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This is very interesting. It’s easy to complain about moral standards collapsing and young people becoming more reckless and hedonistic. But is it true? Not according to Department of Health statistics.

drinks by foilman

Take this one factoid: “the proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who drank alcohol in the week before they were polled fell from 26% in 2001 to 12% in 2011″. Early teens, in other words, are drinking far less than they did ten years ago.

Here is the article from Tracy McVeigh and Gemma O’Neill:

Young Britons, widely portrayed as binge-drinking hedonists, are turning into the new puritans, according to official figures and reports from student bars across the country.

Statistics showing a continuing decline in alcohol intake, especially among students, suggest they are increasingly rejecting the drinking and drug-taking culture of their parents’ generation and reversing the excesses of the late 1990s, said Professor Fiona Measham, a criminologist at Durham University, who has been studying drinking patterns for more than two decades.

Measham attacked health professionals for being unwilling to recognise the shifting patterns of behaviour, and for persisting with “shock tactics” designed to scare young people.

Department of Health statistics show a fall since 2001 in the numbers of under-16s in England who are drinking. The latest DoH report, Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England, reveals that the proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who drank alcohol in the week before they were polled fell from 26% in 2001 to 12% in 2011.

There has been a drop in the proportion of this age group who think drinking is acceptable for someone of their age. In 2010, 55% had never tasted alcohol (39% in 2001), while 32% thought it was acceptable for someone of their age to drink once a week, compared with 46% in 2003. Similarly, 11% of pupils thought that it was OK for someone of their age to get drunk once a week, compared with 20% who thought that in 2003.

Levels of binge-drinking among young people have also fallen sharply. In 2010, only 17% of 16-24-year-old women drank more than six units on their heaviest day of drinking, compared with 27% in 2005, and 24% of young men drank more than eight units, compared with 32% in 2005.

Measham puts this in plain language, without the raw statistics:

The trends are clear. From about 2002 onwards, the tide turned. I’ve seen it in my students and I’ve seen it when I do my research in pubs and clubs. Something is changing, a cultural shift, there is no longer the desire to go out and get completely obliterated. It’s true of drugs also – use peaked in 2002 and there has been a slow decline.

Each generation wants to be different from the one before. The 1990s saw the cafe bars and an end to pubs being male-dominated. The drinks industry targeted women who were caught up in the glamour of Sex and the City-style cosmopolitan drinking, and of ‘me time’ and drinking with the girls and there was a complete revolution in consumption patterns. But for this generation that’s all a bit passé and they are more responsible. Increasingly, it’s the older generation setting a bad example and teenagers are quite disparaging of that.

One of the trends I’m seeing is students spending more on one occasion, rather than going out all the time. When I’m out doing research in clubs, young people will be paying large amounts to get in, but you don’t see huge queues at the bar. Another factor is that the worst excesses of the drinks industry have been curtailed by legislation – the free drinks and happy hours and irresponsible promotion of drinking.

It’s partly to do with ID schemes, debt, and unemployment. But it’s also simply that students have discovered more interesting things to do than drink themselves silly. At Leeds University, Antony Haddley, union affairs officer, said:

Interestingly, although night-time drinking may be less popular, we have seen a significant interest in membership to our clubs and societies, so students participating in a massive range of activities with their friends from skydiving to equestrianism and everything in between. So students are not suddenly turning into recluses who don’t go out; they are still having a good time, without alcohol.

And, of course, it’s the effect of social media…

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It seems so obvious: you love someone, marriage is a possibility, you are not 100% sure or 100% ready, so you move in together to test the water and test each other. It will help you, surely, to get to know each other better, to deepen your mutual love, to see whether you are truly compatible, and to lay the foundations for a happy and lasting marriage. It seems so obvious, but it isn’t true.

Lino Print: Map To My House by Matt callow

I’m not speaking about ‘sexual morality’ here (although you can’t separate the moral aspect from everything else); nor am I speaking about a ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’ view of marriage. It is simply the psychological and statistical data that show how living together before you get married makes it harder for you to choose the right person and harder to prepare for a lifelong marriage together.

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, presents some recent findings in psychology and sociology:

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.

Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.

But why is this? It’s due to a factor called ‘sliding, not deciding’.

Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

WHEN researchers ask cohabitors these questions, partners often have different, unspoken — even unconscious — agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.

Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money and effort it requires to make a change.

Jay writes about her own experience of working as a clinical psychologist.

I’ve had other clients who also wish they hadn’t sunk years of their 20s into relationships that would have lasted only months had they not been living together. Others want to feel committed to their partners, yet they are confused about whether they have consciously chosen their mates. Founding relationships on convenience or ambiguity can interfere with the process of claiming the people we love. A life built on top of “maybe you’ll do” simply may not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the “we do” of commitment or marriage.

And this is her non-moralising but very practical conclusion:

I am not for or against living together, but I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake — or of spending too much time on a mistake. A mentor of mine used to say, “The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one,” and in our era, that may mean before cohabitation.

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Following on from my previous post about how to prise a few pennies from my friends for good causes, Jonathan Ruffer writes here about the joy of giving.

[Last year Jonathan Ruffer paid £15 million to save 12 paintings by Francisco Zurbaran in Bishop Auckland castle. He plans to spend a further £18 million turning the castle into a centre re-telling the history of Christianity in the Northeast.]

Not many of us will have the problem of what to do with a great amount of wealth; but his thoughts about how to free oneself from the ‘burden’ of riches are a healthy challenge to any of us who have any savings stashed away for a rainy day.

The great calling to mankind is that we love one another, and it is in giving that we find its clearest expression. It is more blessed to give than to receive — and the reason is that ‘where your treasure is, there is your heart also’. We have the capacity to love — to have treasure — but we can’t be trusted to treasure the right thing. Personal giving releases our grasp on material things, and gives us compassion for people, and they become our treasure.

What does this mean in practice? There are only three things we can do with money — spend it, save it or give it away. For the rich, saving is more dangerous than the emptiness of spending: big money not only defines a person, it shackles him. We are not designed as creatures to store our wealth, or for that matter, our food. They are there to pass through, and if there is a blockage, the goodness turns to poison. Currency is a Miltonic word from the Latin, currere, to flow. So don’t hoard it — give it away!

And this has to be done by example. It’s no good a poor man telling a rich man to change his behaviour — he cannot match his words with actions. So it has to be the rich — the very rich — who must state this blindingly obvious truth if it is to have any force. But the words have no meaning without the action; it is the rich who have to give it away. And if their wealth is fabulous, that probably means most of it.

This sounds as much fun as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or a Methodist sermon, but, believe me, it is the most wonderfully releasing thing — life as a colour film after black and white: life in all its abundance. If this sounds strange, it is worth remembering that wealth has all the character of a bully: whack it away, and it turns out to be a very insipid adversary. I know that at first hand! There is no sacrifice in it at all. I once asked one of the great northern wealth-creators why so few people followed his example of beneficence. His answer, with cheesy grin, was that people had no idea what fun it was. Saying boo to the bully is a great freedom, and keeps the money circulating.

In today’s world, a lot of good can come from this. One rich man giving it away has all the feel of a futile act, but it’s not. The demonstration of a truth always has power; moreover, it can show others the way. It is lack of imagination, not meanness, which shackles the common-or-garden multi-millionaire. Show a better way, and a trickle, perhaps a flood of givers will emerge, blinking from the dungeon darkness.

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I had a fascinating conversation with friends yesterday about money. I’m about to do an appeal for a charity I’m involved in, and I was asking their advice about the best way to go about this. Do I gently ask everyone on my email list if they’d like to help out with this worthy cause, and let them get back to me if they would? Do I just send them a link to the ‘donate’ website and hope for the best? Do I ask them, American-style, if they would like to pledge a certain amount – even before they have reached for their cheque-book – in the hope of encouraging them to make a commitment, and to solidify that commitment by telling me?

Lots of cultural and psychological issues come up here, and many of them touch on the strange nature of being English. Our awkwardness in talking about money – we hate to reveal our bank balance, our salary, our debts, our charitable giving – even to close and trusted friends. It’s just something you don’t do.

I was saying how much I admire the American instinct to praise, publicly, those who give generously to good causes. Yes, there are risks: it can encourage pride, jealously, etc. But why is it that we would happily praise those who give their time in volunteering, or their wisdom in teaching, or their patience in suffering, or their good example in leading – but we feel there is something rather grubby about putting the spotlight on someone’s generosity in giving some of their hard-earned cash, even if it is making a huge difference to the lives of others? My friends didn’t agree – they thought if you are going to give in this way you should do it humbly and quietly, without drawing attention to yourself, and without others giving you special attention. Of course I can see the truth in that, I just think there is something we are missing here.

These are just some of the questions that came up over coffee yesterday morning! Now I must work out what to do myself, and write the email appeal.

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On Sunday afternoon I met with a group of young adults to talk about the Christian understanding of work. It’s an important topic!

Very often people don’t think about it – even those who have a deep faith. They just go to work and get on with it; and perhaps they bring it to prayer when they are about to lose their job, or when they are seeking a new one. But not much more reflection than that. Or they ‘over-Christianise’ work, and think that as Christians they ought to be doing something that is ‘holy’ (which is half-true), which usually means something that is in the charitable sector or in one of the caring professions – and if they are not, they end up feeling guilty and a bit inadequate about their more mundane job.

So what is the meaning of work for a Christian?

A couple of paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are very helpful (2427-8):

Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Work honours the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him.

It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.

In work, the person exercises and fulfills in part the potential inscribed in his nature. The primordial value of labour stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work.

Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community.

So there are a number of different motives for human work, different meanings, and they all have their place in the divine plan. One is not more ‘holy’ than another. It’s worth putting them into a more systematic list, and then seeing what each of them means for one’s own job – whatever it is.

Why get up in the morning? Why go to work? Here is the list. We work: (1) to earn money so that we can live and so that we can support our family; (2) to share in God’s work of creation through what we are actually doing; (3) as a way of serving others or contributing to the good of others – directly or indirectly; (4) to honour God by using our gifts and talents and fulfilling our potential; (5) as a way of bringing the Spirit of Christ to bear on ordinary life; (6) as an opportunity for us to grow in holiness; and (7) as a way of sharing in the redemptive work of Christ, above all by accepting the suffering and hardship of work.

Notice how the theology here is both idealistic and realistic at the same time. There is the nitty-gritty of simply needing some cash so that we and our family can live – and that is a good thing, not to be despised. There is the idealism of sharing in God’s creative and redemptive work, of fulfilling our potential, of serving others, etc. But there is also the realism that work is often hard and at many levels unfulfilling, yet it still has a meaning – as an opportunity to grow in virtue and offer up our difficulties to the Father in a spirit of sacrifice and faith.

What’s missing? Perhaps something about how we work, often, simply because we enjoy it (perhaps this comes under ‘fulfilling our potential’), or because we like being with people, or because we have a vision or passion for what we are doing, or because our parents, for example, have pushed us into following a certain career path. Maybe these extra ideas fit into the main list somehow.

And notice how many questions it raises. How do we know what job to take (if indeed we have a choice at all)? What if we can’t find any work? What if our work is destructive (morally? culturally? environmentally?) rather than creative? What if we are not using our talents, but apparently wasting them? What if the work is so hard or degrading that it becomes a form of injustice or oppression? What if we are required to be involved in wrongdoing or illegality – directly or indirectly? Or if we know about others at our workplace who are involved in such things? Is it wrong to be ambitious? Is it wrong to want to do better than others in order to succeed? What if the culture of work is damaging our relationships, our family life, our ability to live our faith? And a thousand other questions – many of which we discussed on Sunday.

I’m not going to try to answer them all here! Maybe there is material for some future posts here…

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Every few weeks there is another expose about the average cost of a wedding in Britain or the States, but reading Kirsten Hansen’s article was the first time I had come across this wonderful phrase: ‘The Wedding-Industrial Complex’.

We spend far more on a wedding than we would on any regular party. But that’s the point. Weddings aren’t a regular party; they are a booming business.

According to TheKnot.com, a popular wedding site, the average American wedding costs about $24,000. A wedding in larger urban centres could easily cost closer to $50,000. Who says you can’t put a price on love, dreams and happiness? According to the website CostofWedding.com, the price per guest alone for a wedding in New York could easily be about $200 – if a couple is inviting 150 guests, they’re already looking at $30,000.

Just what exactly happened? How did weddings go from celebrations of a new marriage to incredibly expensive extravaganzas that put couples or their families in debt? The wedding industrial complex is to blame. The term refers both to the way the wedding industry has worked to sell the “perfect” wedding (check out a bridal magazine, it’s all there in gorgeously retouched advertisements), and to the social expectations about what makes a wedding (tuxedo, diamond and white dress splendour). It is a big machine, all working to ensure that anyone getting married should expect to pay a whole lot of money for the privilege. Unless, of course, they’re willing to sacrifice their dreams and crush their love under the heel of practicality.

The wedding industry is out to make money, and someone’s special day is how they do it. It has been a brilliant marketing campaign, not least because most of us have bought into it. They’ve already sold us on their merchandise which is wrapped up as “romance”, “hopes” and that “one perfect day”. The price tag shouldn’t matter if a couple is really in love.

Of course, there are many couples out there who reject the idea that their wedding has to cost them as much as a downpayment on a house. DIY weddings are becoming more popular and couples are finding ways to put their own stamp on the big day for a lower price. They are finding free venues, having potlucks, hiring amateur photographers or choosing weekday weddings. A couple can forego many things like wedding favours and huge guest lists; there are definitely ways to cut costs.

There is, however, only so much a couple can do about their budget unless they’re willing to ditch the “perfect wedding” ideal entirely. A larger guest list, a rented venue, a caterer – every little bit adds up, and if they are unlucky, the place they live might be expensive by nature.

I take a middle line here. I think it’s important to celebrate, and especially to celebrate something as significant as a wedding; and celebrations, usually, cost money. But it’s also important to distinguish between what is really helping a couple to celebrate, and what is instead being imposed by some unacknowledged social pressure or some insidious marketing campaign.

Of course every couple has some social obligations that must be fulfilled at a wedding; one of the reasons for getting married is that it brings your ‘private’ relationship into the public gaze so that it can be acknowledged and supported publicly. But I still think there should be an inner freedom about the choices a couple makes, so that they can decide what they truly think is best for themselves and for their families and friends. Is it possible, however, to escape the clutches of the Wedding-Industrial Complex?

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I’m just back from a week of silent retreat. (No, I wasn’t blogging while I was away! The last two posts were on the timer: written before I went and then scheduled to post automatically, just in case any readers were going to get withdrawal symptoms.)

I’m not going to debrief about my spiritual life online, but I can share just one experience that forms part of the ritual of going on retreat each year that gave me pause for thought: emptying the pockets. I arrived in my room at the retreat house, put the suitcase on the bed, and without much reflection started to empty my trouser pockets onto the shelf in the wardrobe, knowing I wouldn’t be needing all this stuff for the next week.

And what was this ‘stuff’? Car keys, house keys, room keys, cupboard keys; mobile phone; wallet (cash, credit card, debit card, driving licence, celebret, Marks and Spencer vouchers, Oyster card); electronic organiser (diary, contacts, to do list, memos – yes, I am dinosaur enough to still have a Palm PDA; much better designed software, by the way, than an iPhone); loose change.

All of this, I realised perhaps for the first time, I have on me all the time, in three trouser pockets - ‘on my person’ as the phrase goes. All of this, normally, I’m afraid to leave the house without it. It’s part of who I am, and it’s hugely symbolic: I ‘am’ the possibility of connecting, communicating, calling, remembering, driving, travelling, entering, opening, unlocking, spending, borrowing, organising, meeting, doing. And all of this, for just a few days, I could put in a cupboard. It was so strange and liberating to go for a walk each morning without it all; not just into the garden, but out into the surrounding streets and the ‘real world’.

my pocket watch rules by chrisdlugosz.

Of course my pockets weren’t actually empty! I kept on me my room key and a watch. In other words, I was happy to let go of all the stuff for a week, but I wasn’t prepared to renounce it completely and take the risk of it being stolen. I’ll put it down, but I won’t give it up. And above all else, the watch: I didn’t want to lose track of time and miss my lunch…

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