The lost generation: The kids brought up to feel as if they're failing - from school to TV shows like The Apprentice and The X Factor

Privilege, it seems, is not all it’s cracked up to be. As depression besets middle-class youth,  where’s society going wrong?

On one side of the Atlantic, an academic survey reveals the pain of privilege for the children of moneyed families. Here, a former Prime Minister, who once promised to deliver a genuinely classless society, has described the continuing – indeed, growing – power of the affluent and privately educated in this country as "truly shocking".

Oddly, the findings of researchers at Arizona State University and the speech this week by John Major lead to a similar conclusion. To become a happier society, and one less wasteful of its citizens' talent, we need to become less divided by class. The sons and daughters of the relatively rich, to whom much is given and from whom much is expected, tend to buckle under the pressure. According to the American survey, published in Psychology Today, the children of families which earn the equivalent of £100,000 or more are twice as likely as their peers to suffer from anxiety, depression and mental illness leading to addiction and self-harm.

It is not just the usual pushy parents who are to blame, the report says. "Impossibly high expectations are transmitted by the entire community – teachers, schools, coaches and peers." Those at the other end of the social scale, whose problem is precisely the opposite, are hardly likely to be models of contentment either.

Fantasies of achievement and wealth may be presented in the media, but the idea that a child from a modest background can today break the cycle of generational under-achievement is as absurd as it ever has been for decades. As Alan Milburn has repeatedly pointed out, low expectations by schools and parents is a curse that continues to blight lives in classrooms and beyond all over the country. The words of the New Testament, "To whomsoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance" continue to echo down the corridors of Westminster, in the City and in the courts.

It is a depressing and morale-sapping message that is being handed down to the generation now reaching adulthood, with too much expectation on those from a certain background and not enough for many of the rest.

The education of the past, for all its faults, had at its core the idea that a person should do his or her best in life, that not everyone can be top. Today, children deemed to have ability find themselves under increasing pressure to pass exams as their education progresses. The anxious competitiveness of schools allows less and less time for learning as play and curiosity, for developing the whole person. Such is the importance of exams, that a child who has been predicted A* grades in her exams is being set up for disappointment. When future success is assumed, there is only one way to go. It is the worst, most stressful kind of pressure.

Our fretful culture, in which achievement is only real if it is visible on a league table or a salary slip, often fails to pass on the knack of happiness, of growing into your own capabilities and strengths in your own time, without having to deal with impossible hopes or crushing limitations.

Never has that strong sense of self been more necessary for professional survival. The model of business success presented through the media is both ugly and unrealistic. It starts with a group of unpleasant young people on The Apprentice trying to do each other down and curry favour with the sour-faced business guru Alan Sugar. It continues with people trying to set up their own businesses being humiliated on Dragons' Den. It ends, by a miraculous process that no one will be able to explain, in the annual wet dream of financial triumph that is the Sunday Times Rich List.

Away from business, the traditional middle-class professions – politics, the law, medicine – are seen increasingly as bastions of privilege, while the media is an ever-shrinking shark-pool.

There are, of course, endless entertainment possibilities in the strivings, and more often than not the failures, of those outside the circle of advantage. At the showbusiness end of the scale, the trick is to present success not as something which is the result of work, application, even passing exams, but as a bolt of good fortune, or a sudden flash of talent, which can descend on a lucky person as if they were in a film or story.

Dermot O'Leary with Hannah Barrett and Abi Alton, who was voted off 'The X Factor' Dermot O'Leary with Hannah Barrett and Abi Alton, who was voted off 'The X Factor'
It might be competing on The X Factor. It could be the overnight stardom of a teenage footballer. Or a young cook discovered by a TV chef or a pretty face that appeals to a model agency. These dramatic changes of fortune play very well in schools where other, more conventional routes to achievement are scarcely considered.

Anyone who has visited a school in a relatively poor area will know that not only do the children dream of fame and instant public success, but their parents play along with the fantasy. After a children's book event at a literary festival, a sweet, slightly plump reader of about 11 told me that her ambition was one day to be an author or a lawyer. Her only problem was her parents; they were determined that she should be a model.

Meanwhile, the world of the unprivileged has become a regular staple of entertainment – sometimes a source of guilty humour – for those more fortunate. On any night of the week, you will find a programme exploring, in the usual tone of concern, some horror story from the underclass. It might be obesity, or youth crime, or drunkenness, or teenage pregnancy. The trap of class remains, as John Major points out, but all the same those entering the job market become consumers. Television commercials by banks, insurance agencies, or large retail outlets, have an increasingly childish vibe, and have taken to presenting a gentle, escapist view of the world, with dogs and balloons and smiling grannies.

Down the years, the lottery has exploited the despair of those stuck in their lives, with its form of gambling being promoted as a jolly, family activity. Unsurprisingly, bookmakers and casino websites, beneficiaries of the one boom area of the British economy, place their zany, jolly commercials where they are most likely to attract the young and vulnerable – on comedy and sports channels.

In this year's Christmas commercials for Marks & Spencer and John Lewis, the products being sold remain unseen and even the idea of giving presents to others is only hinted at. We are in a fairy-tale world of Alice in Wonderland or Disney's Fantasia. Society may give more to the privileged, and professional life might be more brutally selfish than ever, but the image of our society provided by big business is infantilised, a sort of paradise of perfect generosity.

Back in the 1990s, John Major claimed that his government would herald a new Britain that was confident and at ease with itself. Many of those born when that promise was made have grown up to be neither confident nor at ease with themselves, and that should be a source of shame.

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