School holidays for the children of the affluent used to be about doing nothing in particular. Tagging along to a sun-baked villa, perhaps, or slouching around Verbier in search of familiar Harrys and Rosies. For the unlucky facing an exam year, there might be a week or two of cramming. But otherwise, these were the weeks of indolence and precious irresponsibility, the time to charge the batteries for the looming decades of early mornings in the City.
Not any more. The battle for jobs is starting ever earlier, creeping grimly into these teenage years in the form of the ‘internship’. This is no summer job in a pub or a shop to make a bit of money, but a full-blown, put on a suit and go and lurk around adults professional try-out. There is of course little a 17-year-old can realistically contribute to an investment bank or law firm, but this does not stop them elbowing each other aside for that first rung on the path to the boardroom.
In America, the professionalisation of the teenage holiday has reached absurd levels. The equivalent of sixth-form students now use professional ‘experience planners’ to design holiday activities which will stand out on a university and eventual job application. The New York Times recently reported that ‘a dizzying array of programs have cropped up to feed the growing anxiety that summer must be used constructively. Students can study health care in Rwanda, veterinary medicine in the Caribbean or cell cloning at Brown University, or learn about Sikkim, India’s only Buddhist state.’
New York’s best high schools now insist that students demonstrate ‘mastery’ or ‘passion’. To be ‘well-rounded’ is to lack a crucial edge in one particular skill. Universities bemoan the disappearance of the athlete who can play several sports, because children are forced to focus on one at an early age. Privileged teenagers boast of working at an investment bank over the summer, while everyone knows the closest they came actually to working was carrying their parents’ briefcase into the office.
Nick Clegg addressed the issue earlier this year, calling internships ‘the almost exclusive preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well-connected’ and demanding the end of the unpaid holiday job. He wants to force companies away from hiring the partners’ children and godchildren. But rather than opening internships to all, he might consider ending them altogether. What is the use, after all, of watching grown-ups work, when you could be doing something much more useful, such as reading, loafing, flirting or maybe even doing a real job?
The truly sensible teenager these days would do one of three things with their holidays: nothing at all, so that their imagination can be allowed to develop; work on a talent they are already developing at school, whether for spin bowling, French or the oboe; or do work for which they are properly remunerated, as if they were adults.
The opportunities in this final category have multiplied with the advance of technology. You are no longer restricted to working in retail. As a teenager, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, wrote programs to help run his father’s dental clinic in Ardsley, New York. Any clever sixth-former these days should be able to sit down and learn enough to develop iPhone apps, design websites or even do more advanced programming. They can then offer these professional services online, where no one needs know your age. Or how about setting up a marketing company which uses BlackBerry Messenger to survey other teenagers for their opinions? Teenagers can now earn money in all kinds of innovative ways, which were not available ten or even five years ago. It’s the unimaginative ones who are photocopying deal books in a well-furnished glass box near Liverpool Street station.
Of course, it takes a special kind of boy or girl to be like John Mortimer and spend your summers putting on Shakespeare plays in the back garden. Or to follow the example of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who set out aged 18 for a four-year walk around Europe, with nothing more in his rucksack than a few clothes, letters of introduction, the Oxford Book of English Verse and the Odes of Horace. There was no rattling of the tin among family friends to raise money for the gap year adventure. He simply started walking from London and kept going.
But perhaps the most remarkable teenager of all these days will be the one who when ordered to rise from the sun lounger and fill out a summer job application waves away his parents, telling them that these are the golden years of indolence, and they are not to be wasted sampling the tiresome work of adults.