David Young
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The motherhood trap

It seems like a great time to be a woman in politics - but the fact that childless women are vilified as selfish, while so few mothers make it to the top, reveals an uncomfortable truth about how far we still have to go to achieve equality.

Look around the top of politics and it seems like a wonderful time to be a woman. Two of the four candidates for the Labour leadership are female – Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – as are three of the five in the race for deputy: Stella Creasy, Caroline Flint and Angela Eagle. One of the three likely contenders for the next Tory leadership is a woman, Theresa May. The next leader of Scottish Labour is likely to be Kezia Dugdale, and she will find herself debating two other female leaders, Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and the Tories’ Ruth Davidson. Half of the shadow cabinet is female, and there are seven women in the cabinet. The most powerful politician in the European Union and perhaps the world is Angela Merkel.

But these eye-catching facts conceal an uncomfortable truth: remarkably high proportions of the most successful women in politics are childless. (All the named politicians above are, except Cooper and Flint.)

For much of the last parliament, the only mother in the cabinet was Maria Miller, and New Statesman research shows that while the 14 men in the shadow cabinet have 31 children between them, the 13 women have only 16. Seven of the women are childless, against three of the men.

This disparity is evident throughout parliament, according to wider research carried out by the academics Sarah Childs and Rosie Campbell in 2013. They found that 45 per cent of female MPs were childless, compared to 28 per cent of men. “On average men MPs have 1.9 children compared to 1.2 for women MPs,” they wrote. “There is also a sex difference in the age of MPs’ children: the average age of MPs’ eldest child when they first entered parliament is 12 years old for men and 16 years old for women . . . All of this would suggest that mothers – and not just women – are significantly descriptively under-represented in British politics.”

Why does that matter? It matters not only because a parliamentary democracy should strive to reflect the populace it serves, but because the barriers stopping the ascent of MPs who are mothers reflect the structural discrimination throughout society.

The “motherhood trap” exposes one of capitalism’s most uncomfortable secrets – the way it relies on so much unpaid labour, often from women, to sustain itself. This labour comes at the expense of career opportunities, and their lifetime earning power: the pay gap between men and women in their twenties is all but eradicated, but a “maternity gap” still exists, and women’s wages never recover from the time devoted to childbearing.

Despite this, and despite the huge energy generated by the feminist movement in the past decade, questions of care have not gained as much attention as they did during the “Second Wave” in the 1970s. In 2014, the New Republic’s Judith Shulevitz suggested that the F-word itself should be replaced with “caregiverism”, to stress that challenging the exploitation of unpaid labour was critical to achieving equality. Without a structural analysis of the problem, Shulevitz argued, it was too easy to see these debates as “personal dilemmas – opting out, opting in – rather than as Hobson’s choices imposed on us”. She added: “Limiting work hours used to be one of the great causes of the labour movement.”

That brings us back to parliament. Over the past month, I have spoken to more than a dozen women and men, many of them involved in politics at the highest levels. There was universal agreement across the ideological spectrum that it is difficult to balance caring responsibilities with a political career. At the same time, selectors, voters and the media often expect a politician to have a family as a way of signalling that they are “normal”. So women face an impossible situation. If they have children, people disparage them as not dedicated enough to the job. If they don’t, people disparage them for having nothing else in their lives but the job.

Indeed, a 2014 study found that when it came to workers having children, there was a “fatherhood bonus” but a “motherhood penalty”. As the author of the study, the sociology professor Michelle Budig of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the New York Times: “Employers read fathers as more stable and committed to their work; they have a family to provide for, so they’re less likely to be flaky. That is the opposite of how parenthood by women is interpreted by employers. The conventional story is they work less and they’re more distractible when on the job.”

Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs think the same is true of MPs. “It’s a no-win for women,” Campbell told me. “For men, having a wife and children is a political resource, whereas for women, not having children was the thing that gave them the time to do politics.”

The downside to this added time, however, is being open to accusations of selfishness, and the suggestion that the women have made a calculated career decision that somehow alienates them from “ordinary people”. (Roughly 20 per cent of women in the UK aged 45 do not have any children, according to the Office for National Statistics, up from one in nine of their mothers’ generation: not having children is far from rare.)

On 6 July in a column for the Huffington Post, the former Labour minister Helen Goodman wrote that she supported Yvette Cooper for leader because, “As a working mum, she understands the pressures on modern family life. We need a leader who knows what challenges ordinary people face day to day, and who is committed to helping them.” The implicit contrast here was with Liz Kendall, who is both childless and single, her last relationship having ended just before the general election.

But as Isabel Hardman wrote in a blog for the Spectator, “Being a parent does not automatically mean you will understand even other parents. You will still need empathy in order to put yourself in the shoes of a single mother living on benefits if you are married and running a house on two salaries.” In other words, Cooper and Kendall have more in common with each other, uterine usage aside, than either does with a constituent struggling on the minimum wage.

Yet speaking “as a mother” is presumed to be a short cut to authenticity and normality. When Maria Miller wanted to bring in controls on web access to hardcore pornography in 2013, she told the press: “As a mother, I am determined to protect my children from the depravity of internet porn.”

Male politicians, by contrast, get the best of both worlds. They have a family that can be marshalled as photogenic props or used as fodder for personal anecdotes in speeches, and their home life grounds them and makes them appear “normal”. (The coverage of the Cooper/Kendall spat largely failed to mention that Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn have children. And most commentators presumed Miller’s comments to be a coded gibe at Theresa May, Theresa Villiers and Justine Greening but not Eric Pickles or William Hague.)

So, what can be done to make life easier for both sets of women – those caught in the motherhood trap, and their childless sisters, portrayed as selfish and single-minded? Just as importantly, what can be done to bridge the gap so that a woman’s family status is no longer seen to define her quite so acutely? Let’s look at each in turn.

 

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In May 1997 a record 101 female Labour MPs entered the Commons. It was parliament’s own version of the Big Bang, driving up the percentage of women in the House from less than 10 to more than 15 per cent. There was strength in numbers, allowing policy areas that had been marginalised – or dismissed as merely “women’s issues” – to be heard. The macho, public school-cum-gentleman’s club culture of Westminster also took a knock. But there was a problem. “Lots of us who were newly elected in 1997 came in assuming it was fine – we were ­going to sort out the hours of the House of Commons,” the former Labour minister Patricia Hewitt told me. “And we assumed that all female MPs would have the same view on this.”

They didn’t. Politicians who lived within commuting distance of London, or whose family home was in the capital, wanted parliament to operate to normal working hours so that they could get home in the evenings to see their children during the week. But Hewitt and her colleagues discovered that MPs in farther-flung seats were away from their family during the week anyway, and so didn’t mind the long sitting hours. They wanted a late start on Monday and an early finish on Thursday to maximise the time they could spend with their family.

They also discovered that many male MPs liked the late sittings and the “collegiality” of the Commons. Hewitt recalls: “Many of them would make the argument: ‘No, no, no, it’s absolutely vital that we’re voting in the evening, we’re having dinner together. That’s when back benches can talk to ministers.’ And there was a lot of truth in that; it was just you also pay a high price for it. So that was quite a rude awakening.”

The current standard sitting hours run from 2.30pm to 10pm on Monday, 7pm on Tuesday and Wednesday, and 5pm on a Thursday. At these times, MPs are expected to stay near Westminster in case they need to vote. This part of the job, coupled with the need for most MPs to maintain two homes, is the great barrier for those with caring responsibilities.

Many believe that discussions over sitting hours operate as a veiled rebuke to women who don’t seem to want to be part of the (male) clique. “It’s interesting that very often the criticism of women is that they’re not ‘clubbable’,” says Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP for Islington South. “Theresa May ‘doesn’t have a following’; Yvette Cooper is ‘too reserved’.” Another MP, who is also a mother, echoed this: “If we had an early finish, my priority would be to get back and spend time with my family. Even before I had a child – it’s just a question of personal choice – sometimes I’d just rather read for a couple of hours.”

Labour’s women’s minister, Gloria De Piero, says she does not believe it is possible to “tinker” with the hours any more to make them more family-friendly. But she added, “You’d have to say: ‘If you invented it now, is this what it would look like?’”

However, other aspects of Commons life are improving. There is now a crèche on Parliament Street, used by MPs, civil servants and staff, which takes children from three months upwards. It was created by Speaker John Bercow in 2010 amid a campaign of low-level resistance, because its establishment led to the closure of Bellamy’s, one of the many bars in the Commons.

Bercow has taken reform seriously as Speaker, and he told me by email: “A good number of the old, outdated assumptions about women’s ability to be effective Members of Parliament and hold high office have been consigned, rightly, to the dustbin. However, as with other highly mobile careers, it is a fact that an MP’s job, often splitting time between his or her constituency and Westminster, places a particular strain on family life.” Besides the crèche, he says, “the decision to introduce earlier sitting hours in the last parliament was undertaken partly as a result of colleagues arguing that a modern Commons should take a more family-friendly approach”.

The current sitting hours are, however, in danger, as they were introduced for a ­limited period and some MPs will want them back to their old length. “I don’t think reverting to those hours would send a good signal about modern working practices,” one female MP tells me.

Still, at least you can now take a baby through the division lobby, making it easier for those with small children to attend crucial votes. This milestone was first reached by the Liberal Democrat MP Duncan Hames in 2014 when his wife, Jo Swinson, was the party’s equalities minister. She told me that her family provided a perfect test case for people’s differing responses to mothers and fathers juggling work and childcare.

“Duncan and I had the same job as MPs, and I had ministerial responsibilities, but people still responded differently in terms of expectations of what childcare responsibilities we would have. People just took it for granted that with a small child, there would be times when I, as a woman, couldn’t do something. But they didn’t respond in that automatic way to Duncan at all.”

Swinson argued that childcare affects working fathers in a way that doesn’t get addressed “because they’re not physically going through that change”. She added: “I think fatherhood is much more invisible in politics. The media is part of it – the woman will be introduced with what age they are, ‘mother of X’; or, indeed, if they don’t have children, then it will be remarked upon in a way that it isn’t with men, generally.”

She also highlighted the difficulty of ­taking maternity leave as an MP: her office covered her constituency caseload while her Lib Dem colleague Jenny Willott took on the equalities brief in addition to her own. Swinson believes that Britain should move towards the Scandinavian model, under which a portion of paid parental leave is available only if taken by the father (or same-sex partner). “Because of maternity leave, and the cultural expectation that it’s mums that take the lion’s share of that time,” she said, “it ends up being the women who are taking more of the responsibility once they return to work.” Why is that? “Because they’ve developed the expertise. Parenting is about practice – you don’t innately know how to calm a crying baby.”

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One of the hazards of my job is being invited to summits on “powerful women”, which usually leave me feeling extremely unpowerful, and frankly a bit of a failure at being a woman. Recently at one such occasion, held in the ballroom of a London hotel, the star guest was the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. She talked frankly about what has become known as the “misogyny speech” – when she took her main opponent Tony Abbott to task in parliament for 15 searing minutes, opening with the declaration: “I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man; I will not.”

The denunciation, in October 2012, had been a long time coming. Even judging by the everyday tone in the notoriously brutal arena of Australian politics – its bluntness often makes Prime Minister’s Questions look like a Quaker meeting – the rhetoric used to describe Gillard was exceptionally vicious. “Ditch the witch”, read one set of election placards. After her speech, the sexist abuse did not abate: in 2013 a Liberal Party fundraising dinner promised “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box”. (Abbott said the menu was “tacky and scatological” but he did not suspend the candidate involved.)

Through this river of low-grade sexism ran one very strong current: repeated criticism of Gillard for being childless. In 2007, the conservative senator Bill Heffernan called her “deliberately barren”. Another Liberal politician, George Brandis, now attorney general, once criticised her in parliament, asserting that she was a “one-dimensional” person who had “chosen not to be a parent”. Her own party has not spared her: the former Labor leader Mark Latham opined in 2011, “Anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them.” Her fierce rival Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister, is alleged to have described her pejoratively, also in 2011, as a “childless, atheist ex-communist”. In February the following year, the Sydney Morning Herald fretted in its leader column that voters had “largely closed their minds to Gillard. Her media persona does not fit the expectations of some voters: a single woman, childless, whose life is dedicated to her career.”

As often seems to be the case, it was implied that given Gillard’s childlessness, she could not have an opinion on family policy – as if defence ministers always have a military background, or all agriculture ministers can reliably tell one end of a haddock from the other before taking on the brief.

A fortnight after the misogyny speech, Tony Abbott made a pointed remark about Gillard’s government restricting the “baby bonus” for new parents on the assumption that a second child could reuse many items purchased for the first. “Often one child is still in the cot when the second one comes along. One child is still in the pram when the second one comes along,” said the father-of-three. “I think if the government was a bit more experienced in this area they wouldn’t come out with glib lines like that.”

The Conservative children’s minister Tim Loughton took a similar line when criticising his Lib Dem coalition colleague Sarah Teather at the Tory party conference in 2013, claiming that she “didn’t believe in family. She certainly didn’t produce one of her own.” This made the Education Department a “family-free zone”, which he found “disappointing”. (Loughton has three children, although it would be indelicate of me to note that his contribution to “producing” them involved less physical hardship than endured by his wife.)

Perhaps the most startling aspect of Julia Gillard’s experience is that the criticism of her was so explicit and came from such senior political figures. In less plain-spoken cultures, the fear of childless women is usually better camouflaged, disguised as concerns over “life experience” and whether a woman has a “well-rounded personality”. But not always: in June last year, a 35-year-old Tokyo City assembly member called Ayaka Shiomura was heckled during a debate on support for working mothers with cries of “Go and get married” and “Can’t you give birth?”. In 2005, when Angela Merkel first seemed to have a chance of leading Germany’s ruling coalition, the wife of her main rival, Gerhard Schröder, commented acidly that she “does not embody with her biography the experiences of most women”, going on to mention childbirth and school admissions. That Doris Schröder-Köpf’s own husband has no biological children – the couple have adopted two children, and she brought a daughter to the relationship – did not seem to trouble her.

The childless British politicians to whom I spoke confirmed that their status was often used against them by their opponents, by other women as much as men. One pointed me to the leaflet issued by Stella Creasy’s Tory rival for the Walthamstow seat in this year’s general election, Molly Samuel-Leport. Under the headline “The Contenders Head to Head”, it listed Samuel-Leport’s virtues: “Cleaner Mother Shop Assistant Wife Athlete Teacher Champion Understands YOU”. When it came to Creasy, the list was shorter: “Career Politician Understands Ed Miliband”. The implication was clear – Creasy’s childlessness showed that she was not an “ordinary” person, as did her a PhD in social psychology and her background in think tanks.

Similar criticisms were levelled against Theresa May by a Downing Street insider in the Daily Mirror in August 2014 just as she became the front-runner to succeed David Cameron. May has always been reluctant to talk about not having children; the most she has ever said is that it “just didn’t happen” for her and her husband, Philip.

The source said that May’s lack of a family would make her look abnormal and unappealing to the electorate. “Being interested in politics is not normal. It’s not something most people do,” the source told the paper. “There are lots of ways you can look like you are obsessed with politics and not having children is one of them.” (Let’s draw a veil over what her rival Boris Johnson’s ­fertility track record makes it look like he is obsessed with . . .)

Do male politicians feel such criticisms as strongly? Ben Bradshaw, who is also in the race for the Labour deputy leadership, told me he had never been aware of his childlessness being used as a political attack line.

“It’s never been raised with me – that idea that because you don’t have children you don’t understand people’s lives,” the 54-year-old MP said. “We all have families even if we don’t have children. Me and the man I’ve been with for 20 years have an extended family. We have scores of nephews and nieces.”

Nicola Sturgeon has said that she believes there is a double standard. Asked on ITV’s Tonight during the general election campaign about whether she had chosen not to have children, she said: “Alex Salmond doesn’t have children. He might tell you differently, but I’m not aware of reading an interview or seeing an interview with Alex Salmond asking that question.”

Gloria De Piero, who is married but does not have children, says this reflects her experience. “It is mentioned in a lot of interviews with me in a way that it just simply isn’t with my male colleagues who are similar ages,” the 42-year-old told me. “It’s an issue for women who are not mothers in a way that it’s not an issue for men who are not fathers.”

 

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The motherhood trap affects us all, and although some of these issues are specific to MPs, many are not, particularly the scourge of “presenteeism” – rewarding attendance, whether productive work is being done or not – and the valorisation of “unencumbered” workers, who are available to their employers at any time of day or night.

Yet the politicians I interviewed were keen to stress that there are still grounds for optimism. “I don’t want to be too miserable about this,” said De Piero, laughing. “I always worry that people say, ‘It’s so bloody awful in parliament,’ and women go, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to do that job.’”

Several parliamentarians also had ideas for how working practices could be improved. Emily Thornberry questioned why there was a need for the House to return to sit before the autumn party conferences, even though at this time, little useful work is done on legislation. Instead, she advocates a longer summer recess, during which MPs can have time off with their family, followed by a “constituency month” to catch up on casework. “They talk about ‘MPs have packed their buckets and spades and are off and we won’t see them’. We don’t stand up for ourselves and say: ‘I get 1,000 letters and emails a week.’ I have a lot of work to do in my constituency.”

The president of the Liberal Democrats, Sal Brinton, thinks it is time to talk seriously about job shares for MPs. “[It] frightens parliamentarians, but we think it’s something that would bear looking at. It used to frighten big companies, the idea that you could have a senior manager job-sharing, but it does work. You just have to think out the difficult issues – how do you vote? – but everything else would work.”

Jo Swinson also believes that the lack of maternity cover could be resolved with electoral reform. “It’s difficult with first-past-the-post, but in countries with list systems, people can do cover for certain amounts of time.”

Perhaps as a first step it would be easier to let ministers job-share. Patricia Hewitt says she suggested this in 2001, when Tony Blair appointed her to the cabinet, in a push to get the junior minister she wanted.“The one I had my eye on was doing a fabulous job in a different department. It was very funny, because Tony said, ‘Er, what’s that?’ Jonathan Powell [Blair’s chief of staff] was standing there saying, ‘Two people sharing one job.’ Tony said: ‘Are we allowed to do that?’ and Jonathan said: ‘Well, I don’t know. I’d have to check.’”

Unfortunately, the minister involved got another job and the point was never settled. Hewitt acknowledges that the sharers would have to be compatible – “the nightmare would be . . . a woman with some children and an ambitious man” – but she points out that job-sharing is now common in the public sector and charities.

The final, and most contentious, point is money. During my conversations, the name “Caroline Spelman” frequently crept into the discussion: an example of someone whose childcare arrangements attracted criticism and unwelcome press attention.

In 2009 the former Conservative chair had to repay £9,600 in expenses after Commons authorities ruled that she had been paying her nanny from public funds by employing her as a secretary. Three years later, Spelman lost an attempt to stop the Daily Star Sunday reporting that her 17-year-old son, who played rugby for England under-16s, had taken banned substances after suffering a sports injury. “It’s hard to know you’re putting your children in the public eye like that,” one woman told me. “There’s something about a mother’s hormones.”

Although very few MPs are willing to go on the record, many believe that the reforms to expenses – necessitated by wide-scale fraud and the overclaiming endemic in parliament before 2009 – have made it much harder for those who are not already wealthy to juggle the demands of work with family. The current system makes it far easier for the rich and unencumbered. “You hear that MPs should be treated as ordinary people,” one told me. “That’s nonsense. It’s a unique set of challenges. Ninety per cent of us work in two places. There’s an extraordinary rate of failed marriages.”

The wife of another MPs talks about “eating crisps and crying at home” in the early days of her partner’s career because he was so rarely around to help with the children. Several mentioned that it was a huge advantage to have a seat in London, which allows the MP to get home every night.

By way of a solution, the Conservative backbencher Charles Walker has proposed that MPs’ expenses be abolished and a fixed annual stipend introduced. Their claims for tax-deductible items would then be regulated by HM Revenue & Customs, just like for any other self-employed worker. “You can change the hours but it’s not going to help someone get home to Cumberland,” he added. “And there’s a ridiculous belief that MPs only work when the House is sitting.”

On the other side of the fence, most agree that the big battle for childless MPs is perception – often in the media, rather than among voters. Ben Bradshaw says he believes his constituents “don’t give a hoot” about whether or not he has children. Some worry whether selection panels – which are not allowed to ask directly about candidates’ children – kibosh women for fear that voters won’t like them, or that they won’t have time to do the job properly. “I was asked in 1998 by a woman councillor when I went for selection how my children were going to cope, and could my husband cook the dinner when I was out canvassing?” says Sal Brinton. “Where do people get these ideas from? That’s the bigger problem: perception, rather than the reality.”

Childless women, on the other hand, face greater problems later on in their career when going for leadership roles, as they are deemed to lack the “complete package” that voters want. Several of the women I interviewed said they thought that starting a parliamentary career in your twenties or early thirties made having a family harder. “I think what happens is that women find it difficult to establish themselves in those careers. And to get promoted. So they put off marriage and children and whatever, and often end up running out of time,” says the Labour MEP Mary Honeyball. Another source told me that single women who entered parliament often found it hard to meet a partner prepared to join “the Denis club” – a reference to the sacrifices Denis Thatcher made to support his wife’s ambitions.

In the end, what both mothers and non-mothers need is broader social change. First, there must be an end to a culture that sees childlessness in women as selfish, and their lives as inevitably emotionally stunted and unfulfilling. We need to reset our relationship with work – to resist the pressure of presenteeism and expectations of unpaid overtime, and to fight for better labour rights, as well as employment protection for those with caring responsibilities. As Ben Bradshaw, who looked after his mother in his teens when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, puts it: “The more insecure people are in work, the more difficult it is for them to make choices around caring.”

Our parliamentarians’ job insecurity is rather different from that of someone on a zero-hours contract, but both would benefit from a reappraisal of what it is reasonable for employers to ask of their employees. Until then, men enjoy a double advantage, whether they have children or not. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

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It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

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Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

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Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war