Years ago, in the days when I was officially ‘youth’, life was different. For example, almost nobody had a mobile phone, and everybody who was anybody watched Neighbours. For another example, our main aspirations were, in the following order: drinking alcohol purchased from a bar, finding ourselves in situations where we could use the word ‘cunt’* with impunity and having sex – with whoever showed an interest, so long as they were not related to us by blood.
We spent a lot of time standing about outdoors, with no purpose.
We did have the internet (I’m not, like, antiquated), but the only things we used it for were MSN Messenger and gap-year email updates.
Also, Toni Braxton was a thing. Ditto Moesha.
Back then, achievement was not part of the mainstream. No one cared what you earned, or how well you’d done in your exams, or if you’d won a silver medal in the annual Greenwich Borough cross-country. The single thing that mattered in terms of your social standing, so far as I can recall (I was drinking quite heavily and occasionally dabbling in recreational hallucinogens at the time – so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this recollection), was how many people you’d slept with, and whether any of them had got you pregnant.
We unanimously considered success to be contemptible. And, even though we didn’t actually know any famously successful people personally, we had sources that confirmed our suspicions.
Every now and then there’d be stories of friends of friends who’d met a famous person. Usually, the famous person was someone from EastEnders. Usually, the meetings took place in the toilets of Ceasar’s Palace, Streatham, and involved the famous person behaving obnoxiously. Such stories proved to us that the successful were pretentious, ‘full of themselves’ and unworthy of emulation.
Only the tedious and the egotistical attempted to achieve anything other than sex, which, if you were lucky, might be accompanied by romantic love.
In those days, a mere twelve percent of us got five or more A-Cs in our GCSEs and fewer of us passed (or attempted to pass) A’levels. Some of us went to university, where the stakes were higher achievement wise – but not by much. It was still okay to just lay about smoking weed in your pyjamas, playing Bishi Bashi on the PlayStation until it was your turn to make the tea.
There was no pressure – you could just be in the world.
But things done changed.
Nowadays the youth are into achievement, in a big way. Achievement is popular culture. YouTube superstars who have yet to grow pubic hair that they can shave from their genitals, teenagers with seven book publishing deals, twelve-year-olds winning Oscars, toddlers launching a perfume range.
Everyone’s at it, even the adults.
Working hard all day and then, in the evenings, blogging or designing clothes in the shed or making novelty cupcakes and promoting them to famous people on twitter. All in the hope that someone somewhere will notice and praise us and prove to the world, at last, that our lives have been worth living.
In this culture of ceaseless striving there is no time for meaningful relationships. There is no time for sex, unless it’s perfunctory. The twenty-three-year-olds already have everything you could ever want, and more life experience than you do. This is because they did not spend their formative years on Plumstead Common, stoned, drinking Dad’s holiday grappa and being sick in the bushes. They had experiences, in law firms and publishing houses and criminal gangs, that gave their lives velocity.
The youth of today will be able to spend middle-age sitting back and enjoying the fruits of their labour. But, unless you sort it, sharpish, in ten years time you’ll be exactly where you are now, except more bitter.
You do not have time to waste flitting about forming bonds of affection with strangers. You only have time to think of a worthy ambition and then use all resources available to make sure you achieve it. You have to prove your worth to the world right now, this minute.
Just in case you die tomorrow and the only word they have to use on your epitaph is ‘loved’.
*For any Americans reading, this is a far more benign word in the UK than it is in your country, even though it is still considered fairly taboo.
*Image by pakorn at freedigitalphotos.net