Is Your Teen a Saffy?

Teenagers? We know what they're like, don't we. They're hedonistic and impetuous. They want their brands 'edgy' and their work easy. They kiss the future and shun the past. Sex, drugs and R&B.

SAFFY and Sober

Teenagers? We know what they're like, don't we. They're hedonistic and impetuous. They want their brands 'edgy' and their work easy. They kiss the future and shun the past. Sex, drugs and R&B.

Well maybe it used to be that way. And some publications still push that angle to drive sales. But guess what: that image is SO over. Almost as over as "so".

Yes, Kevin the Teenager is dead. Say hello to S.A.F.F.Y.: Serious, Active, Forward-Facing Youth.

Teenage History X

The word "teenager" was first used in WWII to describe the generation who lived through the war but were too young to have fought in it.

From its inception it had negative implications. The first recorded use of the term, from 1942, declares: "the teenager is looking for thrills."

It was taken up by marketers in the 1950s, to describe and target the eldest Baby Boomers as they came of age. It grew stronger in subsequent decades, encompassing both the Boomers (born 1946-1964) and Generation X (born 1965-1980).

Marketing and media continued to build the 'typical teenager' concept until it crystallised into "fact". And many teens then did conform to these characteristics. My friends and I rebelled against what we saw as our parent's conservative tastes in music, art and fashion. We drank and ... Well, let's just say we were "typical teens".

Straight Edge Not Edgy

So, let's look at today's young people. How do SAFFYs compare to the classic Teen?

Well for one thing, like their sitcom namesake they're much 'straighter', much less hedonistic. The headlines paint Binge Britain, but NHS data shows that drink and recreational drug use among UK teens has actually dropped every single year since 2000.

Less than half (43%) of 12-17s have ever drunk alcohol. Still seems a lot? Back in 2003 it was almost two thirds (61%). The number of teens that thinks it acceptable (read 'cool') for someone to drink alcohol has fallen too.

Meanwhile illegal drug use among Teens is at its lowest level since current methods of measurement were first used. The proportion who reported ever having taken drugs fell from 29% in 2001 to just 17% in 2012.

Casual sex too appears to be in decline: again, despite tabloid 'evidence'. Teenage pregnancy rates in England and Wales last year were at their lowest level since the 1960s. The age Britons lose their virginity is rising year on year. There is even early anecdotal evidence of a growth in longer term relationships.

Commitment certainly seems less of a problem: the number of 15-24s who say they "never want to be tied down to responsibility" fell from 40% in 1995 to less than a quarter today.

Taking Precautions

Today's young people are also less carefree and anti-tradition than one might expect. Less than a quarter of teenagers agree with the statement "I like to enjoy life and don't worry about the future," according to a recent survey by Euromonitor. A poll I ran with research agency OnePoll showed three quarters of 16-29 year olds today think it's important to have savings: more than Generation X. And more actually have savings than Baby Boomers do. Over one in ten 16-30s considers saving for a pension important. That's just 10 per cent less than the total population, according to The Future Foundation.

A pension! When I was a kid, pensions sat with bingo halls in my vocab of nan-related stereotypes.

There are even signs that this generation might be the ones ready to face up to the reality of tomorrow, to accept they'll have to shape their own future. Meanwhile, compared to the iconoclastic teens of yesterday, today's young people are showing greater openness to the traditions of the past. The "Spirit of the Blitz" trend for cupcakes, Electro Swing and 'Keep Calm & Carry On' mugs may have crossed demographics now, but it started among the young.

Saffy Society

I'm not saying that every child in Britain today is like a pre-liberation Miley Cyrus or a David Cameron-style young fogey. Many young people, for a range of reasons, continue to be hedonistic, lethargic or iconoclastic. But what the statistics show is a very clear trend away from that, and away from our traditional view of the Teenager. And it's not just here: the trend is growing in the US and many other countries too.

It's perhaps the biggest shift in youth attitudes in 50 years. It's going to have quite an impact. Next time, I'll explore just what the trend means: for politicians, journalists, businesses, parents ... and our collective future.