Most societies are hard on their youth.
The old lament the follies of the young. The young are berated to set goals and figure out what they want to do with their lives. Their elders maintain the pretence that they themselves are sorted despite their obvious hypocrisies.
The elders perpetuate the myth that there is such a thing as a sorted being. Someone who is omnipotent and able to deal with all the vagaries that life can throw at them. If such a person exists I have yet to meet him or her and suspect that such a being would have aspects of the divine.
Elders often pretend their situation is the result of a well-mapped-out life plan, that they were never disreputable or uncertain and confused in their youth.
One of the pleasures of middle age is looking back over the randomness and happenstance of past experiences and encounters. We all try to shape a coherent narrative of our life story as we age, yet none of us could have foretold the journey we have experienced from our youth.
We often deceive ourselves about the control we have had.
At end-of-year school assemblies, young people are urged to set goals and strive for success. Yet the reality is that at that age few have any concrete understanding of what they want to do with their lives, and nor should they.
Many parrot the expectations of their parents. Some have a vague career path based on glamorised options portrayed in the media.
LA Law is likely to have spawned many disgruntled legal graduates unenamoured by the excitement of conveyancing agreements. Some school leavers have unrealistic expectations of becoming professional sportsmen, top fashion designers or the next Peter Jackson. There is nothing wrong with such ambitions provided they include a fall-back option.
But the truth is that many of those leaving school have little clear idea of what they want to do with their lives. They should be reassured that such uncertainty is not uncommon and that wrong avenues and false starts will be encountered along the way. Some follow their peers into tertiary study only to realise, too late, that this avenue is not for them at this stage in their lives. Sadly these days, such a move can prove a costly mistake compared with previous generations.
There is a myth that tertiary study should be embarked on as soon as possible upon leaving school with the possible exception of a gap year. Many Europeans are bemused by the sight of young Kiwis with newly minted degrees hooning their way around the continent on their OEs. Many Europeans have yet to commence specialised tertiary studies at such an age. Maybe this is a legacy of our recent colonial past, where labour was in short supply so extended tertiary study was an unaffordable extravagance.
There is also a fallacy that academic study is a superior route to material success than gaining a trade.
Parents and schooling play a huge role in shaping young people's career choices and expectations. One of the hardest aspects of entering adulthood is figuring your own path. There are many disgruntled professionals who followed a path set down by others only to feel it too costly or wasteful to follow their own ambitions in later years.
Our young are entering a brave new world far removed from the more static environment of other post-war generations. We need to be urging them to keep their options open and to value learning in any capacity. They are likely to have multiple careers. Whatever they do should be done to the best of their ability even if it is temporary. All experiences matter even if they seem irrelevant at the time. The bright, cheerful waitress will always get the most tips.
Attitude matters and is usually self-fulfilling in either a positive or negative direction. We need to reassure our young that no one is totally sorted, though most of us pretend otherwise. Along the way we all need help and support at times. We should give it in return. We should teach them that a constant state of happiness is unrealistic and undesirable. There are moments and periods of joy and contentment but there are also times of sadness and stress. It is the latter that often shape our characters for better or worse.
We should encourage them to try different avenues, particularly while they are young, in the hope of finding the most suitable, and that honest failure is not a mortal sin. This is what a well-spent youth is all about.
Peter Lyons teaches at St Peter's College in Epsom.