No booze, no sex, no fun - What's up with millennials?

By Michelle Duff

In case you missed it: This was one of Lifestyle's most popular stories of 2016
Yasmin Singh doesn't drink, do drugs and is a vegan. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Yasmin Singh doesn't drink, do drugs and is a vegan. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Born in a time where booze, sex and a hangover pie were a given, is this generation rebelling by giving it all up? writes Michelle Duff

Yasmin Singh is not an addict. Drugs and alcohol have never been a problem for her; one day, the 24-year-old just decided her life was better without them. "I'd been through stages of drinking and not drinking, and one day I just thought: wait a minute, this isn't working. Most people feel a lot of social pressure to drink or do drugs to be cool, but I decided to go against the grain," Singh says. "I still go out and have fun, but my self-esteem is way better to know it's just me talking, and I don't have to rely on any substance to make me cooler or funnier or whatever."

It's a tough choice to make in a society that expects drinking - at family occasions, at Christmas, at weddings, on the weekend. "I find a lot of the older generation don't have a concept of why people would want to do that. It's such a big part of life in New Zealand, it's how everyone sort of connects.

But since I went straight-edge I've been feeling better about it every day. My mind has been clearer, I can deal with stress easier, and I feel like I have gained time."

Singh doesn't smoke either, and is a vegan - both lifestyles she has found socially easier in recent years. "The more normal it becomes, the easier it is for people to make that choice." At gigs, clean kids will draw an X on their hands in vivid: the last time Singh went to see a band in Melbourne, a sea of black Xs waved.

In an era where sex is a right swipe away and drugs can be ordered with a click, an increasing number of young people are choosing to live cleaner lives. In New Zealand, the young are more abstemious than ever: people aren't drinking as much, having as much sex, and are eating better than previous generations. In a world where your personal brand is everything, Instagram feeds are over-run with gym selfies, post-exercise-with-smoothie shots, documented weight-loss journeys, and artful pics of paleo meals.

And this rise in the self as star also has political repercussions. While social media posts burst with worldly critiques, the young appear less inclined to do anything about it - fewer than 50 per cent of those aged 18-29 voted in the last general election. For many of these abstainers, politicians are seen as inept and out-of-touch.

"Why trust institutions that do not understand or help you, the way they did for previous generations?" says Paul Spoonley, Massey University sociologist. "Individuals need to become much more entrepreneurial in their own interests. Who else will look after them?"

The upshot of this: recent studies in Britain and Australia suggest in many ways, young people today are to the political right of their parents at the same age. Their beliefs include more scepticism towards the state and a rise in individualism, with a wariness of the collective power of a group to get things done. (However, they are more liberal on social issues like homosexuality, women's rights and immigration.)

Could this generation be more conservative than we think?

It's unlikely any study, trend piece or commentary can capture the mindset of an entire group, particularly since there were more than a million millennials (yup, I'm one too - just) born in this country alone between 1980 and 1999. But some trends can be proven. "There really isn't anything magical about it: Why more millennials are avoiding sex," ran a recent Washington Post headline. A study of more than 25,000 Americans in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour found younger millennials are more than twice as likely to be sexually inactive in their early 20s as the previous generation, and overall have fewer sexual partners than their parents' or grandparents' generations.

And it would seem that the same applies here. The University of Auckland's Adolescent Health Research Group found one in four secondary school students reported being sexually active in 2012, down from one in three in 2007. The teenage pregnancy rate is also falling rapidly, down 20 per cent since 2001, with a 2015 University of Waikato report partly attributing the decline to a rise in contraceptive use, and the fact less young people are having sex.

"I do think we spend more time inside on the internet, like you don't need to go outside to interact with people anymore, which I guess leads to sex," says barista Ashleigh Harris, 19. "My friends and I still go to bars and stuff, but when I got out of a break-up I was like, 'I'm too sad to leave the house' but going online is an accessible way of getting {social] needs fulfilled. Also, there's so much pressure with having to work and study and pay the rent. I think it leaves less time to meet new people."

Ashleigh Harris believe there's so much pressure with having to work, study and pay the rent therefore leaves  less time to meet new people. Photo / Dean Purcell
Ashleigh Harris believe there's so much pressure with having to work, study and pay the rent therefore leaves less time to meet new people. Photo / Dean Purcell

University of Auckland student Erin Lee, 21, says it's possible her generation just tick the hetero-normative box less often. "There's a much more complicated and nuanced sexual lifestyle that's happening at the moment. I've got a lot of friends who are gay or pansexual or asexual, and they might consider sex differently or get cancelled out in the studies."

Whether or not they're sweating it out between the sheets, young Kiwis are more likely to be healthier than ever before. The most recent Active New Zealand survey of 6000 Kiwis found one in four 16-25-year-olds belonged to a gym or fitness centre, the highest of any age group.

Clean eating - a diet of fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, with the effects often posted online with before and after photos - is also keeping 20-somethings from the Maccas drive-thru. Commerce graduate Alyssa Hoffman, 25, is NZcleaneating on Instagram. "Clean eating for me was motivated by a lack of self-esteem and becoming aware of unhealthy my lifestyle was. When I was 18, I found I was surrounded by a binge-drinking and binge-eating culture which I ended up becoming a part of," says Hoffman.

"When I stopped, my overall mood improved, I had better skin, fewer headaches, more energy and was losing weight."

She still has the odd wine with her mostly organic, free-range meals. "I definitely think that people are becoming more aware of clean living, and even where their food is coming from."

Depending on what way you look at it, it is either the safest or most boring time ever to grow up, Australian social researcher Mark McCrindle says as he laughs down the phone. Risky behaviours are in decline: in this country, along with a drop in sexual activity, binge drinking, cigarette smoking and marijuana use halved in secondary school students in the five years from 2007 to 2012.

The most recent Ministry of Health data shows more young people are choosing not to drink and if they do, it's not as much. "There's a cultural shift away from these behaviours, which is having the impact of keeping them alive - but it creates much tighter parameters in which young people grow up than in the past," McCrindle says. The idea of youthful experimentation has less currency - it's not cool to have pics of yourself smashed on Facebook, so many would rather abstain than run the risk.

"Even pushing boundaries is different now," McCrindle says. "If you and your mates want to climb something for fun, now there are security fences, cameras, fear of terrorism ... there is no tolerance for young people acting up in a public space." The more competitive global environment in which young people are growing up also means this generation are inherently more conscientious. Having to pay for their tertiary education means they stay at home longer, and have to study and work harder to pay off debt and get noticed.

In his research, McCrindle has found politically, this new generation of voters are socially progressive - they believe in gender equality, freedom of expression, LBGT rights, access to information - but financially conservative. They are more likely to distrust the government, support privatisation, and disagree with policies like social welfare and affirmative action.

Rebecca Platt, 19, understands why her peers are disenchanted. "It is really confusing, and I think a lot of people get involved in making a difference in other ways. I also don't think politicians actually understand what is really happening - are they apathetic? People living in cars is not okay."

She, unlike many others her age, voted at the last general election, she belongs to the social justice network Manawa Ahi, is a World Vision regional leader and also fundraises for local refugees. "I feel really strongly about inequalities around New Zealand and a lot of my friends have passionately held opinions."

But when young people do vote, Platt thinks they are more interested in results than party loyalty. "I get the sense with voting we just vote for whatever works best at the time, rather than being strongly Labour or National like our parents."

Professor Richard Shaw of Massey University says this rise in individualism is unsurprising. "They have lived in a world in which the state has been pumping out messages about self-reliance, not scrounging, and trying hard. They've been told - you are responsible for what happens to you ... Why would we expect young people to be any different?"

- Canvas

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