This time of year inevitably invokes melancholy. For those out and about at the bookends of the September day there is a hint of chill and unpleasant things to come despite the horizontal golden sunlight that provides the rich plot. The heightened colours that result – unlike any other season – only reinforce the feeling that here is the beginning of a transfer of power.
There’s the same gentle foreboding, sense of passing and underlying sadness with the close of the exam results season. The generational shift is clear enough but even though the state of youth itself is propagated, idealised, worshipped and put squarely on the highest pedestal of aspiration by a compliant advertising industry it’s as if only the fictional version is acceptable. There is at best lip service – at worst absolutely no power whatsoever invested in young people: their hopes, dreams and ideas are increasingly marginalised in the harsh world of economics and employment.
Scan the local papers and they’re full of predictable photographs of successful exam candidates gathered together in supplements and special pull-out sections spiking sales to glowing parents. The rows of impossibly young, bright expectant faces – all pre-arranged star jumps and tearful embraces – are what R.E.M must have had in mind when they wrote the song Shiny, Happy People. Success of course is relative. The difficulty of translating this institutional academic success onto a broader canvas resonates in the big black lurking cloud that the photographer has probably cropped.
Age can bring a certain kind of perspective on the subject of these photographs for posterity. At school reunions – while perusing the yearly line-ups with a mix of curiosity and dread that increases as you match images to the current edition – you realise those who achieve in the traditional economic sense; those whose achievement is less tangible; those who end up doing exactly what you thought and poignantly the more tragic cases. That’s life – as they say… you have to resign yourself but it’s not possible to resign to less esoteric life-chances.
“Young people in this country are already low enough as they pay a banker’s debt with their futures – without stamping on their fingers as they try to get up off their knees.”
I live in an area of one nationally renowned school and several others that reach the top of county/country league tables. As you stare at the galleries of faces from these establishments you simply understand that a good percentage will get on through ability, contacts, the advantage/foundation of the right school. Those whose smile is just as proud but who come from the lesser lights and margins of the educational lottery have invisible negative odds already clouding their photographs: like so many grey ghosts to be acknowledged only by the believers. In many cases their life chances are already decided and in a time of acute economic recession doubly so.
The approach of local newspapers to this yearly phenomenon says as much about brutal cuts in journalism as they do of the cultural shift in the value of issue-based stories and investigations – or the inability to carry them out. Why a contrasting piece following a representative group of these youngsters for several years while highlighting their plight is not a part of their plans is a mystery. Far easier to manage the stage than the actors in the play. As for exposing the pitiful attempts by generations of politicians – who in box ticking routinely chuck misplaced millions at poorly run training courses which themselves are often set up by failing organisations run by political friends… well, this is seldom confronted. It all adds to the stigmatising of young people as a problem to be dealt with rather than a welcome solution to anything.
Making mum and dad proud via the local newspaper is effectively the high point of some of these lives. If these shiny faces suffer like previous generations in recessions these few years where neither education or employment provide an answer makes it hugely unlikely that they will make up the leeway later in life. It’s a bitter experience that recruitment is almost utterly unforgiving for those who don’t get on the treadmill early enough: their fate is to be pigeon-holed as unworthy, too old or inexperienced as time passes with no room for u-turn or career manoeuvre.
And yet it’s ultimately all about your son and daughter; your neighbour’s children or those of your friends – so why the too often prevailing callous attitude? We blame young people for passing the exams we give them – downgrading their achievement by saying they are too easy. Then we deride their skills as inadequate and we criticise them for attitudes that are also handed down – but do we hand down anything else? Maybe it’s time many look to give them a chance on a personal level if government is unwilling or unable to do so… practical advice or even help to a job – if this is within our power.
Mockney celebrity chef Jamie Oliver isn’t just his own creation. His recent outburst denigrating young indigenous workers may have been a cynical part of the PR for a new TV series but is surprising given his record of holding out a hand of opportunity. Young people in this country are already low enough as they pay a banker’s debt with their futures – without stamping on their fingers as they try to get up off their knees.
This time next year – when a new crop emerge smiling into the world and the local paper do their predictable thing – let’s hope that last year’s faded prints aren’t among the discarded autumn leaves whipped from kerb to kerb in the breezes of uncertainty. We have to make sure that this annual moment in the sunlight isn’t as brief as a golden September day.