The global recession has been especially cruel on the young. The deluge of doom-laden predictions for the financial futures of 18 to 34 year olds, known as ‘Generation Y’ or the modishly dubbed ‘Millennials’, is unrelenting. But rather than be crushed by what awaits them, or terrified into self-imposed austerity, Generation Y is shaking off recession fatigue with a good dose of hedonistic spending.

Young people are ignoring the warnings that they’ll be poorer than their parents, pension-less, forever indebted and precariously employed, and splashing their cash more than any generation before them. More likely to splurge on expensive impulse buys, they also eat out more than anyone else. In 2012, the average British 18 to 34 year old went out eating or drinking an average of 32 times a monthtwice as much as Generation X (35 to 54 year olds) and more than three times as much as the Baby Boomer generation (55 and above). In the United States, spending on eating out recently overtook spending on groceries for the first time in history – a departure attributed to the financially ill-fated Millennials.

Maybe when obtaining the ‘big stuff’ – like a house – is so laughably out of reach, a monthly pay cheque becomes something to blow as enthusiastically and pleasurably as possible. The technicalities of being fundamentally broke, such as interminably living with flatmates or even parents, could also be a key factor tempting the young into restaurants. Many Millennials, it seems, are bon vivants cheerfully spending the last of their cash on a spontaneous feast of enchiladas with friends, rather than brooding about the bleak future.

But this is also a group for whom food has become an obsession. Within the social media takeover, being a bona fide foodie has emerged as a tenet of cool urban youth culture. Instagrammers upload images of beef tongue and kimchi for their thousands of omnivorous followers, while stylish food magazines Kinfolk and Lucky Peach have become the stars of the newsstand. At the same time, an obsession with healthy eating, superfoods and identifying (real or imagined) food intolerances, which edits out entire food groups, has engulfed whole swathes of Generation Y.

A few years ago New York Magazine ran a profile of an exemplary Millennial foodie. Diane Chang is 27, lives in New York City and eats in an average of 14 restaurants and cafés over a seven-day period, on which she spends an average of $350 per week. Though her budget is rather higher than the Millennials I know, the overall tendencies ring true: her friends “lean towards cheap ethnic food and revile pretension”; they’ll hop from a vegan eatery one night to an artisanal hot dog joint the next before blowing a stack in a more upscale restaurant; and they’re not above an occasional “ironic” visit to a big chain. The article also captures a stark anomaly: Diane Chang buys organic, local, high-quality and ethical food when grocery shopping but when eating out she and her peers are “not especially concerned with locavorism or sustainability or foraging”.

Diane is not alone. There’s often a disconnect between the food principles we shop by, and those we practice when eating out. Guilty of this myself, I never buy non-organic pork but recently found myself chowing down pork puffs with relish at a dim sum restaurant that most certainly doesn’t use organic meat. I asked some friends – two in London, two in Amsterdam and one in Berlin – whether they practice a similar kind of wilful amnesia when eating out, and mostly they conceded that they do. Interestingly, they all hold slightly differing principles in terms of the produce they’ll buy: one avoids meat altogether on the grounds of sustainability, while the rest always buy organic chicken, pork, milk and eggs as a bare minimum; one studiously avoids non-seasonal produce in shops; and another checks every label for palm oil. Each of them eats out an average of twice a week, not including coffees and lunches on the go. Joseph from Amsterdam put it plainly, “If I’ve gone somewhere to eat out then my morals go out the window.”

The common sentiment was that being fastidious about eating organic, local, seasonal or sustainably sourced food is too limiting, quickly becomes anti-social or snobbish within a wider group and rules out whole categories of restaurants, particularly well-favoured ethnic joints. Rosa from London added that “it takes away from the joy of just sitting down and enjoying a nice meal with my friends or boyfriend or my family”. Marina O’Loughlin, restaurant critic for The Guardian, echoed this sentiment when asked to explain the schism between what we’ll buy in a shop and what we’ll buy in a restaurant: “Eating out is all about fun, whereas eating and cooking at home, with principles, especially with all the clean-eating ‘gurus’ proliferating on social media, is more about being health driven.”

Eating out is all about fun and pleasure, and it seems unfair to deny Generation Y one of the few pleasures they’ll apparently have in life, if financial forecasts are proven right. But if the young keep eating out at unprecedented rates (32 times a month!) and casting off their sustainability concerns while doing so, what could the impact be on food production and the environment? If we are mindful to buy organic milk in shops, but drink six coffees a week from a café using non-organic milk, are our efforts in vain? Are we fuelling demand for intensively reared chicken, strawberries in February or unsustainable tuna through our restaurant habits, despite shunning such produce in the shops? Campaigns raising awareness of where our food comes from have touched many, though it seems the message hasn’t penetrated the experience of dining out. For some, it doesn’t cross their minds, others tune it out and for the rest it’s just too limiting or too much hassle.

The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) was set up to help restaurants become more sustainable. It guides diners to those very restaurants through its directory of thousands of eateries across Britain, from fish and chip shops to Michelin-starred restaurants. The SRA seal of approval indicates that a restaurant cooks with ingredients that are local, seasonal, sustainably farmed and fair trade, and that its meat is ethically produced and its fish sustainable. It also places a spotlight on food wastage, already a major issue with 600,000 tons of food being wasted by UK restaurants, cafes, take-aways and hotels annually. “In the last two years I’ve really sensed the beginnings of a movement in restaurants across this country to meet the environmental and social responsibilities that more and more diners are expecting,” says SRA president Raymond Blanc. Hopefully he’s right. After all, restaurants, cafés and street food vendors have proven themselves incredibly responsive to the relatively recent consumer concern with food intolerances. Imagine if the ubiquitous GF (gluten free) was joined by the just-as-ubiquitous HF (hormone free)? Or if, when offered soya milk or almond milk as an alternative in our coffee, we were also given an organic option?

How do sustainable and high-quality ingredients in restaurants become the norm? One city that might have some answers is San Francisco. Nicole Krasinski, co-owner and pastry chef at State Bird Provisions, an American dim sum restaurant recently awarded a Michelin star, says that “Over the ten years I’ve been working as a chef in San Francisco, using organic, local and sustainable ingredients has become more and more the base line standard for almost all restaurants, from casual to mid-range up to fine dining.” Other food experts in the city – including Marcia Gagliardi, restaurant columnist and founder of Tablehopper.com, and Elana Altman who works in the sustainable food sector – agree that well-sourced ingredients have become an expectation, if not quite yet a given. There are burger joints, Indian restaurants, ice cream trucks and taquerias committing to sustainable, organic and local ingredients. Ask at Four Barrel or Blue Bottle Coffee if the milk is organic or the beans fair trade and the barista will confirm they are, baffled that anyone would ask such an obvious question. Even fast-food chain Chipotle guarantees its customers GMO-free, local and ethically farmed meat, and flags up its organic ingredients.

It seems the roots of San Francisco’s food culture can be traced back to Alice Waters’ pioneering restaurant Chez Panisse. “It’s safe to say she started the movement, which then grew through the awareness and taste buds of consumers and chefs,” says Altman. Also crucial have been the city’s famed farmers’ markets. Chefs buy directly from farmers at the Ferry Building Marketplace, but so does the general public, and it’s left them with a taste for high-quality local ingredients. “The chefs started this movement toward sustainability, working in close concert with farmers,” says Gagliardi, “but then the consumer and diner quickly backed the movement up.”

Outside San Francisco can sustainable produce become the norm in urban eateries charged with nourishing the omnivorous Generation Y? Will it be restaurants or discriminating diners who make the difference? “Definitely chefs and restaurateurs,” says Marina O’Loughlin. “In all my years of eating out, how many times have any of my fellow diners asked about sustainability or provenance? Once.”

Photograph: Edward Blake

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