Family legend has it that when I arrived in Durham, a fresh-faced ingénue from deepest Somerset, I called home. ‘This is the life,’ I said, after a bare 24 hours in the frozen north, and they hardly heard from me again.
I would have expected my first daughter to have a similar experience, but by the time she set off for university I had already learned how very different the new generation is from ours. I arrived from a girls’ grammar school, having chosen a university as far from my (much-loved) home as I feasibly could, determined to have Fun. I threw myself into the whole thing. I stayed up night after night drinking nasty wine and talking rubbish and I doubt there was a single pub or college bar that I didn’t try out.
Towards the end of the first year I thought it was time I made the acquaintance of the library, but then they decided that we needn’t take exams after all, so I held back from that area of exploration. We went to the hopelessly hick nightclub and drank filthy sweet cocktails. Sometimes I lay in bed with a crashing hangover, reading Trollope and amazed at my luck — I was doing what all the grown-ups demanded of me and yet was indeed ‘living the life’.
Leaving university, my generation was not much more sensible. We fell into jobs, drank too much at lunchtime, went to rather smarter nightclubs and drank rather less sweet cocktails, gambled and experimented with other foolish things; to be young and employed in London in the 1980s was very hedonistic heaven.
So what has changed with this generation? They go off to university as fully formed people, with barely a mistake left to make. Many of them set off with a steady boyfriend or girlfriend and leave three years later with the same person on their arm. They do staggering things like saving money. Even my 15-year-old daughter has a fund for her ‘year off’. They don’t drink in the week.
My idea of saving money was to put 50p on my mantelpiece on Monday so that I knew whatever happened that week I’d have enough money at the beginning of the next one to get the Tube to work. Not drinking in the week meant not drinking at lunchtime.
As a mother of four, and a teacher in a comprehensive, I’ve had plenty of chances to study the habits of the young. I’ve heard children tell me about their mothers who are out in clubs every Saturday night while they sit at home on Xboxes or rereading Of Mice and Men; I’ve heard my own children caution me wisely about how I should run my life, save money on own brands, make sure I have a safe lift home from a party. Ab Fab’s Saffy was not the odd child, she was Every Child.
Where Saffy is perhaps different from most of the young I have known is that she never seems to have rebelled at all. My observation is that the reason this generation goes off to university so wise and organised is that they have done foolish things before they get away from home.
We parents are all so desperate not to have the only naughty child that we don’t admit to our friends quite what they get up to. They do watch porn younger, but get bored of it by 13. They are likely to have experimented with some drug or other before they leave home, rather than when they get away from home. They are likely to have lost their virginities younger than we did. But it is almost as though their little flirtation with hedonism involves no Fun at all — it is more like another box ticking exercise. ‘Go to Secret Garden Party — tick, get sick on vodka — tick, have sex — tick, try ketamine — tick. What next? Oh yes, go to university and get a good degree. Fine, I can concentrate on that now.’
Their hedonism is entirely flirtatious. But here’s the crunch, the real sorrow, the element of being young that this generation entirely misses: hedonism is all they will flirt with. The art of flirtation is lost. They have incredibly complicated rules about sexual engagement, but they forget the early bit, the shall-we-shan’t-we dance of life that is such fun — that word again. Why?
Because they can’t. Because they have it dinned into them from a shockingly early age that without the perfect CV, the best results, they do not have a chance. Even with a good degree they are likely to spend months if not years working for free in a range of internships. And once they do start earning, they’re not paying back an overdraft spent on drinking and dancing, but a huge loan spent on the dubious pleasure of a university life of hard toil.
We want to mock the new generation of Saffys, but we shouldn’t. We should remember that where we were driven by Fun, they are driven by Fear.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 9 November 2013