Kids who were born in the 21st century are now old enough – some of them – to vote, to wed, to fight for their country. And this week it became apparent that they are mature and thoughtful enough to speak for themselves on a national stage, to challenge those who would dismiss or belittle or define them, to scorn and humiliate those who would do nothing for their pain, and to rise collectively against the forces that are threatening their lives and their safety.
The Parkland teens have become the defining face of the post-millennial generation. It is not just that something about this entire cohort seems to be captured by those kids at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas school who watched their classmates die at the end of a legal assault rifle. Their instant decision to speak out on social media in the midst of trauma, to march on their capitals and to organize what might become the first successful U.S. gun-control movement of our time encapsulates the best of the post-2000 kids.
But this is more than a perception. The experiences of young people today are measurably different. What's distinctive about this century's children, in the United States and Canada and much of Europe, is that their lives are defined by a more ethical intimate life, and far lower rates of abusive, unhealthy or self-damaging behaviour, than experienced by any group of teenagers since measurement began.
Start with a classic gauge of adolescent risk and ethics: Teen pregnancy. Under-20 pregnancy rates across North America have dropped dramatically every year – from almost 120 cases per 1,000 teenage girls in the early 1990s to 40 in 1,000 today in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute, with similar rates in Canada. This wasn't because of access to abortion – over the same period, the proportion of teenagers who had abortions fell even more sharply, from 4 per cent to little more than 1 per cent today.
Rather, teen pregnancy has plummeted because teenagers today are, by every available measure, vastly more ethical and careful in their sexual lives.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 41 per cent of teens today have ever had sexual intercourse – down from 54 per cent in 1991, after falling steadily for 25 years. Two-thirds say they are avoiding casual sex in favour of stable relationships. And they're embracing consent like nobody before: The proportion of teenagers who say their first sexual activity was "unwanted" has dropped by more than a third in the past 15 years. Condom use is higher than ever before, and teen rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV are at record lows – especially among marginalized minority youth.
"Today's teens aren't just more responsible about sex than their parents were when they were their age," writes Angus Johnson, a U.S. professor who studies youth culture, "in many cases, they're more responsible about sex than their parents are now."
Interestingly, this revolution in teen sexual ethics and safety has coincided with the near-universal availability of pornography online; while free porn can't be credited with this great rise in sexual maturity, it hasn't done any harm.
This rise of teenage ethics isn't just in sex, as major CDC surveys show. Only six in 10 teenagers today say they have ever consumed alcohol, down from eight in 10 in the 1990s (data in Britain and Canada show even sharper declines); use of marijuana among teens, despite far wider availability, is down from the nineties, and teen consumption of harder drugs, including cocaine and meth, has fallen even more dramatically.
The proportion of teens who've been in a car with a driver who's consumed alcohol has fallen by almost 50 per cent in 25 years. The proportion who've ever been in a physical fight has fallen in half, to 22 per cent. Even use of bicycle helmets and seat belts among teens are at all-time highs. And, tellingly, the proportion of teens who've carried a weapon on school property has fallen by more than 65 per cent; only 4 per cent of current U.S. teens have ever brought a knife, club or gun to school.
This could create a generation of socially conservative prudes, or Parkland-style activists for a more reasonable and secure world. Or, more likely, some of each. But another fact about post-2000 teens – their higher rate of education – means they're less likely to vote for the sort of old guys who got us into this mess.