"We live in a decaying age. Young people
no longer respect
their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently
inhabit taverns and have no self control."
6000 year-old Egyptian tomb1
"New" menace to society
In 1898, newspapers in England warned of the menace of "hooligans"
and of a "dramatic increase in disorderly behaviour".
The Times reported "organised terrorism in the
streets".2 In every
decade of the 20th century there were similar media panics.
Meanwhile, at the start of the 21st century, politicians have
(once again) revived and stoked public fears of juvenile misbehaviour.
A new Anti-Social Behaviour Act has given British authorities
extraordinary liberty-eroding powers.
Mainstream journalists often parrot government press releases.
Then, for "balance", they question whether or not governments
should interfere in how parents raise children (a side issue at
best). They tend not to question the belief that there is some
kind of new, unique, escalating menace which requires
They don't question the idea that this is part of a distinctly
modern malaise so unlike the good old days, when young
people had more respect...
A time of lawlessness & disrespect
"When I was young, we were taught
to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth
are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint".
Hesiod, 8th century BC
"What is happening to our young people?
They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They
ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions.
Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"
Plato, 4th Century BC
"The young people of today think
of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents
or old age. They are impatient of all restraint... As for the
girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior
Attributed to Peter the Hermit, AD
In April 1738, the press covered a report from a British Government
committee which had been set up to "examine
the causes of the present notorious immorality and profaneness."4
In the 1800s, hordes of teens and pre-teens ran wild in American
city streets, dodging authorities, "gnawing
away at the foundations of society", as a
commentator put it. In 1850, New York City recorded more than
200 gang wars fought largely by adolescent boys.5
The Golden Age
"Juvenile delinquency has increased
at an alarming rate and is eating at the heart of America"
US juvenile court judge, 19466
In 1992 the Wall Street Journal published two lists, ostensibly
of the biggest problems in schools in 1940 and 1990 ("as
identified by teachers"). The 1940 problems were listed as:
talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, improper
clothing and littering. The 1990
problems were: pregnancy, suicide, drugs, alcohol, rape, robbery
By the time the Journal printed the lists, they'd appeared
in hundreds of media publications, books and political speeches.
In 1994, a Yale professor demonstrated that the "1990"
list was from a 1975 survey in which principals (not teachers)
were asked about crimes (not general problems). The sociologist,
Barry Glassner, points out that when teachers have been
asked about problems in schools, they respond with items such
as parent apathy, lack of financial support, absenteeism, fighting
and too few textbooks not rape and robbery.7
But the lists "confirmed" common beliefs that
morals are breaking down, that everything is going to hell, etc.
"In the late 1990s the number
of drug users had decreased by half compared to a decade earlier;
almost two-thirds of high school seniors had never used any illegal
drugs, even marijuana. So why did a majority of adults rank drug
abuse as the greatest danger to America's youth?"
(Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear)
1 Egyptian inscription
quoted in R. Buckminster Fuller's I Seem to be a Verb.
2 From Laurie Taylor's article, Looking
with a historical eye, published in the 1995 Channel Four
booklet, Battered Britain.
3 Whilst the quotes attributed to Hesiod
and Plato seem well-supported, the attribution of this quote to
Peter the Hermit has been questioned
by some. Another, similar quote, commonly attributed to Socrates
(but not included here) is also questionable.
4 Fortean Times no. 39, p41.
5 Quoted in Barry Glassner's The Culture
of Fear, p75.
6 Ibid, p75.
7 Ibid, p75-76.