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Why young Kiwis are getting better behaved

Peter McKenzie examines some rapid behaviour changes among our young people, seeing them smoke and drink markedly less than previous generations.

It escalated from a lover’s tiff into a shouting match as I walked up the front steps. I hurried past and into the house, which was roiling with music and people celebrating the countdown to the New Year. The rooms were packed with university students overflowing with Corona and Absolut, and the earthy smell of weed drifted in from the garden. A few hours after I left a “waterfall of vomit” doused doors and beds.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was the best behaved generation of young partiers in recent history.

Much of our political discourse rests on the assumption that young people require a guiding hand. One can look to the fiery debate over marijuana legalisation as an example. But young people today are actually showing themselves to be increasingly responsible.

The most obvious example is alcohol use. The Ministry of Health first began collecting reliable data on alcohol use in 2006. Since then, the rates of young people consuming alcohol in the previous year have dropped precipitously. In 2006 83.8 percent of 15 to 24 year olds had drunk alcohol in the previous year. In 2016 just 75.7 percent had - an 8.1 percent drop. The drop was even sharper among 15 to 17 year olds, where there was an almost unbelievable 18.2 percent reduction.

By contrast, the average reduction in rates of alcohol use among other demographics was just 3.1 percent.

This change in behaviour extends to dangerous drinking. Between 2015 and 2016 there was a 3.4 percent drop in the percentage of 15 to 24 year olds engaging in weekly binge drinking. Only one other age group reduced its weekly binge drinking rate; people over the age of 75.

To be sure, 15 to 24 year olds still have the highest rates of alcohol use and abuse of any demographic. But such rapid changes are still incredible. A 3.4 percent drop in binge drinking over 10 years would be laudable. The same drop over one year is worth shouting from the rooftops. And while we don’t have data to show it, it seems fair to assume that this is a change from the binge drinking “six o'clock swill” culture that defined New Zealand alcohol consumption up until the late 1960s, and which created a long-lasting legacy of alcohol abuse among my generations’ parents and grandparents.

A rising culture of perfection, in which young people have been raised with the expectation of greatness, and a culture of increasing loneliness, digital separation and reduced face-to-face interaction, are also partially at fault for the increased restraint and decreased intimacy of young people.

This pattern of increasingly good behaviour is true for almost all the classic examples of youthful misbehaviour. In 2006, 23.4 percent of 15 to 24 year olds were smokers. Now, just 15.4 percent are - another immense drop of 8 percent. Only 1.7 percent of young people are heavy smokers, the lowest result for any demographic.

Another interesting example is sex. While data isn’t readily available for New Zealand, a recent Atlantic article revealed that in America the number of young people having sex has also declined. Americans in their early 20s are two and a half times more likely to be abstinent than their Generation X parents were at the same age. It is fair to assume a similar trend could be at work here.

Much of this stems from a mix of social and technological forces. The rise of phone cameras and social networking apps like Snapchat have effectively eliminated any semblance of privacy among young people. Photos and videos taken of young people while behaving poorly are likely to surface on Snapchat and Instagram stories, or be posted to a person’s Facebook page as an embarrassing birthday celebration. Stories of lost jobs or opportunities after a potential employer checked an applicants’ rowdy internet presence are legion. A rising culture of perfection, in which young people have been raised with the expectation of greatness, and a culture of increasing loneliness, digital separation and reduced face-to-face interaction, are also partially at fault for the increased restraint and decreased intimacy of young people.

But another driving force has been the government. The Smokefree 2020 campaign rallied anti-smoking sentiment and made smoking deeply unpopular, a huge incentive for people to quit. The viral ads promoted by the NZ Transport Agency (‘Ghost Chips’ and Legend) and Health Promotion Agency (‘Department of Lost Nights’) have become essential aspects of New Zealand culture, and helped discourage binge drinking and drunk driving. I will admit, I don’t know which government department can claim responsibility for young people’s reduced sex lives.

There is, however, one interesting exception to the rule of a better-behaved generation of partiers. They’re smoking more weed. Between 2011 and 2017, the percentage of 15-24 year olds who had used cannabis in a 12-month period increased by 7.3 percent, to an almost record high of 22.2 percent. While it is hard to guess what the usage rate would be if weed were legal, it is clear that the criminalisation of marijuana has not prevented an uptick in users. If anything, the uptick in weed use might be a direct result of the downtick in alcohol consumption, as young people seek out healthier and more relaxing alternatives to drinking.

The conclusion to all of this is two-fold. First, our culture is less permissive of youthful rowdiness. Secondly, many (but not all) government efforts to discourage that rowdiness have been successful. None of that, of course, is any consolation to the poor flatmates who had to clean vomit off the floor in the aftermath of that catastrophic New Years Eve party.

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