The Sunday Times

August 1st, 2010

Pity the lost boys of privilege – no one had said they’d be cast aside

Icannot quite see myself as a cougar — one of those older women who hunt down younger men for sport — but I have nonetheless spent the past few days sitting round a pool in Ibiza, thoughtfully watching a group of handsome, half-naked, twentysomething men.

They were not my intended prey but my guests: we were spending some time in a borrowed holiday house, with friends and relations coming and going, and it happened that for a day or two I was the only older person there among a group of good-looking young men. I alone was responsible for making sure they avoided any of the obvious trouble that might have beckoned, from starting a forest fire with a cigarette stub to bringing back undesirables from Ibiza clubs.

Spending time listening to them talk about themselves and their many friends, I began to feel sorry for them — not so much as individuals but as a group. They may be the children of privilege, with good parents and good schools behind them, but as young adults many of them seem oddly displaced. Last week’s conversations enforced the impression I’ve had from spending time with other young men in previous years. They don’t seem to know where they belong in the world and, for all their sophistication, they have no particular place to go.

This puts them into sharp contrast with others of their generation. There is an impressive number of twentysomething men with dazzling CVs and manic energy who have been entirely focused on power and glory since they were schoolboys and who are already on the way to success.

For them it has been constant hard work, scholarships, extreme sports, a gift for the sax and an instant job in neurology or law; for the others it is drifting through university, getting involved in a youth scene, drugs and doing odd jobs to finance their dreams of creativity. Only the most talented and the most self-disciplined have the slightest chance of survival in today’s economy.

It seems to me that young men today are either lost boys or world boys. “World boys” is a Cantonese expression I heard long ago in Hong Kong. It neatly sums up those men who instinctively know how to manipulate the world to their own ends. Lost boys are like the friends of Peter Pan, unable to grow up and given to turning past the second star on the right to Neverland rather than pursuing the more unimaginative path to the land of bills and mortgages.

Curiously, this applies much less to their sisters; a large new generation of try-hard “world girls” are aggressively outperforming their brothers, turning into accountants or hospital executives or charity directors and leaving the boys behind and rather puzzled. The young women don’t want to be dropouts or hippies. In fact, they want to do well.

I have been wondering what has happened to make these pleasant, intelligent, interesting young men lose their way, in parallel with so many boys from less privileged backgrounds.

Their fathers mostly had reasonably good jobs and reasonably satisfactory lives, without being as creative as so many young people think they ought to be today. The lost boys won’t accept work that isn’t interesting. Clearly many of them are both impractical and unrealistic to an astonishing degree, at least by contrast with my brothers and their friends at the same age. Perhaps they just sense that the world of their fathers has little place for them; housing is too expensive and jobs are too scarce and they give up.

It is true that today’s lost boys are practical enough to cook a bit, which the previous generation didn’t do at the same age, but otherwise it seems pure luck that they can cope at all, given their general incompetence.

Perhaps it’s a lack of common sense, perhaps it’s over-indulgence by anxious mothers, perhaps it’s because so many of them stay at home with their parents for so long, but I never cease to be amazed by their ignorance. If there is a table top to mark with a wet glass, a car to trash with sand, a sofa to soak with auto tan and water, a heap of washing up to be half-ignored, they will do it.

If not closely watched — not like a cougar but a hawk — they will scatter empty beer bottles and wet towels and leave books and precious mobile phones out all night and, at a time when they could be fathers of young children themselves, leave their bedrooms looking like the scene of a toddler’s tantrum.

At least, unlike a couple of boys from the local sink estate we once took on holiday, they know how to use a knife and fork. As for fixing things, apart from computers they are useless; they know nothing of sinks or fuses or buttons. Yet the boys of my generation, modestly or well off, knew all about such things like a cohort of Scouts.

It may be an exaggeration to imagine that incompetence in minor matters affects a man’s competence in major endeavours, but I suspect it does. Practicality, common sense, the ability to imagine the consequences of what one does matter in everything.

Bottles strewn around mean broken glass, food thrown around means feral cats and dogs. What the Australians used to call get-with-it-ivity is essential to any project and almost any paid employment. The creative entrepreneurs of the same generation as the lost boys have had to be very together, as we used to say — there is great discipline in management, administration, finance, publicity and so on, even in running a couple of small rock bands successfully. Why don’t the lost boys understand that? They are up against much harsher competition than their parents of the post-war generation. Since then the workplace has been democratised — Margaret Thatcher’s Big Bang was a clear sign of that — and girls are now free to compete and do, dreaming of gynocracy.

Nepotism is still with us but it doesn’t work for every well-connected young man.

These days a boy has to be highly motivated, talented — and organised as well — to make use of it. No one will give a leg up to a ditsy nephew any more.

In short, the lost boys are suffering the pains of meritocracy and social mobility, which can take people cruelly down as well as up. The mystery is that their affluent parents didn’t look ahead more carefully and prepare them better for it.

The spoilt post-war generation is often blamed for robbing their children of their inheritance, but what we are really guilty of is failing to teach our boys a sense of the harsh realities of life to protect the less lucky, the less talented and the less driven from getting lost.