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In my day, young people had respect...

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 24 June 2005

Sometimes I feel the world is stuck in a time warp. Every time I open a UK or Irish newspaper someone is complaining about the so-called wayward youth of today. Typical complaints include a lack of respect by young people for social norms, excessive drinking and a penchant for violence and vandalism. Recently, I scanned a copy of the UK Sunday Times and was overwhelmed by the range of articles focusing on so-called solutions to the perceived rise in antisocial behaviour.

One article focused on a government report apparently recommending targeting potential criminals from the age of three. Another blamed violent ‘sheroes’ such as Uma Thurman in Tarantino’s film Kill Bill for influencing thuggery by girls. Yet another considered reinstating harsh boot-camp-style reformatories to bring young offenders into line. There seems to be a growing trend towards seeing the solution to troublesome youth as being about tougher policing and tighter control. This is typified in the UK by the introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). These are civil orders made against those involved in continual antisocial behaviour. They can result in a person being banned from a specific area or associating with named persons.

A recent MORI poll found that 89% of the public support them. It is no wonder the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner suggested that the UK was suffering from ‘Asbomania’. But is antisocial behaviour really sweeping the nation? A recent King’s College London study found that antisocial behaviour by young people has little or no effect on the quality of life of the majority of the population. That said, one in five people surveyed felt they were affected. These problems, mainly associated with rowdy teenagers in the street, were described as acute and were highest in areas of social deprivation and inner cities. So the problem is not as bad as the media would have us believe, although, if you are affected, it can be deeply unpleasant and, like most unsavoury phenomena, mainly affects the poor. I wonder if every generation feels the youth are out of control. Think of the hippies of the 1960s, punks in the 1970s, skinheads in the 1980s or, in the 1990s, rappers and Pantsulas in South Africa.

Somewhere I read that, after you lose your membership in it, the younger generation invariably seems pretty bad. Is the older generation in Europe, who are wealthier and more comfortable than ever before, simply out of touch? I know I certainly am. When I see groups of young people on the street drinking and chatting, I no longer know what they talk about or what worries them. We should ask this basic question first before passing judgement. I think this is as true in the UK as it is in South Africa.

Criminalising young people is not helpful. Only 39% of people in the UK feel ASBOs are effective, even though they support their use. Talking about young people, especially black youth, as is often the case in South Africa and elsewhere, as if they are a bunch of criminals in training is hardly useful.

Let us take one step back and diagnose problems properly and build solutions on that. Out-of-control youth do not cause social degeneration, but economic and social degeneration can create out-of-control youth.

If we know anything about young people it is that continual prohibition by adults leads to resistance. If things continue the way they are, very soon having an ASBO or criminal record will be as fashionable as having the latest mobile phone.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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