Fast Track: In my day you earned it, son

Parents want their children to be happy in their careers. Or so they tell them. But what happens when they become resentful of their high- achieving offspring?
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The Independent Culture
Nick Carter has been out of university for three years. Unlike most recent graduates who are still paying off loans, dreaming about owning a car, and rotating two suits (one of which is at least five years old), Nick drives a soft top Mercedes, wears Paul Smith suits and drinks champagne on weekday evenings. He lives in a trendy area of East London and spends more on a Friday night out with his friends than most of us get through in an entire weekend. At the age of 25, he is an investment analyst in the City, earning roughly pounds 50,000 plus bonuses. In short, Nick Carter is young, rich and loving it.

Contrary to appearances, however, not all aspects of Nick's life are making him happy. His incredible success and financial security has bought problems from one unexpected corner of his life - his parents.

"What I do, or maybe more accurately, what I earn has become rather a big problem between me and my dad," he admits. "My father was a teacher all his life, and even though he was a headmaster in his fifties he didn't earn as much as I do. He's also quite left wing and I know he thinks that what I earn - and what I spend it on - is immoral. As it is, I've told him I earn less than I do. It does make me unhappy. It's not that he criticises me directly, just that he never seems to be impressed when I talk about work. I want him to be proud of me, but for him it's not that simple."

Nick's problem is a relatively new spin on an old debate, however: the child's ongoing struggle to win the approval of mum and dad. For most young people, the expectation is that the disappointment parents occasionally express in their children's decisions recedes with career successes. After all, we're constantly told by our parents that they only want us to be secure and happy. In reality, landing a high-flying job with a fat salary can actually make things worse.

"I think it's incredibly sad when parents feel unable to take pride in their children's achievements," says Dr Richard Woolfson, a psychologist specialising in family problems. "Part of the parental role is to unconditionally support their children - unless they are doing something immoral or wrong," insists Woolfson. "All human beings need validation and reinforcement that what we are doing is good, and parents are often the prime source of that support."

"Objectively, I can understand dad's point to an extent," says Nick. "He spent his life doing a `worthwhile' job that was very poorly paid. I actually think that salaries in the City are hugely inflated - but I don't dictate how much I earn. I'd still want to do my job if I earned pounds 20K but dad doesn't seem to understand that - and it means that we are becoming distanced from each other. If I talk about work he can't help but make sarcastic comments and I get annoyed. But if I don't talk about work, it feels as though we're avoiding the whole subject."

"However difficult it seems, you have to keep trying to involve your parents - even if they don't seem interested," says Dr Woolfson. "It can be hard if you're coming up against sarcastic comments or negative feedback but it is important to keep talking about what you're doing - otherwise you will drift apart."

Nick's situation will be familiar to many who rose to success in the money markets of the Eighties and Nineties. Every parent has to put up with offspring whose political views differ wildly from their own but Conservative reforms in the City threw the vexed issue of inflated salaries into the pot.

In another common scenario, parents often make their children feel as if they have in some way compromised the reputation of the family trade. Again, this has long been a common cause of tension between the generations but the problem has never been as stark as it is now. As we approach the 21st century, however, the conditions in which previous generations worked in many industries have changed beyond all recognition.

Jan Matheson, an independent television producer, knows this only too well. "When I first decided I wanted to go into television, my Dad was thrilled, as he'd been a producer," she says. "But over the years he has become more disenchanted with my choices - he produced documentaries. I do more light entertainment programmes - what he calls `trivial'. It hurts that he belittles my work and I also think he's a bit jealous that I have become a producer so much more quickly than him. But I'm doing a different job - he worked on far more prestigious programmes than I do, and it was a much longer route to becoming involved with those," says Matheson. "I know he thinks that I just can't be bothered to put in the work that he did - but I'm interested in different aspects of producing."

"Although it is rare, some parents do feel threatened or even inadequate if their kids are extremely high achievers," says Mina Davison, a work psychologist. "The workplace has undergone huge changes over the past 20 years - the concept of having to work long years of an "apprenticeship" has, in many professions, been replaced by a far more flexible structure. In the media, in IT and finance particularly, it is now possible to be doing a job and earning a salary that would have taken 10 or 15 years to achieve when our parents were at work. Retired parents are often out of touch with the workplace, and don't really understand how the system actually works.

"Television has changed radically with deregulation and all the cable channels," agrees Jan Matheson. "There are simply so many more jobs around - it's a totally different business from the one my father worked in. Then there were three terrestrial channels and each job was fought over. Work was very important to my Dad and I think he knows he's out of touch with the industry he used to be a part of."

It can be very demoralising when the very people whom you look to for unconditional support seem to be disapproving of your chosen career. But there are alternative sources of support - if your parents cannot be proud of you, there are plenty of other people around who will be .

"It is important to keep on talking to your parents," says Dr Woolfson, "but it's also important to remember that there are other people with whom you can share your success. Talk to your partner, siblings, friends - these are people who will understand the working world as it is to-day and who will be unreservedly pleased and proud at your success. You should never stop communication with your parents, but they are not the sole point of support for you."

Nick Carter agrees. "I've kind of realised that I've just got to stop expecting Dad to be proud, to be interested. Instead I talk to my brother, to my mates - not about how much I earn but about my day at work and what it consists of. I do mind that dad seems to be unable to get over his politics and that my success seems to make him feel bad. But I won't feel guilty - and if he can't be pleased for me, then I'll talk to someone who is."