Reckless beyond words? A data-driven look at Australian young people today
Speech to the National Youth Conference
Thank you to Bob Gregory for the generous introduction, and to Jordan Kerr and the conference organisers for inviting me to be part of the National Youth Conference 2015. I acknowledge that we are meeting today on the land of the Ngunnawal people, and acknowledge their elders past and present. I also acknowledge the young Ngunnawal people who make such a contribution to Canberra’s community life and ensure that this area’s Indigenous history continues to be part of our common story.
In 1950, life expectancy for an Australian bloke like me was about 67. At 42, that means back then I’d have been considered well into the later innings of my life. One of the great things about life expectancy increasing to 82 today is that I’m now probably only halfway through my life’s journey. Unfortunately, I still don’t think that lets me squeak into the category of ‘young person’ though, so thank you for making an exception and having me along today anyway.
A little while ago I came across a column in one of our major metro papers where the writer talked about his horror at the behaviour of young Australians out and about on a Saturday night. He described seeing police and other revellers ‘routinely disrespected, sworn at, made fun of, shoved, taunted and generally treated like garbage by swarms of drunken youths.'
In a report about the emergence of new social problems, I was also dismayed to read: ‘bikie gangs and overseas criminal syndicates [are] taking advantage of the highly addictive aspect of ice to actively hook thousands of young Victorians.’
Both of these stories brought to mind the former-Treasurer Peter Costello (that noted expert of youth culture). Some years ago he gave a speech stating: ‘We do not have to look far to see evidence of moral decay all around us. We can see it and hear it in entertainment like rap music, in songs that glorify violence or suicide and the exploitation of others.’
All of this made me start to really worry about the drunken, drug addicted, depraved young people around today. So as an economist, I did what economists do: I turned to the data.
I started looking at all the indicators I could find on how young people today compare with their predecessors. We’re very fortunate in this country that the Australian Bureau of Statistics collects time series data on things like school attainment rates, drug and alcohol use, teen pregnancy and crime. So all the evidence we need of young people’s ‘moral decay’ should be right there in hard numbers.
Except it isn’t.
On just about any indicator you’d care to choose, today’s young Australians are better educated, more abstemious and less prone to crime than they were when I was causing havoc on the mean streets of Sydney in my own (sadly departed) youth.
Take a look at boozing, for example. In the past decade alone, the percentage of 18 to 24 year-olds drinking every day has halved. Young Australians are the most likely of any age group to binge drink, but we’ve still seen an overall decrease in the percentage of young folk drinking to excess. Across both the 12 to 17 and 18 to 24 year age brackets, the percentage of people knocking back more than four drinks in a sitting has dropped by about 10 per cent in the past decade.
What about drug use? In 2001, about 28 per cent of people aged 14 to 19 had ever used an illicit drug like ecstasy, pot or amphetamines. By 2013, this had fallen to well under 20 per cent. People in their 20s have also cut back, with those using drugs falling from over one in three to about one in four since 2001.
We don’t tend to lump smoking into the category of ‘drug use’ because it’s a legal product. But drug or not, smoking rates are well down for young people today. Over the past decade, smoking rates for 12-17 year olds have fallen from 5 percent to 3 percent, while smoking rates for 18-24 year olds have fallen from 25 to 15 percent. And let’s not even talk about how high smoking rates were when Peter Costello was a boy.
Maybe because there’s been less drinking and drug use, Australia’s rate of teen pregnancy has plummeted in recent decades. In 1970, there were almost 51 births for every woman aged 15 to 19. By 2013, this figure had fallen to less than 15 per 1,000 women. So young people are clearly heeding the message about safe sex and delaying parenthood until they’ve completed their own growing up. The phenomenon of ‘kids having kids’ is rarer than ever.
Another likely reason for this is that young people today are better educated than ever before. In 1989 just 60 per cent of young Australians completed their Year 12 certificate; today 73 per cent do. Now of course, we’d still like to get that number up because education and the depth of our skilled workforce is one of Australia’s main competitive strengths in the global marketplace. But that’s a big improvement over only a few decades. Importantly, it means that many more young Australians today have the opportunity to go on to tertiary study or skilled work than did in the 1980s.
Finally, there’s crime. The figures here are a bit trickier, and there’s a lot of variation both across states and within communities. But we do know that crimes committed by young people as a proportion of all crimes have trended down in recent years. For example, across Australia young people committed 29 per cent of all crimes in 2008 but only 22 per cent by 2014.
So I hate to break this to you, but you’re all actually pretty upstanding citizens.
But if today’s young Australians drink, smoke and use drugs less, have fewer babies in their teens, commit less crime and stay in school for longer, why is there this perception that you are out of control and more depraved than ever?
Well for a start, it’s worth pointing out that people have been complaining about the young since time immemorial. In the 8th century BC, Hesiod reportedly lamented: "I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.” In 1843, Lord Ashley delivered an impassioned speech to the British Parliament in which he argued that “the morals of the children are tenfold worse than formerly.” And of course we’ve all had a good giggle at the 1960s moralists who thought rock and roll music was a gateway to Satanic worship and the end of civilisation as we know it. Humans never seem to grow tired of making unfavourable comparisons between the youth of the day and some imaginary golden past which almost certainly never existed.
Oxford’s Abigail Wills argues the anxiety about young people today also stems from changes in how we think about your role in the community. She suggests that back when people entered the workforce at a relatively youthful age, young people were valued more for their economic contribution. But young people now spend longer in study and are also increasingly delaying some of the traditional markers of adulthood like buying a home (for good reason, given the prices). This means we have less of a clear sense of how young people contribute, and therefore get more uptight about the ways you’re perceived to be failing.
To deal with this, she argues that: ’we need to start thinking about ways of improving adult perceptions of the young, rather than thinking up panic solutions to an imaginary cataclysm of declining morals.’ I couldn’t agree more.
There’s a great expression out there which I’m sure you’re familiar with: mansplaining. There’s probably an equivalent phenomenon of oldsplaining, and at the risk of engaging in it, I’d like to make a few suggestions on how you can, in Dr Wills’ words, ‘improve adult perceptions of the young’.
First, don’t be afraid to raise your voices when you hear or read older Australians talking down young people. There are dozens of opinion pieces and columns written by Baby Boomers published every day, but far fewer by young Australians. As media writer Mark Davis once put it, some members of our commentariat ‘have been breathing each other’s air for too long’. Contest that space in the media and the public’s attention. Put your arguments out there and don’t let those older voices be the only ones that get heard.
Second, lobby your politicians, universities and other civil society organisations to continue collecting good data on young people (and everyone else, for that matter). One of the worrying trends we’ve seen recently is the loss of many statistical services from the ABS due to budget cuts, as well as cutbacks for research funding across the tertiary sector. We can’t prove that moral panics about the young are hollow if we don’t have the data and research to back that up. So don’t let young people fall out of view because of a lack of good empirical data.
Third, be inspired. Einstein developed the theory of relativity in his twenties. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at 26. Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby at 29. Zuckerberg launched Facebook at 19. Welles directed Citizen Kane at 26. Don’t let anyone put a lid on your dreams.
Finally, don’t fall into the trap of getting frustrated and discouraged when columnists and shock jocks talk down young people or fail to acknowledge how talented, creative, community-minded and strong you are. As Taylor Swift so memorably puts it: haters gotta hate, hate, hate. If you believe in your potential and that of your peers, then the misinformed appraisal of the armchair critics simply fades into the background.
You and I both know that today’s young Australians are clean living, clear-headed and conscientious. That’s why the future of policy and politics in this country is in very good hands indeed.