The behaviour of young adults over the ages has been notoriously
controversial. In fact, every era has nostalgia for a golden past when young adults
knew their place and were not any trouble. Certainly those living in each era seem to
have been concerned about the contemporary behaviour of their young people.
However the evidence has been sparse and, where it is available, there has been
difficulty in comparing one generation with another. This present article attempts a
methodological advance and some substantive results which enable us to compare the
offending behaviour of different generations. Our stance is that we now have
opportunities to focus more systematically on apparent changes in behaviour over the
past thirty years, so that we can carry out stricter comparisons than hitherto.
Our question is a quite straightforward one. Does the offending behaviour of
young adults – and we define ‘young adults’ as aged between 16 and 20 years
(inclusive) – change in the early 1970s, the late 1970s, the early 1980s, the late 1980s,
the early 1990s and the late 1990s? While there is the obvious answer that it does –
after all, more widespread illegal drug use has been an obvious motor for change – we
want our answer to be more complex and to pinpoint the scope of the changes more
accurately. The task is both to provide a methodological tool to probe the conundrum
of change and to show the outcome of our analysis.
While there are hints of a breakthrough, the provisos must also be clear. We
are considering ‘official’ offending behaviour, that is, behaviour that is sanctioned by
a criminal conviction.