When being young was fun

by Sandy Burgham

I was both intrigued and a little saddened to hear that the most popular course, ever, at Yale is a recent addition to their curriculum. “Psychology and the Good Life” is a basic happiness course that teaches young ones how to be happy and flourish. Around a quarter of the student body has enrolled in it. It seems that rather than focusing on having a good time — surely the whole point of being young — students at the elite university have been putting happiness on the back burner, in order to give their all to gain admission to the school.


Closer to home, I observe this kind of angst-ridden earnestness in our young people as well, except of course in our household, where I feel that our extremely laidback 17-year-old could do with a dose of blind ambition now and then. Those late-teen and early 20-something years were traditionally dubbed the “best years of your life,” but now, with Gen Y and millennials forecast to be the first generation that will end up poorer than their parents, societal messaging is being readjusted. Life seems to be tougher for this lot than “back in my day”. For starters, they are forced to endure tedious career expos, making random calls on who they want to be, before they can even cook a meal.


So many teenagers and young adults are saddled with anxiety issues, I wonder if our own ambitions as parents are to blame. Certainly, I’ve had to wake up to the fact that I’ve been operating a double standard. While my kids only know me as being personally driven, overcommitted and with high expectations of myself, I have never shared the more decadent parts of my young years with them, in case they too decided it was a good idea to spend their youth smoking “pot” in spa pools jam-packed with writhing bodies listening to Pink Floyd. (Yep, they really were the best years of my life). I had no actual plans. I remember one girl left school at 16 and got a job on reception at an insurance office in Tauranga. I remember thinking, “wow, cool . . . hmmm, I better get a job at some point”.


It was only later that I became a career snob. Somehow, I muddled through with no pressure from my parents, just an unspoken social norm that once you left school, you got on with things. I stumbled into a “career” and didn’t earn a lot for years, but I guess I felt free of any parental expectation to do, or be, bigger and better.


Sure, things were different back then; we got a free tertiary education for starters. But there seemed to be a distinct lack of competitiveness. Now just muddling along is not good enough, as characterised by the binary thinking of the leader of the free world, who puts people into two camps – winners and losers. And no one wants to be a loser. So many still assume that winners go to university and losers don’t, even though we know that it’s the tradies who will have jobs for life and not necessarily the lawyers, doctors and accountants.


I remember when my son was around 12, he came home and asked what a hedge fund manager was. Some poor, misguided child in his class had announced that’s what he wanted to be when he grew up. God, how awful. What happened to wanting to be an astronaut or a pop star? What happened to being young?


A friend observed that his wife starts every conversation about their kids with the phrase, “I’m worried that . . .” And I realised that even if I don’t verbalise it, it’s an underlying motivator – keeping them safe. So this year, my mantra for parenting is about easing up on the helpful tips that risk coming across as strong directives.


Those of us who have survived to live a second act have a responsibility to live life like we would want our children to. Surely we want them to listen to their hearts, ignore the dreams of others, keep trying, experiment with new ideas, and if they fail, do it openly and wholeheartedly.


Above all else, they need to learn to enjoy themselves. I think that’s what our wonderful son, who knows how to cook a meal and enjoy himself, has been trying to get through to me. He’s got it sorted.

— Sandy Burgham

This article first appeared in The Hobson Magazine March 2018


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