Britain’s timid teens need to go to the pub

Young Brits’ aversion to booze and pubs is stunting their development.

At regular intervals over the past three years, one particular news story has prompted health zealots to crack open the carrot juice: young people are drinking less and less alcohol. It’s true. Over the past decade, the percentage of teens who drink booze has declined from around 25 per cent to nine per cent. A similar pattern can be seen in the consumption of cigarettes and drugs among young people, too. ‘Is this the age of the teen puritan?’, asked the Observer, suggesting a very different kind of generation gap might be emerging. More pointedly, are such trends ‘healthy’ or detrimental to young people’s lives?

The discussion about young people and alcohol consumption reveals everything that is rotten about the way booze is viewed today. Reducing alcohol consumption to a health issue ignores the role drink has played in human culture throughout the ages. It ignores alcohol’s part in great conversations, nights out with friends, romance, marriage ceremonies, business deals. Booze lowers inhibitions and helps humans get closer. But today, society tends to view people getting close to one another as a problem, a source of multiple risks. Hence younger people’s abstention from boozing goes hand-in-hand with a suspicion of getting closer to others. This is a worrying tendency, and one which is likely to be detrimental to young people.

Of course, it is right that secondary-school-age teens should be discouraged from drinking and smoking. That boundary between adult behaviour and childhood is important. Indeed, creating a bit of mystique around alcohol and drinking in pubs enhances a desire on the part of the young to be ‘in’ on this exclusive grown-up club; it enhances a desire to be a citizen in a public space rather than a child hemmed in at home.

Adults were once of a similar view: many recognised drinking in the pub as a rite of passage, an important means by which young people became part of a local community. This is why many pub landlords used to turn a blind eye to 16- or 17-year-olds sneaking in for an illicit drink. In turn, teens would have to behave in a mature way in pubs to avoid being turfed out. Today, health authoritarians would be aghast at the idea of landlords knowingly serving underage drinkers. They would complain that drinking damages young people’s health, that it encourages alcohol dependency and aggravates anti-social behaviour. But 20 to 30 years ago, landlords and adult society more broadly instinctively understood how the pub helped teenagers become socially adept and confident adults. Far from social boozing automatically being seen as a threat, it was viewed as important to young people’s social development. Today, the reverse is the case: young people’s aversion to social drinking is stunting their development as socially confident and independent adults.

Looking back over the past 25 years, it is clear there has been a backlash, from all sides, against the socialising role pubs once played. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, rave culture’s emphasis on pills over booze presented pubs as deeply unfashionable places to be. In turn, breweries recast drinking as an eternally youthful rather than grown-up endeavour.

As a sign of how much it hated Old Britain, New Labour launched an all-out war on pubs during its 13 years in power, through booze price hikes and the smoking ban. Fostered by officialdom, a new generation gap has emerged whereby youngsters, particularly from immigrant communities, view pubs as undesirable relics from an unsavoury age. Little wonder that UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s defence of smoking and drinking in pubs is held up as proof that his politics are ludicrously anachronistic.

Given the relentless onslaught on pubs and public drinking, it would be a surprise if young people weren’t drinking less. Admittedly, there have been moral panics in the past about youthful boozing which had little effect. But it’s different now. In today’s therapeutic climate, where mollycoddled youngsters have been encouraged to see themselves as vulnerable and in danger, grown-up arenas and lifestyles are presented as threats rather than opportunities to enter the adult world.

A recent survey from Portsmouth University showed how many young people feel scared and unsafe in pubs and clubs. The researchers unwisely interpreted the survey results as a sign that pubs are populated with trouble-seeking thugs. In fact, the youngsters really meant that they are worried about holding their own in a conversation or being in a room populated with strangers. For the young people surveyed, it was preferable to be at a friend’s house loading up on booze, away from the bustle, glares and awkward chats of the pub. It was a thoroughly depressing snapshot of diminished and over-protected youth. The latest decline in boozing among young people in this new age of teen puritans is nothing to celebrate. Like staying at home with mum and dad into your thirties, it is an avoidance of what once defined us as adults. To have a truly healthy relationship with booze, it is time young people acquainted themselves with pubs and public drinking.

Neil Davenport is a writer and teacher based in London.

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