Apr 24, 2016

Young ones too engrossed in their phones to behave badly

Is this the best-behaved younger generation in modern history? It might just be.

The habits of “millennials” are certainly different to those of their parents. And these new preferences are having a serious effect on spending and business.

Take alcohol. Those in their twenties and early thirties are drinking dramatically less than previous generations. Overall, consumption of booze peaked 10 years ago; it has fallen 20% since then. But this understates the shift among younger people; it is estimated that binge drinking has fallen, perhaps, 50% over the past decade or so.

Why? Alcohol is much more affordable and widely available than in the past. But it is much less fashionable to be drunk than it was. The cult of coffee and the rise of restaurant culture might be part of the explanation.

Similarly, illicit drug use has declined. According to the Crime Survey for England &Wales, usage has fallen by about 30% over the past 10 years; fewer than one in five respondents said they use drugs. The survey also reported that total criminal incidents have fallen by two-thirds since a peak in 1995.

As young men commit a disproportionate amount of crime — especially burglary, car theft and muggings — these male millennials appear much more law-abiding than their immediate predecessors. Meanwhile, teenage pregnancies have almost halved in the past 10 years.

What are the explanations for these modifications? Education is probably one; many more people now attend university. Another may be that society as a whole is older — perhaps leading to a pacifying effect. Possibly millennials are better informed about the health risks of cannabis and alcohol and are keener on staying fit. Increasing equality between the sexes could also mean that aggressive male tendencies are less prevalent.

But I happen to think the single biggest factor is the extraordinary ubiquity of smartphones — especially among millennials.

To an extent, I suspect they have become a substitute for other activities — a replacement addiction, if you like.

A virtual life has partly replaced an experiential one, so going out to pubs, drinking, smoking, dancing and taking drugs have diminished. Digital gaming, social media and such like now take up much of the time that might have been spent getting drunk, spraying graffiti, dropping ecstasy or smoking dope — or simply socialising face to face. And over the past 10 years, fewer young people have learnt to drive and a smaller proportion own a car — although this may well be partly connected to the financial crisis and student debt.

Fewer cars, less drinking, lower drug use — all mean a reduction in criminal behaviour.

Interestingly, diminishing hedonism and hooliganism doesn’t appear to be making millennials happier, according to surveys. Moreover, they are less trusting than their parents were — which seems illogical. Perhaps the online life encourages suspicion.

Of course, being constantly digitally connected is not just having an impact on drinking and drug taking. It is leading to dramatic changes in the way millennials shop, bank, consume media and so on. I suspect they may be the first generation who will use ecommerce for most of their retail purchases. They will happily dispense with cash altogether, and never use bank branches. They will almost never read a paid-for newspaper in print form, or watch broadcast TV, but instead consume them online. They are less loyal customers, but more tolerant, open-minded and environmentally conscious.

They also seem socially and economically liberal — keen on diversity and individual rights, but also in favour of entrepreneurship.

They are better travelled, more highly qualified and more focused on the work/life balance — yet settling down and having children later, while struggling to buy a home and find a satisfying career. They see themselves as multi-taskers, tech-savvy and connected; some critics see them as narcissistic and in thrall to instant gratification.

I think there is a bigger divide than usual between those who became adults before and after the internet. That development has changed the home, work, relationships, leisure — almost everything. Of course we remain human, but the underlying impact of constant screen time on young minds is yet to be properly investigated. Perhaps it is little different to watching lots of television when growing up, which is what my generation did.

Business always courts the young, as they will become the core customers. I’ve seen little in the way of insightful corporate research, or studies by sociologists, to explain some of the above phenomena. I would love to understand better what makes millennials tick.