British teenagers are an increasingly responsible and sober bunch. Teen pregnancies are at an all-time low, drug-fuelled dance culture is vanishing, careers are planned from a tender age, and preparations are made for a lifetime of tuition fee loan repayments and pension contributions. Most of the evidence shows that today’s teenagers are altogether more sensible than their irresponsible, selfish parents ever were.
But where did all the fun go? What about the naive, wide-eyed collision that is supposed to happen when each teenage generation encounters an unprepared world? In other words, I worry that teenagers are becoming prematurely middle aged.
So it was the evolution of teenagers that made us human, and do all the wonderful things humans can do, and the same remains true today. Far from being an irritating transitional phase between childhood and adulthood, teenagers represent a life-stage unique to our species and absolutely essential for its success.
… All that brain restructuring means teenagers think in a completely different way from adults – a difference that can be frustrating at times, but a difference we should cherish rather than stifle. And there are some particular features of teenage thinking we must nurture if we are to thrive in the future.
One of these is creativity, something teenagers revel in. Although their thought processes may seem disordered to the adult observer, they are especially adept at comparing dissimilar concepts to create new perspectives. Indeed, many geniuses have drawn their initial inspiration from their almost gauche adolescent thoughts. For example, Einstein wondered what it would be like to ride on a light wave when he was 16 and I doubt he could have had such a crude yet brilliant thought at 60.
Also, teenagers, as we all know, tend to take risks. Parents don’t like it, and the authorities don’t like it, yet teenagers seem driven to do it all the same. Sometimes, terrible things happen as a result of teenage risk-taking, but very often they don’t. The human mind did not evolve in a world of speeding cars, sexually transmitted diseases and potent psychoactive chemicals, and it is poorly equipped to cope with them, yet risk-taking still serves an important function. To be successful in life we have to take some risks and adolescence is when we learn what can go wrong, what can go right, and what it feels like to take a risk. Creativity and risk-taking are essential for human success and prosperity. They are not only important in the arts, but are also the key to success in science, business and the development of a civilised society. If we do not encourage our teenagers to behave like – well – teenagers, then the outlook is bleak.
… Youth is not about being responsible – it is about being young and all the enticing, overwhelming, delicious things that come with it. Life has an emotional, sensual vividness to it when we’re young and this cannot be recaptured later on. Once that is gone it is gone forever and to cloud a young person’s experience of it is unforgivable. We are consigning our teenagers to an awful, bland sensibleness. And that is simply not natural.
David Bainbridge is a reproductive biologist at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and the author of Teenagers – A Natural History(Portobello)