Confronting Britain's teenage wasteland

Britain needs to return to a culture of traditional, stricter discipline.

I doubt that self-destruction was quite what Pete Townshend had in mind when his "teenage wasteland" lyric hit the airwaves in 1971. If he were writing today, the lead guitarist for British rock band The Who could easily have focused on "teenage waistlines" or any number of burgeoning youth-culture issues. However Mr. Townshend meant his words, young people in the West – and especially in Britain – are most definitely not all right.

"On every indicator of bad behaviour – drugs, drink, violence, promiscuity – the UK was at or near the top," BBC news reported Nov. 2, citing the results of a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a British think tank. Whatever cultural tensions led to this unsavory behavior, the demand for the death of "Victorian" values plainly ushered in more than the freedom-loving 1960s generation bargained for.

Adults, of course, are always complaining about teen behavior. But the IPPR report underscores a disturbing trend: This most liberated of teenage cultures is also the most rude, antisocial, and materialistic in Europe. And all because British teenagers spend their free time in the absence of adult influences.

If, as Townshend asserted, teenagers are "all wasted," it is not because of a restriction on freedoms, as his generation perceived. Ironically, the death of constraining Victorian-era family ideals has become the apparent conduit to the wasteland.

To be sure, France, Germany, and several other European nations that are further along on the "progressive" (read: destructive) path are also struggling with teen problems. Indeed, French President Jacques Chirac has struggled with a youth intifada. But France's problem has a specifically religious undertone and is driven by its massive immigrant population.

So what makes Britain's youth more dysfunctional than their European counterparts? Chiefly, it's due to the effective dismantling of the family and its protections. Consecutive British governments have removed the financial and legal benefits that once upheld the uniqueness of the institution of marriage, which has helped to destabilize the traditional family unit. In addition, the gradual imposition of European-style human rights and other legislation has led to the erosion of discipline in the home and in schools. That has contributed to a growing lack of respect for all authority. Parents, meanwhile, have been jailed for applying old-fashioned "spankings" to keep their children in line.

Elsewhere on the continent, family values are still largely influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, or least by the remembrance of a Western Judeo-Christian tradition. America more overtly acknowledges the religious element of its moral roots. Britain, on the other hand, is a post-Christian society with a weak, often intellectually incoherent, church. British society has steadily pursued policies that have undermined the critical atomic social element upon which all Western civilization depends: the family unit.

Britain (along with France) is perceived to have more trouble with antisocial behavior than anywhere else in Europe. That's according to a May study commissioned by ADT, the electronic security systems company, and devised with help from the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at University College London. The report showed that vast majorities of Britons blame the problem on alcohol and a lack of discipline in homes and schools.

The authors of the IPPR report also confirm that the sorry state of British youth culture is the direct result of the collapse of family and community life. It found that the "increased risk of youth crime" had fostered a growing fear of youngsters among adults and had driven them to turn a blind eye to antisocial behavior. It revealed:

•A whopping 38 percent of British teenagers had tried marijuana, compared with just 7 percent in Sweden and 27 percent in Germany.

•In England, 45 percent of 15-year-old boys spend most evenings out with their friends. In Scotland, that figure soars to 59 percent. In France, just 17 percent of boys spend their time this way.

•In Italy, 93 percent of teenagers eat regularly with their families. In Britain, only 64 percent of 15-year-olds do.

In the Nov. 2 BBC story, IPPR's Nick Pearce commented: "Because they don't have that structured interaction with adults, it damages their life chances. They are not learning how to behave – how to get on in life – as they need to." The same article noted, "The researchers concluded that the lack of adult interaction has left British teenagers increasingly vulnerable to failure."

On Nov. 6, the same day the IPPR report was published, a survey by the Youth Justice Board revealed that the government's Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), which are designed to place restrictions on those involved in petty crime, were viewed as a "badge of honour" among young British people, rather than a deterrent.

British youth are widely acknowledged as the "freest" in the Western world. Not by virtue of fiscal freedom only, but "freest" in every sense of the word. They are free to pursue "free love," which has achieved the highest unwanted pregnancy rate in Europe. They are free from authority, which has earned them the reputation as Europe's most drunken, violent, and out-of-control youth. And these youth have freedom of expression, which allows them to display immature, socially dysfunctional attitudes.

The trendy path that has fostered allegedly progressive methods of raising children is plainly failing. And although some Europeans fear that the malaise of British teens will spread across the continent, there are ways to stem the tide of antisocial behavior. Britain needs to return to a culture of traditional, stricter discipline, underpinned by the Judeo-Christian moral ethic, at both home and school. Traditional discipline, whether modern social engineers like it or not, is the only way to turn the tide of increasing youth anarchy.

Peter C. Glover, author of "The Politics of Faith: Essays on the Morality of Key Current Affairs," writes about international and cultural affairs.

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