A lost generation: a parent's view of the experience of Young Adults in the UK.
(This was written in 2004 and circulated by email to friends and associates. This is its first on-line publication. Looking around today, I see much the same now, if not worse. The age range to be included would probably extend nearer to 40 than 30 now! Names* and details have been changed to protect anonymity.)
A lot of my friends and acquaintances have children aged between 18 and 30. Most times we meet, or correspond, we tend to share information about our children, their friends, and the circles in which they move.
Looking back over these conversations, especially the ones which have taken place in the last 5 years, I have begun to see a pattern, and it is quite a disturbing one. It is even more disturbing when I take into account that the vast majority of the people I talk to are highly educated graduates, professionally successful, caring, liberal, and generally deeply invested in their children in one way or another.
One friend tells of his son Nick*, intelligent, talented, and popular. Nick went to University to read Physics. Although he had a great time socially, he found less and less to enthuse him in his University course, despite being passionate about Physics at School. He struggled on to the end of his degree course, with less and less motivation, eventually gaining a third class degree, far below his ability. On graduating he decided he wanted nothing to do with the subject again, moved back home, and has for the past three years been living at home, surviving on a series of unrewarding temping jobs, and feeling directionless.
Mary* left school at 16, convinced that education had nothing more to offer her. She found it hard to find work, and was part of a set that encouraged her into drugs, casual sex, and petty crime. She eventually enrolled for A-levels at a city college – but found the teaching uninspiring – she dropped out again before finishing the course. Now, at 20, she is embarked on a different set of A-levels at a different college, still not sure what she wants out of life.
Andrew* appeared to have everything going for him when he got his 2.1 in History at the age of 21. But he couldn’t find a job that truly satisfied him, and moved from one job to another over a period of 6 years, moving also from city to city. Then, at the age of 27 he decided that he wanted to be an architect. The only way to achieve his ambition would be to start all over with another full-time degree course. Now he is saving hard to scrape together enough to allow him to re-enter University, which he might do, if lucky, by the age of 30.
These are not untypical stories. Variants on them are as common, if not more common, than stories of steady progression through education into stable careers.
As we parents puzzle over the tortouus paths of our children, we find it hard to relate their experience with ours of 30 years earlier, when a degree course seemed to be a rapid passport to a career which, in one way or another, made use of the skills and enthusiasms which we had developed before and during University. By the age of 25 many, if not most, of us were already drawing a full-time salary within the stable career that would see us through the major part of our working lives. None of us were living with our parents, few were financially dependent on them. We were, at least in career terms, “grown ups”.
The pattern that emerges from the multiple stories of today’s young adults is very different. Adult children are far more often living in the parental home into their late 20s, they are far more likely to be financially dependent on parents, they are less likely to have found a career to which they can wholeheartedly commit, they are less clear about the form and direction of their lives. So many of them seem lost.
Of course, our children do also sometimes have conventional successes. And we parents are happy and proud for them. I greatly enjoy hearing news of these successes. But I have noticed something about many of these reports: they are delivered in tones of surprised relief. It is almost as if we parents know that such success is by no means guaranteed, and that we have no particular wisdom about, nor can we claim any particular credit for, the route to success. We don’t truly understand the causes of our children’s successes any more than we do their failures. There is a sense that we share in our children’s “lostness”, and we can no longer read the signs of the times in ways which allow us to be reliable resources for them. We all have many experiences of being told, in one way or another, by our children, that we just don’t understand how things are now for them. Our wisdom is dated.
Some of us might detect, in our children’s rejection of our wisdom, the so-called “youthful rebellion” against advice which they will eventually learn to accept as they “mature”. This is, I think to misread the situation. I think we should be prepared to accept that something very fundamental has shifted in Society over the last 25 years, and that the rules we learned (or pieced together) to enable us to create coherent lives, can no longer be a reliable guide for our children. The pressures on them are not only greater, they are different in their form and contour; and conversely, the social instruments and institutions which might be looked to for support and enlightenment have changed, sometimes beyond all recognition.
Public discourse, contributed to by politicians and pundits, and rehearsed through the media, offers far too little. One primary tactic is to “problematise” young people and their behaviour, so that solutions are focused on “changing the way they behave”, either by superficial external controls, or through “education”. For instance recent public debates on how to stop binge-drinking have focused on changes in licencing laws and commercial restraints on town-centre drinking establishments; together with attempts to publicise the negative health and social effects of alcohol abuse. It is rarer to see analyses that focus on the underlying causes of destructive cultures. People who are leading fulfilled lives – with meaningful goals – and effective support to achieve those goals – don’t have time or inclination for self-abuse.
Another common tactic is to apportion blame. Variously, pundits blame parents (particularly those formed by the “permissive” 60s”), schools, the media, multiculturalism and the decline of “traditional” morality. In general, these are seen as giving “too much freedom”, and the proposed remedies involve, in one way or another, a return to “Victorian values” of control and prohibition. Changes in parenting, education, and the like are all indeed manifestations of cultural change, but it is both simplistic and dangerous to invoke the past. The past that is generally invoked is not an active, subtle and complex lived past, but a conveniently selective image of the past, a reinterpretable and subvertible construction, onto which powerful elites can project their own current interests, interests which are rarely take into account the true human needs of those they seek to influence and control.
To find a better way forward, we need to step back from the simple slogans of politicians and newspaper editors, as well as ready made “answers” that might be offered from belief systems that were shaped in different times and places.
Spaces and safety needs to be created for young adults to tell their stories, fully and without interruption or criticism. People of other generations need the resources to be able to hear these stories, fully, respectfully and undefensively. Then, out of this “bottom-up” growing understanding, we may have a chance to construct a positive agenda, whereby young people and adults, working together, can create an agenda for the restoration of meaningful lives for young people. There can be no more important or urgent agenda.
Can we create a space in which the right kind of deep mutual listening and creative problem solving can take place? This may need a private dimension (to protect individuals and create trust) but it must have a strongly public “front-end”. This work is not, primarily, about finding more effective forms of therapy for distressed or disabled individuals (although outcomes of the work may, practically, be very therapeutic). It is about creating an agenda for stimulating activity which could lead to real and practical social change, an agenda that empowers young adults and their chosen allies, and leads to practical and observable changes in the way that people live together and support one another.