Saturday 25 January 2020

Generation Zero has so much more to offer than sleaze and booze

They are renowned for their boozy antics, promiscuity and selfish behaviour but the reputation of our young is undeserved.

Generation Zero, those aged 16-25, is not famed for its positive press.
Generation Zero, those aged 16-25, is not famed for its positive press.

Chrissie Russell

Generation Zero, those aged 16-25, is not famed for its positive press. From Slane Girl and Neknominations to the recent headlines on 'mamading' - the exchange of oral sex for free drinks, made famous by a Northern Irish teen in a Magaluf nightclub.

If all that we read is anything to go by then the future looks bleak for this hedonistic generation.

But is the shot-swilling, sponging off the 'bank of mum and dad' image we have of young people justified?

The evidence would suggest not.

Data from the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs has revealed a downward trend in the lifetime prevalence of drug taking among teens. Teen pregnancy is at its lowest rate since 1963.

And according to the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI), 82pc of young people are not on the live register and 85pc of those who are have worked previously.

Alcohol is undeniably an issue for young people in Ireland. Harmful drinking is highest among those aged 18-24 and monthly binge drinking is most common among this age group.

But Conor Cullen from Alcohol Action Ireland feels it's unfair to hold Gen Zero entirely accountable.

"Young people are not to blame for the current situation and, in fact, a large number of them are doing very well to steer clear of issues with alcohol, given the environment we have created for them," he says.

"Worryingly, there is a consistent trend for drunkenness among young Irish people that sets them apart from the majority of their European counterparts.

"However, there is nothing to be gained by pointing the finger at young people. We need to acknowledge that they generally model their drinking behaviour on the attitudes and actions of the adults they see around them, as well as being influenced by alcohol marketing. When it comes to drinking, young people are, in many ways, a product of their environment and we have created an environment for them that is saturated with alcohol."

In other words, we can't peddle the message that drinking is cool and then expect kids not to want to join in. Although, impressively, that's exactly what a growing number of them are choosing to do. There are now 15,000 young people in No Name Clubs across the country (clubs run by those 15 and up who want to enjoy themselves free from the pressures of drink and drugs). Events, supported by youth organisations like SpunOut, that offer an alternative to drunkenness, such as Hello Sunday Morning, have secured a strong following.

Student Jessica Spencer (19) from Dublin says she was turned off by images of drunken celebrities in the media at an early age and decided not to drink alcohol at all.

"I've never had any interest in it," she explains. "I've heard stories from very sensible friends who got carried away drinking too much and found themselves in situations that were worrying or embarrassing - that's not a situation I wanted to find myself in."

Instead, she's focusing on a blossoming career presenting on YouTube and hosting a radio show on NearFM.

When she does go out, she finds the peer pressure to drink is another media invention.

"It's not a problem," she shrugs. "Most people say 'fair play to you' or even if they try to force drink on me, I tell them to back off and it's forgotten about within 30 seconds."

While she finds the images of her peers on Results Night "disappointing", she reckons they're by no means representative of her generation.

"I'm definitely in a minority not drinking," she agrees. "But it's also just a small minority who drink in excess and take drugs. People see TV shows like Skins and think all young people are like that, but it's simply not the case."

Secondary school pupil Joanna Siewierska (17) from Dublin says: "The vast majority of my friends don't drink.

"I know there are problems such as alcohol, drugs and cyber-bullying facing my generation, but I don't think we're as bad as we're made out to be.

"A lot of teens study, go to school, have healthy relationships in their lives with their peers, parents and teachers or excel academically but they don't get half the attention that things like Neknomination get.

"I guess things like that are just more shocking and maybe that makes them more newsworthy."

It has always been customary to demonise the younger generation. From Mods and Teddy Boys to Punks and Rockers, youth culture has always provoked a wave of moral panic.

The difference with today's young people, compared to the devil-may-care attitude of previous rebellious generations, is that they're genuinely concerned about the effect negative press could be having on their prospects.

A UK survey earlier this year found that more than two-thirds of 14-17-year olds worry that the poor public perception of them, driven by the media, is affecting their chances of getting a job. Four out of five teens feel they're unfairly represented in the press.

Ian Power, executive director of youth organisation SpunOut disagrees with the grim image of Generation Zero often portrayed by the media and with the now infamous quote by a politician last year that insinuated young people would rather sit in front of their flat-screen TVs than get a job.

"It doesn't even come remotely close to presenting an accurate reflection of the amazing things done by young people in spite of all the new and difficult challenges we face," he insists.

"Young people are creative, innovative and energetic. We get thousands of young people coming to our site on a daily basis to get ideas for improving CVs and knowing how to sell themselves to employers.

"The employment and education sections are by far the most read areas of our website - which goes entirely against the media, and governmental, representation of young people as lazy and unmotivated."

Laura Gaynor (19) from Co Sligo is studying film and TV production at the National Film School. She also spends time working freelance on radio and social activism projects as well as presenting shows on Raidio na Life and RTE 2XM.

"People often assume I'm just on Facebook if I'm on my laptop, but I'm probably writing or editing," she says.

"It's annoying how my age group gets generalised simply because we're young. Yes, you might only see young people out with their friends, but that doesn't mean they live frivolously or don't work." She is also a non-drinker.

Economics and Political Science student Gareth Gregan (21) from Co Clare believes the older generation needs to stop stereotyping Generation Zero and give respect to get it back.

He explains: "When important decisions are made on the back of negative stereotyping, it becomes 
an issue. Just recently I saw this in action when a school principal dismissed the Leaving Cert class two days earlier than expected, with no prior notice, because 
they were worried students would create havoc on their last day.

"Aside from causing stress for the teachers trying to cram for the last few days ahead of the pending exams, it robbed the students of the opportunity to say goodbye to the teachers and school they'd contributed to for the last six years. No one felt it was a missed opportunity for a prank, they were just upset."

Last year in his spare time Gareth co-founded a youth literacy initiative, WriteUP!, for secondary school pupils in Dublin. As well as working on her Youtube career, Jessica Spencer also volunteers at two community radio stations. Joanna Siewierska has a part-time job as a cleaner, sits on the Webwise youth advisory board for internet safety, is part of Dublin Youth Theatre and has been involved in a host of other charities and work experience.

"I don't think that I'm the only young person in Ireland with such a long resumé," she says.

"There's definitely a lot of prejudice around my generation and people should know that teenagers in Ireland do more than just drink under age and cause general mayhem,"

Ian Power agrees. "Every day in SpunOut we come across inspirational, driven and intelligent young people who are determined to mind their own well being and contribute to society.

"This country has so many educated and fired-up young people capable of creating change, it would be great if we could support them instead of portraying them as a burden on our society."

Irish Independent

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