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Youth culture and crime

Dr Abigail Wills explains what history tells us about antisocial youth in Britain

Lessons from history

Click here to skip to three lessons.

What is the problem today?

There is a widespread belief that antisocial behaviour among children and young people has reached a historically unprecedented high. A recent study by Cambridge University identified intense fears in communities across the UK about "the decline in mutual respect and social cohesion, the dominance of anti-social behaviour, materialism and the cult of celebrity". Newspapers highlight daily the menace posed by "hoodies" and gangs, and the increasingly creative range of measures implemented against them - from ASBOs to devices emitting high-pitched sounds designed to deter teenagers from gathering in public places.

Is this new?

The historian Geoffrey Pearson quotes a 60-year-old named Charlotte Kirkman, who lamented that, "I think morals are getting much worse... There were no such girls in my time as there are now. When I was four or five and twenty my mother would have knocked me down if I had spoken improperly to her". Kirkman was speaking in 1843, as part of an investigation into the bad behaviour of contemporary youth. Lord Ashley, speaking in the House of Commons in the same year, argued that "the morals of the children are tenfold worse than formerly". Past generations, then, have been just as convinced as we are that the "youth of today" were misbehaving more than ever before. Pearson has suggested that such fears about youth are a way of expressing more general uncertainties about social change and recur with each generation.

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So are we wrong to believe things have got worse?

Notwithstanding the above, the criminal statistics - first collected systematically in Britain from around 1900 - might appear to suggest that the situation has deteriorated over the last 70 or 80 years. After a relatively stable period between 1900 and 1930, rates of juvenile crime began increasing in the 1930s. Apart from a slight decrease following the Second World War, youth crime figures continued on a consistent and dramatic upward course until the mid-1990s.

In the 1950s increasing youth crime was largely attributed to a decline in family cohesion following the war, and to increasing consumer affluence. The new youth cultures of the postwar era provided a focus for such beliefs. Particularly notable in the 1950s were the Teddy Boys; with their flamboyant dress, fondness for US cultural imports such as rock'n'roll, and rowdy public behaviour, they were seen as epitomising the new culture of greed and amorality. Society looked back nostalgically to what was remembered as the more "justifiable", poverty-fuelled crime of the pre-war era. Later decades had similar beliefs about the causes of rising youth crime, leading to successive panics about mods, rockers and hippies in the 1960s, skinheads and punks in the 1970s and 1980s, and recently ravers and "hoodies".

To some extent, these fears can be seen as justified, in that it is certainly arguable that the rising ownership of consumer goods has created more opportunities for theft. However, it does not follow from this that the morals of earlier generations were necessarily higher, merely that their immorality did not take the form of the theft of consumer goods!

More generally, criminal statistics do not tell the whole story of youth crime. In particular, definitions of criminal behaviour change over time. One example of this is that police are increasingly becoming involved in the management of incidents that once upon a time would have remained a matter for schools and parents. In 2004, the BBC reported that a 12-year-old schoolboy was "arrested, DNA-tested, fingerprinted and formally reprimanded" after throwing a fork at a girl during a playground argument. The casual violence and petty crime of the Edwardian slums, by contrast, took place largely away from police eyes.

In the same way, changing recording systems also have an effect on crime statistics. It is very difficult, for example, to compare today's computerised data collection systems with the localised, ad hoc, paper-based approach of the Edwardian age. The existence of more sophisticated recording systems tends to mean that more crime is recorded. Another issue is that new forms of media, such as the internet, create new forms of misbehaviour that have high public visibility. Incidents of "happy slapping" caught on mobile phone can be distributed around the world within minutes. Such cases bring crime "into the living room" of people who may not previously have been concerned by it. This does not, however, mean that youth behaviour is worse than it used to be.

Overall, we need to recognise that our fear of crime has very little to do with the actual risk of falling victim to it. Youth crime rates have been falling consistently for over a decade, yet this has not affected the degree of panic felt about youth misbehaviour today.

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What does history teach us?

We should not deny that there are issues of concern surrounding antisocial behaviour and crime committed by children. However, our faulty grasp of the history of the problem is equally if not more problematic. Harking back to a non-existent "golden age" of deference and respect for elders is not merely harmless nostalgia: it has negative consequences for the overall relationship between adults and the young, which is increasingly characterised by fear and suspicion in both directions.

In many ways, this climate of suspicion is greater than in past decades. The increasingly independent, confident and commercialised child and youth culture which has grown since the 1950s has gone hand-in-hand with an increasing uncertainty about the social role of young people. Earlier eras had clearer ideas about the value of the young. In Edwardian Britain, for example, discussion around children focused on their role as future citizens, workers and soldiers.

The eugenicist Caleb Saleeby was typical in arguing that "the history of nations is determined not on the battlefield but in the nursery". This vision had repugnant aspects - not least the idea that working class children should be raised in part as cannon-fodder for future wars - but it also meant that the young were valued as a precious resource for the future. In recent decades, the increasing notion of children as a primarily selfish "lifestyle choice" by their parents means that we no longer have a clear sense of their social value.

We need to start thinking about ways of improving adult perceptions of the young, rather than thinking up panic solutions to an imaginary cataclysm of declining morals. At present, our fear of the young is creating a self-reinforcing negative spiral. As the "children's tsar", Sir Aynsley-Green noted in a recent speech the "demonisation and lack of empathy for young people is a major issue for England. It causes anger and alienation". He argued that normal youth behaviour, such as gathering in public places and playing ball games, was being demonised. This climate means that our stance towards juvenile criminals now is one of the most severe for generations.

Indeed, the past 15 years have seen the dismantling of long-standing principles that established the lesser criminal responsibility of children as compared to adults, and attempted to ensure their welfare in the face of their greater vulnerability. Since at least the 17th century, for example, the common law has operated using the presumption that unless proven otherwise, children aged under 14 were doli incapax - incapable of knowing right from wrong. This was abolished in the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act. In the same way, the 1854 Reformatory and Industrial Schools Act established the principle that children and young people receiving custodial sentences should be held in dedicated facilities, and that the regime in such facilities should be reformative rather than punitive.

One of the founders of the system, Mary Carpenter, argued that young criminals "have been hitherto so despised, that they hardly know whether there is within them anything to be respected. Yet let them be treated with respect… and they will give a ready response". Today, this ideal has been seriously undermined, to the extent that the vast majority of young offenders are held in conditions that differ very little from those in adult jails.

The United Kingdom recently came bottom in a league of 21 industrialised nations for child quality of life, leading to headlines warning that British children are "the unhappiest in the western world". The chief executive of the Children's Society, Bob Reitemeier, said the report was a "wake-up call to the fact that, despite being a rich country, the UK is failing children… in a number of crucial ways". This situation cannot be attributed to children's misbehaviour; it is rather the fault of an adult society which has come to see "youth" as a harmful social category. Misplaced nostalgia for the past has dangerous consequences.

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Three lessons from history

1. Each successive historical age has ardently believed that an unprecedented "crisis" in youth behaviour is taking place. We are not unique; our fears do not differ significantly from those of our predecessors.

2. Statistics are complex things to interpret. Rising youth crime statistics since the 1940s are the result of a whole series of factors and do not mean that youth are becoming more "immoral".

3. Our treatment of young offenders is in many ways harsher than it has been in the past. This has not been successful in reducing our fear of crime; if anything, it is compounding the problem and increasing mistrust between the generations.

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January 2008

Abigail Wills is a fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford University. Her research focuses on the history of juvenile crime in Britain in the decades after the Second World War.

You can also read this article on the BBC History Magazine website.

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