Carla on extended adolescence

Nicholas got married on Saturday. His family wept with joy. Marriage may be one small step into the adult world, but it was a great leap for his mother and father, who thought this Moon landing would never happen. They watched anxiously as Nicholas’s sisters and brothers made their way into the world of work, marriage, parenthood, home ownership and pensions, while Nicholas wandered the world as his post-Oxford gap year turned into a gap decade.

Nicholas who, they would confide, was really the brightest of the four children, although all went to Oxford and two have published books you have heard of. In his defence, these years called by his siblings ‘the Vague Decade’ weren’t spent in idleness. At ease in French and German, fluent in Sanskrit and Russian, he has lived in the Ukraine, India, Peru and New Orleans. Early stints as a college lecturer filled him with despair.

Not the essays, exams and papers, but the feeling that he was educating philosophers to become bankers and lawyers. When his brightest students mumbled about ‘going into film’ or ‘writing’, he nodded thoughtfully, but, inside, he felt as gloomy as if they’d said Merrill Lynch. With more people now ‘going into film’ than going into medicine, those dreams seemed like rocky roads to nowhere.

What Nicholas described as an acute sense of reality, his sisters diagnosed as ‘depression’. They urged him to see someone, which, finally, he did. The therapist agreed to see him on condition that he get a job any job and pay for his sessions from those earnings. He did just that. Not highly paid (in one of the auction houses), but a job. Three months later, the therapist suggested that the sessions stop. The same week, Nicholas was promoted. And now he’s married to Claire, a GP.

This is a story with a happy ending and the happy ending is a job. Nicholas (not his real name) could be the son of several of my friends (this is more a boy  problem than a girl problem, but that’s another story). Boys who started in law or banking, but hated it. Or those who have spent a decade writing scripts for films that haven’t made it to the screen.

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Sons who have travelled the world tending bar or starting a fruit-smoothies business a year after Innocent. I thought of these prodigal boys the other day as I read a piece in the New York Times by the columnist Roger Cohen. He was quoting Jonathan Schwartz, radio host, who observed recently that ‘adolescence is now thought to end around the age of 32’.

Most of us remember adolescence as a period of temporary insanity when hormones and judgement combust, a hazy, happy period of life before commitment and responsibilities take over. You’re still on your parents’ payroll and all you have to do is make decent grades, make your bed, and try and be nice. Then, things changed. Childhood got stunted when play was replaced by early learning: violin lessons at three, reading at four, mental maths at age five, scepticism at age six. And adolescence became a pressure chamber of GCSEs, AS and A-levels. Get one thing wrong, screw up just one exam and you jeopardise your whole future.

And this was before youth unemployment figures were announced last week. Not that you need statistics to know that university graduates with first-class degrees are waiting on tables while applying for graduate school, enrolling in TEFL courses in hopes of getting through these hard times by an odyssey of teaching English in faraway places.

Meanwhile, Nicholas the bride-groom (40) and his bride (36) are spending their honeymoon painting their new flat and building bookshelves. They’ve seen the world. Bliss is unwrapping the new towels from Peter Jones and going to work on Monday.