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David Seymour

Youth Alcohol Abuse is the Symptom of a Wider Disease

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Any good economics student in year 11 will tell you that the cost of everything is what you give up to get it. By that logic the cost of a weekend’s binge drinking can be 48 hours of life; drinking, recovering, drinking and recovering again with nothing but sclerotic memories and an empty bank account to show for it. That’s without considering the risk of catastrophic costs, which should be widely understood after too many alcohol related tragedies.

The question at the heart of the youth alcohol abuse debate should be why so many youth have decided that such a destructive activity is worth giving up their other opportunities.

Most of the popular explanations are variations on the theme that alcohol has become more seductive. The lowered purchase age and more outlets have made it more available; the synthesis of alcopop drinks has made it more digestible, advertising has made it more desirable. The logical conclusion is that if only these could be reversed, youth would switch back to safer, more productive activities.

Or perhaps the root of our troubles is that other opportunities have become less meaningful for youth. Over the past decade, their efforts and choices in education, the housing market, and the economy have been trivialised, meaning they have less to lose by getting sloshed.

Take education. The introduction of the NCEA in 2002 removed a hard-nosed examination system where results were measured to the percentage point. The differences in academic performance are now compressed into three grades; credit, merit, and excellence. This shift has diminished the penalties and rewards associated with good and bad performance at high school.

Another effect of this system which I observed during several years as a tutor to High School students is that a considerable amount of effort goes into “gaming” the system. That means avoiding the pursuit of credits which they feel less likely to pass in favour of ones they see as easier. If students don’t already know that this activity bears no relations to success in the real world at the time, they will sadly find out soon enough.

When the NCEA was introduced, universities struggled for a way to select students suitable for their different courses. They generally made entry easier. Meanwhile, the removal of interest from student loans while studying (2001) and then forever (2006) all but vanished the financial costs of tertiary education. Students see only static repayments in the distant future that they can discount against hoped-for high incomes.

Statistics New Zealand reports that 32% of 18 to 24-year-olds were studying in 2006, up from 24% in 1996. This has been celebrated as a society up-skilling itself, but it has also reduced the meaning of tertiary education. Legions of advertisements for too-good-to be-true careers in beauty therapy and tourism are the extreme but real edge of this phenomenon.

For many, this free-for-all has made tertiary education like standing up at the rugby. You have to do it because other people do, but it doesn’t improve your situation. The result is thousands of youth in education devoid of real meaning.

The middle aged and elderly have experienced an unprecedented windfall in the form of rising house values over the past decade, but this too has helped trivialise the choices youths make.

The Kiwi dream of home ownership was once a juicy carrot for work and thrift. Since the early ’90s, house prices have roughly doubled relative to income, and now it’s more of a juicy pie in the sky. In a recent report, Motu Economic Research predicted that this trend will continue: There will be a sizeable reduction in home ownership among young people as the population ages …

Youth are told they are inheriting a natural environment on the brink of collapse, and that further economic activity may catastrophically damage it. For example, they are regularly told that if all humans were to share our developed world lifestyle, the resources of two and a-half planet Earths would be required. Reasonable people may disagree about the validity of such statements, but the impact on youth is clear: They come to believe that our way of life is unsustainable, even immoral, and any success they have in it will be nullified by environmental costs.

If the opportunities to make a difference in their own lives are trivialised by lax education standards, made unobtainable in the form of unaffordable housing, and guilt-ridden by way of environmental doom saying, youth will choose their next best opportunity. For many, that seems to be what one poet called a faint desire for oblivion.

Even ignoring the impracticality of taking alcohol away from the young, doing so would leave a much more serious problem untouched in our society. The only real long-term solution to youth alcohol abuse is to attack its root cause; the diminishing ability of youth to make a difference in their own lives.