Lazy, ignorant, shallow and irresponsible, more interested in taking drugs than in proper study, too apathetic to make it to the polling station but not to an ecstasy-fuelled rave: those are the images often associated with young people in modern Britain. Survey after survey shows widespread illiteracy and innumeracy among teenagers. At the ever-expanding universities, it is said that terror of placing too heavy an intellectual burden on students has resulted in remorseless grade inflation and undemanding degree courses like media studies and golf-course management.
The anxiety about youth is graphically reflected in the current hysteria about binge drinking. A generation of young semi-alcoholics, whose entire lives are geared towards explosive, sodden hedonism, is supposedly threatening the fabric of our society. Yet amid this increasing moral panic one awkward fact stands out: alcoholic consumption among students — who now make up a far larger proportion of young people than 20 years ago — is actually on the decline. Those temples of subsidised self-indulgence, the student union bars, have seen substantial falls in their takings of late.
The reason for this is simple. Contrary to the perception given by moral campaigners, today’s students are a much more sober, serious lot than their predecessors. Most of them have neither the time nor the money for the kind of endless, idle pleasure-seeking that characterised my generation of students in the early Eighties, when our puerile lifestyles were propped up by full grants from the taxpayer. And, apart from falling alcohol sales, there is another powerful indicator of the seriousness of the current university intake. By far the most popular degree course is business studies. One in eight undergraduates is now in a business-related course, a proportion that far outstrips all other subjects. Here is a generation that is more interested in profit than in protest, that does not want to change the capitalist world but be a successful part of it.