I have a twenty-year-old son and an eighteen-year-old daughter, and among their friends are some of the finest people I know. Their stoicism, their grace, their humour, the wily courage with which they have greeted the stacked deck that history has dealt them, undercuts any pride or smugness I might have, because they are better people.
I had a choice of careers, and they have none of that. I knew if I quit a job on Friday I could certainly have, if I wanted it, another job on Monday week – I did this twice – and to them this is inconceivable. I knew I could strive in my life to do the kind of work that suited me, and I had a fair chance of getting that kind of work, and to them that is a preposterous fantasy. I knew I would certainly make enough money to buy a house and raise a family and put them through university, and they dare not even think of that.
And yet they look forward, with a kind of joshing hope, to the one life they will have on this earth, in an era not of their choosing. They look forward to, at best, an uncertain series of part-time jobs in different parts of the world and an abiding hobby – in music, surfing, writing, ecological protest, iridology, fly-fishing, late night conversation, romantic love – that will give their existence meaning for a decade or two, and then who knows? Perhaps they will own a few acres then, and will be growing and sharing radishes when the Great Bust comes. Perhaps they will be busking. Perhaps, at last, the song they wrote this year will be a hit, or the computer game they are still perfecting, or the better beer they are hoping to brew by then. Or perhaps they will be starving, or dead of chemical misadventure, but…them’s the breaks.
If courage is grace under pressure, they have it. They have done their hundred and ten job interviews, and have been turned down. They have dressed up, and pretended, and come away rejected, and had a drink and got up the next morning. They have auditioned for NIDA, and narrowly missed. They have mixed martinis in a boutique bar that soon went broke. They have fossicked for gold beyond Kalgoorlie and found none.
And now we are lecturing them on Mutual Obligation: they must be thrilled with that. For they have put in the hard yards, in thirteen years of imprisonment in schools in crowded classrooms with overworked teachers, in obsolescent courses that led nowhere. They believed us when we told them this misery meant, at the end of it, fulfilment in life. A job. A career. A family. Continuity. Hope of personal triumph. And now they have done the hundred and ten job interviews, and found we were lying. At least one half of that Mutual Obligation is ours, and we have not delivered. And they do not trust us anymore, or believe anything that we are saying. And why should they? We have told them lies.
I love these young people and their courage and their grace, but I know now having watched them that we are losing more and more of them year by year – to drink, to heroin, to a kind of rootless euphoria that keeps them hitch-hiking with a surfboard, a guitar, a smoking habit, a dream of the Good Place they will not find. To the sullenness that follows thwarted love. To the crazier political movements. To sudden bursts of petty crime and AIDS in gaol. To suicide in the spare room of a friend.
And part of our Mutual Obligation is to understand that this is not their fault. Illiteracy is at least in part the fault of the bad schools we have given them, or of moving from school to school as their parents lose their jobs and move on. Lack of career ambition is at least in part the fault of us not giving them any real hope of career, as I once knew it, or of choice of work, as I once knew it. The accusing finger points, and it points at us.
Or it points at those economic fashions that are ripping all hope from the modern world – and restoring slavery under the usual euphemisms of work for the dole, or privatised prisons, or illegal immigrant labour, or unpaid overtime, or the free-market cargo cult that asks us to freely compete with slaves by becoming slaves ourselves, and to cop the sack from more and more places of work as the only hope for full employment at some time as yet unknown in the pig-flying future.
I love these young people – or I love the friends of my children that I know – and one by one I see that I am losing them. They might have done well in the end, had they survived. They might have had children themselves, that they would have loved. And they probably will not. I mourn them already. And I hate the society that is inch by inch eroding their self-esteem and wasting their talents and their stoicism and grace and is now persecuting them for merely being born with hypocritical word games – mutual obligation, tough love, compassion with a hard edge, downsizing, workplace efficiency – worthy of Georgian England, where nine-year-old children were hanged for stealing purses to feed their parents and siblings, and prayers uttered up from the gallows for their souls.
It is time the lying stopped, and the hypocrisy and the tyranny. It is time, and time already, for a Sorry Day for our young. They are better people than we will ever be, and we are wrecking most of them, and slowly killing some of them, day by day.