The World at Large: I’m a grumpy old man.

Some time ago, I uttered a sentence beginning with the phrase, “The youth of today…” and I realised that this meant I was getting old. Indeed, I am now old enough, in theory, to be a grandfather, which is a scary thought, but it must be faced.

Still, young people do sometimes annoy me, especially when they sit in giggly groups on the train, with their MP3 players at full volume (especially aggravating when there are three of those things all playing at once). I despair at what today passes as “music”, but then remember that much of the stuff I like elicited a similar response from my parents and their contemporaries. I am, I fear, turning into the sort of stuffy, boring man I used to laugh at.

For some time now, I’ve felt that I need something to supress the urge to give some of the young’uns a clip around the ear, and until now the old mantra of “I was young once” had to suffice. But now I’ve found something better, and it is this: “It could be worse: they could be British.”

To Hull in a handbasket

A study now published comes to the regrettably unsurprising conclusion that British youngsters are the worst behaved in Europe. They commit the most crime, drink more than anyone except the Danes and the Irish, have more underage and unprotected sex, and are generally obnoxious and unpleasant.

Our trip to Britain in the summer provided ample anecdotal evidence. We stayed a night in Bristol, and went out in search of somewhere to eat; and we were confronted by the most extraordinary sights. There were massively long queues at cash machines (something my wife couldn’t stop commenting on); young people roaming the streets everywhere; bouncers outside just about every pub, club and bar in town; drunken brawls; you name it.

The startling thing, though, was just how badly-dressed they all were. Over here, the British have a reputation for excellent taste in clothes, but German fashion critics obviously haven’t been to England for a couple of decades. The girls especially were dressed in a bewildering array of ugly clothes, the main object being, apparently, to expose as much cleavage, belly and leg as possible. Most less sartorially-challenged women in other countries only do this if they have the figure for it; the effect of seeing all those wobbly boobs and rolls of blubber spilling over the tops of ill-advised items of clothing was quite unappealing.

It wasn’t me; they started it!

It was fascinating to read the report on the BBC website; even more fascinating to read some of the comments left by other readers. No wonder nothing ever gets done about this problem: everyone is too busy blaming everyone else. Teachers blame parents, parents blame the government, the government (in a classic illustration of the nonsense corrolate) blames ancient laws on pub closing times, the police blame society, right-wingers blame liberalism, left-wingers blame consumerism, and the young people themselves blame anyone within shouting distance. This is buck-passing taken to a ludicrous level.

One young person posted to say that they were “forced to drown their sorrows”. I had to wonder what kind of sorrows teenagers have that could possibly require drowning, and that set me thinking.

Speaking from the perspective of a 36-year-old, it is certainly true that what, at my age, appears to be a minor irritation (like not being very good at flirting) is, to a 16-year-old, apocalyptic in its implications. So how did we cope? Indeed, how do, say, Germans cope?

One theory being advanced is that adults, for whatever reason, are not being the role models they should be. Youngsters use each other as role models; and you’ll find lots of anecdotal evidence to suggest that nobody else is willing to draw the line and rule the kids out of order. Those who suggest that a little discipline might be in order are shouted down by those who, after all these years, still think that discipline is old-fashioned; they in turn are shouted down by those who believe that regularly thrashing children to within an inch of their lives is the only way to go. With all this arguing going on, it’s probably little wonder that young people are shrugging their shoulders and going out for a spot of happy-slapping.

And so the debate doesn’t so much rage as rant hysterically, nothing gets done, and the young people take matters into their own hands and run riot.

Silence of the Germans

Of course, you can take things to the other extreme. My wife and I recently visited a small town called Merseburg, and wandering around the place on a mild Saturday evening, it struck me just how few young people were out enjoying themselves: I counted exactly none. Please understand that I wasn’t expecting overweight girls and lanky spotty young lads trying to injure each other with broken bottles, but it was certainly almost spooky how there wasn’t even a small group of teenagers lounging around, drinking beer, getting a bit loud and skateboarding on the little square that seemed to be crying out for a few good-for-nothing layabout skateboarders. It’s not as if Merseburg was teeming with pubs, clubs and “things for young people to do”: the place was empty and worryingly quiet. It was like being in a sequel to The Stepford Wives.

At least Merseburg proves that being young and bored doesn’t force anyone to be anti-social. Heaven knows what young Merseburgers do all evening, but it’s proof all the same.

’As ’e an ASBO?

And what is the British government’s answer to all this? Not that I think that governments should micromanage the general population, but they should take some sort of lead. Unfortunately, these days at least, taking the lead is the last thing the government wants to do, because that implies responsibility, and responsibility means that people can blame you when things go wrong. Oh no: what you do is, you make regulations which are bound to fail, but will do so in a way that makes it look like everybody else’s fault.

Enter the ASBO. If you are not British (or if, like me, you are British but live abroad and are a little out of touch), you need to know that ASBO stands for “Anti-Social Behaviour Order”. As far as I can make out, an ASBO is a piece of paper that says, “Please don’t do what you just did, or we might get a little bit upset.”

This is a masterpiece. Firstly, it doesn’t actually do anything — at least, nothing new. Before the ASBO, we used to have “police cautions”. The police would caution you the first time they caught you doing something anti-social and illegal; the next time they caught you they would prosecute. Secondly, since police cautions never worked, ASBOs are doomed to failure, but since introducing the system involved a lot of work by the government (it must have taken them months to come up with a good name that would be on everyone’s lips within weeks), it looks as if the fault lies with parents and children not taking them seriously, or the authorities not administering them properly.

Predictably, the ASBO quickly became a badge of honour among certain young people, and a very convenient one, too. “I got my first ASBO” is a boast, and certainly sounds a lot cooler (and is easier to spell) than “The police cautioned me.”

Another interesting development is the crackdown on hoodies. The logic goes something like this: Since young trouble-makers wear hoodies, there is something sinister about hoodies. Therefore, if we demonise hoodies, we can make it look as if there is nothing we can do about the situation except tell people that they are not allowed to wear hoodies. The argument, of course, is ridiculous: young trouble-makers wear hoodies because hoodies are fashionable, and a lot of — maybe even most — people who wear hoodies are not troublemakers. One suspects that someone in government has been playing some weird variant of Dungeons and Dragons: “I don my magic hoodie and offer you a knuckle sandwich.”

You ain’t nothin’ but a juvenile delinquent

If you are, say, the age of my father-in-law, you might remember a time when rock-’n-roll was the root of all society’s evils and all Teddy-boys were thugs. (I have seen a picture of my father-in-law with slicked-back hair, winkle-pickers and a scowl: clearly a nasty piece of work.) But hoodies are perfectly timed to coincide with the debate about the veils worn by some Muslim women.

You see, the veil is worn on the head and face, and are beloved by extremists. Hoodies cover the head, and are beloved by trouble-makers. This is beautiful: it means that we can now compare our obnoxious, misguided youths with extremist Islamic terrorists without it seeming contrived. This is a debate that has left reason far behind. We are now officially hysterical.

So what’s the answer? You might well ask, and to be honest I don’t have one. I just like to waffle in smug self-satisfaction. Listen, it’s not my problem: I don’t have children, and I don’t live in Britain. But then again, I think part of my argument is that there are no quick-fix solutions. But that, if I may say so, is no reason not to do anything about it.

Browse more archived articles