Boozy, druggy adults. Sober, serious kids. Welcome to Ab Fab Britain

Youngsters are staying away from drink, drugs, sex — you would too, if education and housing cost so much

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

Twenty-one years ago this week a sitcom arrived on British television involving three characters so improbable that they held the nation in thrall. It had started as a French and Saunders comedy sketch about a hedonistic ‘modern’ mother (Eddy) and her appalled, straight-laced daughter (Saffy). To spin this out into a series, Jennifer Saunders added Joanna Lumley as a hard-nosed, hard-drinking best friend (Patsy) and two essential props: Bollinger champagne (Bolly) and Stolichnaya vodka (Stolly). Absolutely Fabulous was born.

It was never intended as a piece of social commentary — yet it has turned out to be bizarrely prophetic. Over the past two decades, Britain has steadily witnessed precisely the change in generational behaviour adumbrated by Saunders. The middle-aged are having more fun than ever — spending extraordinary amounts on booze, restaurants and designer clothes. Today’s young Brits are, by contrast, the most sober and sensible in living memory, keeping their heads down, their wallets closed and their minds focused on the mountain of debt that awaits them. We are now living in Ab Fab Britain.

‘I suppose what I wrote was an extended sketch, with as many laughs as I could pack in over half an hour,’ says Saunders in her new autobiography, Bonkers: My Life in Laughs. It was just for gags — she wasn’t trying to lampoon an emerging social type like Harry Enfield did with ‘Loadsamoney’ and ‘Tory Boy’. She based Eddy on a sweet but foul-mouthed friend of hers and added the drinking, smoking and partying for the hell of it. The idea of a younger generation rebelling against their parents’ relaxed attitude to drugs, casual sex and other debauches was pure guesswork.

And it was spot on. To watch Ab Fab now is to see 21st-century Britain being sent up before it really emerged. Take the original eight-minute French & Saunders sketch, where Eddy saunters upstairs to her daughter’s room and begs her to stop her homework and join the party she’s holding. ‘Come down and share a joint with us later?’ After being shot a poisonous look, she sneers: ‘Oh so sorry — I’ve mentioned drugs in front of my own daughter.’ You can see the gag: imagine children being less liberal than their parents! It’s now the reality. A recent NHS study showed that only 9 per cent of school pupils believe it’s acceptable for them to smoke cannabis. Among the general population, it is 32 per cent.

Eddy and Patsy’s guiding philosophy — ‘try everything once’ — is fast going out of fashion. Even trying cigarettes has lost its place as a rite of passage; Prince Charles’s recent admission that he’d tried smoking aged 11 dates him. Twenty years ago, three in five pupils admitted to having tried smoking. Now it’s just one in five. And they’re more censorious — the number of pupils who think ‘It’s OK to try a cigarette at least once’ has fallen from 54 per cent to 31 per cent over the past decade. Smoking behind the bike sheds is more likely to mark you out as a dysfunctional freak than a daring rebel.

Marijuana, LSD, speed, cocaine — surveys show that every drug you can think of is plunging in popularity amongst the young. The proportion of under-20s who say they have taken drugs in the past month has halved over the last decade. Only two drugs are on the up and both are legal: Ritalin and Modafinil, stimulants that can power students through ten-hour study sessions. The Care Quality Commission recently raised the alarm at the way the prescriptions of these so-called study drugs have risen 56 per cent in five years, to 1,800 a day. It’s a long way from Woodstock. Whereas older generations took drugs to party (and still do), Britain’s young are now popping pills that help them work harder.

Shunned by the youth, Britain’s drug dealers are watching their market collapse. Over the past two decades, the street price of cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy has fallen by at least two-thirds. A tab of LSD is now cheaper than a half pint of cider. Never have illegal drugs been more affordable — but never have young people shown less interest. Their parents, however, are raving it up. The 45-to-55s, a category that would probably include Patsy and Edina, although neither would like to admit it, are twice as likely to take drugs now as they were when Ab Fab was filmed, according to Home Office data. The under-25s are half as likely.

It’s the same with booze. Today’s forty-somethings are spending 40 per cent more on alcohol  than they were ten years ago. (This could reflect greater consumption, the rising price of Bollinger, or both.) And the under-30s? Their alcohol spend has -actually fallen, as they save their money for expensive mobile phones instead. One of the strangest facts about Ab Fab Britain is that pensioners now spend more on booze than the under-30s do. The rocketing price of drink will be a factor — the cost of a shot of Stolly has more than doubled. But the simple fact is that today’s young are less interested in getting hammered.

Sex, too. The scene where Saffy checks to see if her mother had run out of condoms, then helpfully supplies her with more (‘and use them this time!’) seemed the furthest-fetched gag of all. Not now. According to government figures, sexually transmitted diseases are rising fastest among the over-45s. This reflects the rise in singletons of that age, divorced and online dating. Eddy’s poor relationship with Saffy’s father (‘Have you seen the bastard recently?’ ‘Are you referring to Dad?’ ‘Oh “Dad”, “Dad” — give him a little title to justify his puny existence’) anticipated another trend. Today’s British teenagers are more likely to have a mobile phone in their pocket than a father at home.

Saffy stayed in her childhood bedroom well into her twenties. This appalled Patsy, who regularly urged Eddy to evict her party-pooping daughter (‘cut the cord, darling, cut the cord’). Several thousand loving British parents have similar thoughts, when they’re making breakfast for offspring who somehow failed to leave home. But this is the grim reality of the housing market: cheap debt means prices are soaring. Property owners are suddenly very well-off (and can afford to go to Glastonbury and take more taxis). Those who don’t own homes can either borrow a fortune to buy a shoebox, or stay at home, glowering.

Would Ab Fab have worked if Saffy was a boy? It might not have been as funny, but it would certainly not have been as prescient. Eddy despairs Saffy’s preference for homework over men (‘I don’t want a mustached virgin for a daughter, so do something about it!’) but Saffy was a prototype of the single-minded, industrious women which would go on to triumph not just at school — girls now get more As — but outnumber men at university.

And not just the soft subjects. (‘Must you do physics?’ Edina once pleaded. ‘Can’t you do one little arts subject, then you can come help me in the shop?’) Women now account for the majority of medicine and law graduates, part of a gender revolution which has eliminated the pay gap for the under-30s and will soon feminise and transform Britain. Tomorrow really does belong to Saffy.

This is where Saunders got it wrong: she described Saffy as a sad miser ‘with nothing to shout about and no identity of her own’. The real-life Saffys have plenty to shout about — but it’s harder to treat university as three-year party if you’re paying £9,000 a year for the fees. Britain has changed into a country where, unless you’re very rich, it’s far harder to bluff your way through life. What you earn is dictated by what you learn, and the young know it. And if they want to dance badly at music festivals, smoke weed, get drunk and fall over — well, there’s plenty of time for that in later life.

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  • anyfool

    Today’s young Brits are, by contrast, the most sober and sensible in living memory, keeping their heads down, their wallets closed and their minds focused on the mountain of debt that awaits them
    If this bit of your article is right, why are they polling massively towards Labour the root cause of the debt that awaits them, the country really will be paddling up the same creek when this Owen Jones generation takes over.

    • Simon Fay

      “the country really will be paddling up the same creek”

      I think that particular creek turns into ferocious rapids not too far on.

    • Ben Kelly

      Because the Tory brand is muddied, forever stained, this is why they are merely a corpse animated by big donors. They need to be put down if we want an alternative to socialist parties in the long term. Young people will not vote for them generally, they have a Tory hatred engrained in them it is pretty much the default position for people under 25, and they lost Scotland and the north or England, they are fading away.

      In any case, why would a conservative vote for them? People who are patriotic, conservative and concerned with liberty and limited government should not vote for the Tory Party, they do not fulfil any of that criteria. They are treacherous, unprincipled fops, the party is merely a vehicle to get the sons of gentlemen into power; they have no principles apart from some free market leanings. Apart from that they are adaptable, as we have seen, now they are simply New Labour on a bit of tighter budget.

      What do they conserve? They believe solely in market forces that can be destructive, they have decimated the armed forces and weakened them severely, they believe in the liberal criminal “justice” system (it being their fault, after all, that all sentences are generally halved, CJA 1991), they advocate Britain not being an independent country and continuing as an EU province, they have done and will do very little about our open borders and mass immigration, they are one trick pony of privatisation- never considering it might be beneficial for some industry and not others- they believe in high levels of taxation too. Their rhetoric only wavers from these policies when they want to appear conservative.

      They do not do what it says on the tin, so what are they actually for? I don’t feel they are a particularly attractive alternative to Labour, and as their brand is dying, and has muddied the very concept of conservatism, better they die out and be put out of their misery by the British voters they betrayed and care so very little about. @Iabimyshkin

      • James Justice

        Bravo! Very well said.

    • TexanTory

      Except we’re not polling massively towards Labour. Even the Guardian admits it. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/jun/26/generation-y-young-voters-backing-conservatives. Last poll I saw on this puts Conservatives ahead of Labour among young people. You should really do your research any fool. http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/5146605/Ed-gets-Teenage-Kicked-as-young-voters-boost-Tories.html

  • And when this younger generation of women reach the top of their careers and start getting paid more than the men, they’ll start complaining about the gender tax gap.

    And the alleged gender “wage gap” will be completely forgotten about.

    “Why should we pay more in taxes than men, just because we earn more?” they will complain.

  • Alex Love-Lizard

    I think its dangerous. We’ve created a generation of sheep, too scared by dogma and propaganda to explore the world for themselves. Still at least they’ll make good little worker bees. Striving every day to surround themselves with material wealth.

  • Eddie

    The price of housing is way too high – but whose fault is that: The baby boomers and governments who wanted their votes, so had policies (easy consumer credit, mass immigration, low interest rates, no taxes on buy to letters) that made house prices spiral. The hippie generation is the most selfish in history.
    But really, the young in the UK indulge in drink and drugs way more than those in mainland Europe, and we have by far the highest teen pregnancy rate. No idea where the author of this article if getting his facts from. But I’d suggest he visits a town centre on a Friday night or perhaps talks to some teenagers.

    • dalai guevara

      Chav culture is finished, Eddie. Manchester’s Deansgate Locks and Bar 38 areas have long died a swift and deserved death. Homebrew is on the up, I would guess. That does not appeal to everyone.

  • Pier66

    The baby boomers, easy consumer credit, mass immigration, high tax everywhere, the hippie generation is the most selfish in history, drinks drugs, rolling stone all that stuff are the disastrous results of the progressives, socialists communists: LABOUR ! who have always been for the super permissiveness, blocking increasingly repressive laws, gagging always the police and the harsh and retributive justice!

  • Thomas Edward

    I would say this article is accurate for the richest say 10% of families (particularly ones in London – who are also the Spectator’s core readership) but the reality is that most families in Britain aren’t splashing out on meals out and luxuries (your Stolly) because they’re hard up too. I can certainly think of some jet-setting oldies who bathe in hot climes while their children in their 20s trawl employment sites, but they really are top of the tree…

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Old people, so immoral

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Old people, so immoral

  • ButcombeMan

    You left out so called “legal highs” surely?

    Lots of evidence that while use of other drugs IS reducing, the UK is a leader in the use of these, (properly NSPs) with youngsters putting any old substances, without care for the consequences, into their bodies, “Headshops” opening all over the place and deaths increasing.

    Headshops and goods incidentally, that have been banned in Portugal, Poland & Ireland.

    They have not been banned in the UK because the LibDems (Jeremy Browne before he was sacked) stopped it and Theresa May was too weak to spot it and put her well shod foot down.

    Cameron giving the Libdems so much rope, is going to kill people, is killing people.

  • William556

    Those 40’s and 50’s had better watch out. The young, including their children, know the debt they’re piling upon them and that there will likely be no inheritance either. They might end up surprised when the youngsters decide against a nursing home and for the knacker’s yard instead, particularly as in countries with socialized medicine that will become more and more the option.

    In case you’re wondering, I’m in my 40’s and am setting up for my own retirement since I really don’t expect Social Security to either be there or return a decent standard of living. Of course, some in government over here are floating the idea of seizing private retirement accounts and other elements of government are making staying in business harder and harder.

  • JonBW

    There is a point here that has been overlooked: the demographic make up of younger generations has changed dramatically, and some ethnic groups are much, much less likely to use alcohol and illegal drugs (and to become sexually active in their teens).

    What we may be seeing is not a change in the culture of White British people but the influence of other cultures on our society; the typical ‘young person’ is probably like Saffy, but is much more likely to be from an Asian or African background than was the case even in the 90s.

    This is one of the positive consequences of a multi-cultural society; the sad thing is that because it challenges the Left Liberal consensus (that all young people are ‘radical’ and ‘progressive’ in their social attitudes), it will be studiously ignored.

    One of the great ironies of our time is that it may well be amongst young people from ethnic minorities that conservatism will be reborn and 60s liberalism defeated!