I doubt being a teenager has ever been particularly easy, whether you knew you were one or not. It must have been a bit easier, though, when you knew unquestioningly that you’d follow your parents into the turnip fields or the butcher’s yard or the jousting lists or the cloisters (that one less likely to be hereditary, on second thoughts). Life might have been nasty, brutish and short, but at least it was largely foreordained unless you caught the eye of the local squire or impressed an abbot with your counting skills or happened to be suspected of having too close a friendship with your cat (disclaimer: historical background may be overly based on excessive Jean Plaidys)
Not now, though. Now, apparently, we are in a Brave New World where we are all agents of our fate, masters of our destiny. Our circumstances, our prosperity, our lives, in fact, are sum totals of our choices: we all start with the same hand of cards, and our success depends on our skill in how we play them.
It’s comforting to know that my children are on an entirely level playing field both with those whose parents can stretch to the adorable shorts and enviable surroundings of the private school down the road and those closer to home who I can only suspect of lacking breakfast and a decent pair of shoes. Regardless of their surroundings, their education and their ability to make the most of it, they are all free to choose what to make of their lives. At least, that is only logical conclusion from David Cameron’s speech yesterday where he vowed we’d see no more of those youngsters who “opt for” a life on benefits.
I can remember my Options as a teenager. They were a big deal. I had to choose whether to drop Geography or History, or whether I should go for Double Science and cram Latin in after school. Earnest even then, I agonised over the choice, fondly convinced that getting it wrong would send me crashing off into life fail. But then, I was a brainy, bookish child, who had, simply by virtue of being born into an Irish Catholic family, been fed into a girls’ comprehensive which was a recovering convent school and in which I was always likely to flourish. I had lovely parents, in stable, decent jobs, who could afford to let me be a child, then a teenager, then eventually to drive me to Uni and put a roof over my head when I worked through the summers and after I graduated. Precious little opting, really.
This is why the speech yesterday angers me so much. I have made choices in my life, as have we all, but they have always been choices between various benignly positive outcomes, regardless of the angst they occasioned at the time. I have worked hard, too, but never without the secure knowledge that my efforts would almost certainly be rewarded, and always with a consciousness of a modest safety net behind me should I fall. I don’t know what it’s like to do otherwise, and I would never presume to judge those who do.
It is not in most of us, I would argue, to triumph against the odds. It’s not how we are built. Of course some will, but by and large we wax and wane in our own peculiar orbit, whether we are born into privilege, money and connections or deprivation both material and worse.
I would love for every child in the country really to be able to live up to his or her potential and be free to opt for a life in all its fullness. But do I really need to spell out the ways in which this can’t be the case for so many? What options, really, has a teenager leaving school in the depths of a recession, where employers who post no vacancies are supplied by workfare labour, where even that work which is available pays less than a living wage and is on an ever-changing basis which offers no security to the worker? Whose parents face the same struggles; who, no matter how brilliantly she may have done at school, lacks the financial support to continue post 16 to University, even if she could countenance the debt and the insecurity at the end? There is such gross inequality of opportunity in this country. Pretending otherwise just compounds the injustice.
Unlikely as it is ever to make it into force, retracted and clarified as it has subsequently been, David Cameron’s mooted ban on all benefits for under 25s and its vicious not-so-subtext: that all young people can pick from an array of possible lives, but that a stubborn many “opt for” some ficticiously opulent state-funded cop out, is disingenuous. From a man, surrounded by men, who by fortune of birth have chosen always from the a la carte, it is beyond cruel.