This morning I was told a passing story about a girl turning down a commitment after considering that she is likely to be hung-over on that particular Sunday morning. Doesn’t sound like anything unfamiliar, in fact it sounds pretty damn common. What makes it noteworthy for me is that the protagonist was 13 years old. Without attempting to sound like some sort of class obsessed snob or stereotype swinger, I have to mention that this person was not from an underprivileged background, nor a rockstar ‘Hollywood hills’ setup. This was from what I understand to be the example of a British middle class school child.
Now, I am not convinced that this kid was actually making plans for, or accounting for, being absurdly drunk saturday night but that is almost completely besides the point. The fact that a kid that young and of said mold would choose to pad out their image with talk of hangovers is a dire reflection of our culture. I am in danger of sounding like some out-of-touch conservative here, I know, and I am more than aware that children are rather stupid on the whole and are highly skilled when it comes to making idiotic comments–but it shakes me to know that our alcohol culture is dripping down to children that young.
This may be the first time that I have been on the old side of a generation gap, at least relating to something more significant than the size of mobile phones or changing entertainment fads (Pokemon cards – remember those?). I envision a sort of invisible barrier separating the ‘kids’ from the ‘aspiring adults’, and when I was 13, that barrier sat above my classmates and I. I would say now that that barrier seems to have dropped a little further and it shows little sign of slowing its slide. Of course it is unlikely to cross the primary-secondary gap quite so easily but it concerns me that children this young, children without a grasp on the world outside their bubble, without a grasp on drugs, addiction and the future, could be pulled into this mess we sustain with our collective dependency on alcohol to pull us through the discomforts of contemporary western life.
I see it as a problem because, although children, and teenagers especially, can change course almost monthly, the alcohol-centric lifestyle is one that isn’t abandoned the same way heavy metal music or retro obsession or any of their distant cousins might be. The culture of alcohol abuse (getting wasted for fun), transcends cultural boundaries. The kids who hang out at the skatepark will do it just as much as those who hang out in the town square or the coffee shop. And for that reason, it can quickly consume ones lifestyle as the genuine hobbies and interests fall into the background, eventually to be discarded as the appeal of fitting in and being universally ‘cool’ takes precedence, particularly when you don’t have to work hard or be skilled in any way to achieve it. I fear that a child drawn into that lifestyle so soon is almost not given a chance to make a conscious choice. Like a child indoctrinated with religion from their early years, they will be in deep before they are mentally developed enough to question their direction or their motives. Everything that concerns us about our nation’s alcohol problem (to the government that is just health and crime; to some it is also the deadening effect it can have on ambition, intelligence and social systems) is of very little interest to the average 13 year old. Once they are in, it can take some serious cultural change to get back out and all the while their lives can be shaped by the lifestyle itself.
I propose there is a collection of factors contributing to the problem. It’s hard to order them by importance or effect. In terms of influencing young teens directly it is clear to see that our ‘role models’ (hate the term but struggling for something better) are setting a terrible example. I won’t say everyone; of course there are countless sports stars and performers that no doubt set a great example. The problem lies with the ones that are apparently reinforced the most by the rest of us. A song played on the radio, bolstered by it’s strong record sales (top 10 in the top 40), that asserts ‘your holding your bottle of Tanqueray, it isn’t even the weekend, baby that’s, how I know, you’re the one for me’, is a perfect example of how messed up we are. Of course it’s just a song, it’s just for fun, but the arts have a clear molding effect on culture. We demand certain things, and without an audience, these things wouldn’t reach the market but at the same time, these things won’t reach a market if someone deems them too damn stupid to create in the first place. This system sustains itself through a mutual lack of rationality and responsibility.
The bigger factor in my opinion, however, is the one that creates the pop culture problem in the first place that then trickles down to impressionable youngsters. We are generations deep into our alcohol problem. There is a clear culture that has a grip on people from all generations alive today that holds alcohol at its core. We have antiquated traditions that place alcohol (A drug like the rest of the drugs available to us, legal or illegal), at the centre of celebrations and rights of passage. That allowed for a steady transition from a generation that sat with whisky on cold evenings to a middle aged middle class with a clear cut alcohol dependency. Our politicians condemn binge drinking and attempt to make changes by discussing price increases and other measures. Whilst it is simply a guess, I am not hesitant to throw out the suggestion that many of those politicians go home after work and drink their alcoholic beverages of choice in large enough measure to take the edge off. We hold things like wine in high regard and treat this drug like a symbol of civilised society (whilst hypocritically condemning cannabis, among others). The blindfold that our adults wear in relation to this drug reflects on our children. Culture doesn’t stay stationary, and so without a significant presence among middle class adults or within pop culture of an opposing view, that treats alcohol as an unnecessary, extra curricular indulgence, younger generations will take it and run.
Children don’t aspire to be those people being arrested for drunken disorderly conduct or losing their jobs because of alcohol addiction. That minority doesn’t dictate the culture of the majority. The majority is quietly reinforcing this damaged culture whilst claiming immunity from responsibility, waving paycheques and four bedroom houses defence. Pop culture icons are raking in the cash on the back of it and passing the buck back to a demanding audience.
We are well overdue some critical self-reflection. It is time we took the difficult step of questioning ourselves, for the good of those that come after us.
Take off the blindfolds already.