka, distilling it carefully into a Pepsi Max bottle before drinking it in the cinema?
In general, there was a griminess to my teens that doesn’t seem to feature in the lives of the teens I meet now. By 2005 standards, I was a reasonably well-behaved teenager. By which, I mean: I drank every other weekend, as opposed to every weekend; I had smoked a little weed; I was invited to parties and I danced around someone’s PC speakers to their LimeWire playlist. Anyone who didn’t drink was avoided, or not invited, or made to drive. We had fun, I think. Sometimes, we had thrillingly sexy evenings placing boys’ hands directly on our cleavage, and sometimes we were assaulted. We were full of piss and vinegar. We were full of fear and confusion. We were 15.
Their planet is dying, their EU passports are being taken from them and no one – no one! – seems to be driving the fucking bus
It’s hard to say whether I wish things were different, because it’s impossible to visualise what else they could have been. Our lives were part of the long tradition of what being a teenager was supposed to be, the template that was drawn up in the 1950s, when the children who watched their brothers and fathers die in the war were suddenly given cars and a Saturday job. Being a teenager was about violently bucking the physical or emotional boundaries of your child life. Being a teenager was about screaming at your parents that there was no point in making your bed, because it was just going to get slept in again. We wanted to lose control, because, between school and our families, control and restriction felt like it governed our lives.
Which is why, I think, we find it so difficult to understand why the present iteration of teenagers don’t have much interest in getting rat-arsed drunk. In 2015, the 17-year-old Abby Tomlinson created the Milifandom, a tongue-in-cheek Ed Miliband fan club that initially provoked a slew of “kids say the darndest things!” headlines, but quickly revealed Abby’s razor-sharp political mind. Abby isn’t an outlier, either: whenever I work with teenagers or girls’ schools, they are so frequently ahead of the curve that I end up jotting down five feature ideas in the cab home. Ellie McCarthy (17) has been running Femininity, a weekly newsletter about feminism, religion and politics, out of her all-girls school, since she was 15. When I first met Ellie, I signed up to her newsletter mostly out of politeness, but I was immediately gobsmacked by how good it was. “What is the feminist undercurrent to the Easter story?” came the first email. Next, an email about period poverty in Scotland. When I first met Ellie’s mum, she told me that they had had a birthday party at the house, and she had left the teens with some cider – cider that was completely untouched by the next morning.
It would be a little too convenient, I think, to hold social media accountable for the comparatively quiet lives of teenagers. That they are too conscious of how Instagram might look, and therefore fear a picture of them vomiting up a case of blue WKD going viral. I don’t think this is the whole story. What’s more likely, I think, is that, while we drank to lose control, teenagers abstain because of how aware they are that no one is in control. Their planet is dying, their EU passports are being taken from them and no one – no one! – seems to be driving the fucking bus. Every time I speak to someone under 20, it’s expressly clear that they know it’s up to them to save the world. And, no, they’re not going to drink on the job.