Back in the heady days of 2012, under the shadow of a giant Mobot, the nation was gripped by one crushing, all-encompassing terror: the Uni Lad.
The Uni Lads were as maligned and debated a group as there has ever been in this country. A stateless band of no-ideologues, pumped full of supermarket lager and drunk on creatine. They sang on buses and pissed on war memorials; they studied in the day and chugged their own piss in the evening. Like the characters in Platoon, they were from no place in particular, going no place in particular; a generation of young men promised everything by New Labour and given nothing by the Big Society. They were young, jobless and godless, slouching towards a 2:2. They put the shits up a nation that thought it was above all that.
Looking back over the op-eds of the time, you can feel this palpable sense of fear that much of the media had of the Uni Lads, or their lesser-educated splinter group, the True Lads. It was as if journalists, editors and shit-sayers were living through a constant waking nightmare in which a group of buffed-up sports science students in shutter shades marched down Stoke Newington Church Street, forcing beer funnels down everyone's throats and using the word "gay" as a pejorative.
Entire careers were built on fretting about their imminent threat. They were the broadsheet anti-darlings, an ever-reliable content provider through their various atrocities: sexual assault, slut-dropping, blackface, Neknomations. There was even a "summit" called to discuss how best to tackle "lad culture", but all that really came of it was this picture.
For a couple years of my life, I became very involved in this scene, both observing from a distance and spending a fair bit of time in the trenches. I drank a dirty pint, I got called a cunt in song form by the Cardiff University Rugby Team, I got stabbed with an epi-pen, lamped by a trainee marine. It became part of me. I developed a near-total immunity to Jägermeister; I once took somebody on a date to the Sports Café, not seeing what might be wrong with that. At night I dreamt of banter. I was in way too deep. Had I been a detective in a police procedural drama, they would've pulled me back into uniform patrol for being "too close to the case".
But a few years later, the smoke has cleared, and what we're left with is something very different.
The places where you'll see this shift most noticeably are on the sites where much of the language, the codes and the ideas that defined the movement came from. The Lad Bible and its inferior cousin Uni Lad were always big, but they've now become part of the established media landscape, with Lad Bible now the 12th most popular site in the UK (above both The Guardian and The Telegraph, and only one place below Twitter).
Not only has the company moved towards the establishment in a corporate sense, setting up proper offices and going on a massive recruitment drive, it's also moved away from the boorish yet eminently shareable (and sellable) content that defined its halcyon days. And against all expectations, it's shifting its mindset to a new-left perspective, where Owen Jones or Jeremy Corbyn or Frankie Boyle is every bit as much of a legend as Adam Richman, Mario Balotelli and the thousands of unknown lad soldiers pranking their girlfriends with exploding ketchup and throwing Goldeneye-themed stag-dos.
Look over the recent uploads and it's clear that not only has the content shifted, the comments have too. The Lads, who were once keen to comment "must do better #SHITLAD" or the same tired Patrick Stewart memes on pieces like "How to Pull a Fresher" seemed to have picked up a copy of Chomsky's Hegemony Or Survival (or at least Owen Jones' Chavs) and are now churning out the same new-left truisms that you'd usually see shared on an NUS delegate's Twitter feed.
The most-liked comment on a recent piece about ISIS and the bombings in Syria was one which accused the US of hypocrisy. The most-liked comment on a piece about a man who spent 44 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit advocates sentencing for police officers who murder people. They have essentially become Bahar Mustafa in a Jack & Jones hoodie. It's quite a turnaround.
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So what happened? Well, I think the key to understanding this shift is imagining that the Uni Lad/Lad Bible sites are a personification of the demographic that they were originally aimed at.
Forget about them as websites run by teams of people with editors, advertisers, interns and front-of-house managers. Instead, imagine them as a young man who would have been in his second year at Leeds University in 2012 and is now three years older. Because, in their informal, social-media-led style, they were always supposed to come across as somebody you might be friends with on Facebook, rather than a media platform. That was the genius of them: that they seemed like somebody you might know. They were started in British universities by people of university age, for people in universities. And now they're simply reflecting the changes that generation may have gone through.
Because nobody – not even members of the Bullingdon Club – can stay a higher education hellcat forever; that lack of responsibility to anyone else other than yourself will eventually leave you. You will become concerned with your neighbours in an empathetic way, rather than merely trying to out-drink them on the Otley Run Pub Crawl. Things like world conflict, antibiotic immunity, food banks and Yanis Varoufakis will enter your mental sphere as you begin to worry more about your own mortality, the lives of other people around you and your children 's children. Your six-pack will become harder to maintain, and gonorrhoea will become all-too-real a threat. He might be living the same lifestyle, only with £6 Peronis replacing £1 Carlsbergs, but things will weigh heavier on the Uni Lad as he leaves university.
The culture around them, too, has shifted. Craft ales have replaces those luminous blue cocktails; Jamie xx has replaced Swedish House Mafia; Ricky Hill has replaced Alex Reid as the man everyone wants to look like. Male youth culture has been both hardened and softened – you're no longer supposed to shave every day, but you're also no longer supposed to flush your best mate's head down a toilet when he's passed out.
You'll still see gangs of pampered, disenfranchised young men on the pedestrianised streets of Britain and the promenades of Platja d'en Bossa, but by and large they have become older, more discerning, and their younger brothers are no longer interested in the gauche, lurid, homoerotic culture their elders thrived upon.
For people slightly younger than the original Lads, a new kind of aspirational urbanism has become the feeling of the time: Huaraches, balloons, bucket hats, swegways, Wavey Garms, YouTube hauling, "That's Not Me" and a summer trip to Croatia rather than Shagaluf. It's just as macho, but a lot less camp. Youth culture simply takes itself more seriously these days – and as much as I bemoan the loss of the simple, shallow pleasures of the Uni Lad lifestyle, you can't help but think it 's a good thing for wider culture. It's OK to be cool again, and that means things can keep moving forward at the rate we all want.
But part of me keeps wondering about what happened to the original Uni Lads – about what became of their hopes and dreams, and whether they could really keep that lifestyle up. So I started digging into the social media lives of the ones I spent a fateful night out with in Newcastle in the spring of 2012. The changes were subtle, but totally noticeable. Many of them have become gym employees, rather than gym bunnies. They now help the same people they use to pull to maximise their potential, in a friendly and encouraging manner.
Instead of the muscles and funnels, their profile pictures are of themselves posing with their girlfriends (they all have girlfriends now) by the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, sitting on the backs of camels, smiling and looking stable and happy and as far away from those broadsheet pariahs as you can possibly imagine.
In essence, the Uni Lads grew up and become their own dads, just as many a mod, punk, raver or emo kid had to do before them. They look quieter, more reflective, like they've seen enough, like they might not just have the energy any more. But at night I'm sure that urge to rage at the moon, shirtless, on an imaginary bucking bronco, still follows them around as those nights in with First Dates and a Franco Manca become ever more frequent.
Then I looked through my own social media feed and realised that very little has changed at all. The same bars, clubs and people are there, just in different trainers. There 's a bit less stupidity than there used to be. For all the scorn from the London cognoscenti directed at the Lads, it's them who eventually grew up, not us.
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