Too much, too young

We want it all, we want it now - that's the mantra of the Microwave Generation. But beware the pitfalls, warns JAMES SHERWOOD
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Tennis is notorious for teenage burn-out. The latest casualty is Martina Hingis. Her defeat in the final of the French Open to Steffi Graf showed the 18-year-old Swiss Miss as a spoilt, arrogant little madam. Two weeks later she tumbled out of Wimbledon in the first round, cried about her mum and promptly took herself off on holiday with her boyfriend. But why are we so surprised that she should respond like a teenager to the stresses and strains? That, after all, is exactly what she is.

In a bid to succeed faster then ever, it seems that twentysomethings are suffering burn-out at an age when 10 years ago they would have just been starting out. The Microwave Generation wants it all immediately: so much so that some are falling by the wayside before they've even reached their 21st birthday.

The too-much-too-soon brigade tries to negotiate a working landscape in which time is against them. As biographies of David Beckham, teen pop star Billie and Naomi Campbell prove, a career can be crammed into just a few brief years. Of course, the chosen few fledgling millionaires in football, pop, modelling or PR have made their wad by the time drugs, booze or delusions of grandeur bring the curtain down on Act One of their careers. But for every Robbie "Phoenix from the Flames" Williams, there are a million burnt birds who never come back.

The mid-twenties burn-out has become an accepted rite of passage for people in the public eye. Eighties role models were consistent, avuncular figures such as Richard Branson or Terence Conran. Now we've got get-rich-quick couples such as Posh Spice and Beckham. For teenagers in the late-Nineties, the role models are barely past school- leaving age. According to experts, the onus is not to aspire but to catch up.

And yet the picture young people receive is often a distorted one. Twenty-seven- year-old Geri Halliwell appeared to have achieved everything that she could have wanted by her mid-twenties. But, as we saw in the Channel 4 documentary, Look At Me, the cost of that success was huge.

"For every successful young person in the public eye, there are thousands who are led to believe they are underachieving," says child psychologist Marcia Tate. "There is a very real danger that the media portrayal of young celebrities like Geri Halliwell will colour the expectations of a generation of young girls. I watched the documentary and found it disturbing that Geri was so desperately insecure and scarred by her exposure to fame."

Nathalie was spotted on the streets of Manchester by a high-profile British model agency. She was 15. "My only exposure to modelling was seeing Kate Moss partying with Johnny Depp in the style magazines," she says. "When you're studying for GCSEs, the promise of photo shoots, champagne and the potential to earn a lot of money is seductive. But you are, essentially, a child in an adult, money making industry. You are under pressure to perform and to grow up. While my friends were getting drunk on a Saturday evening and starting to date, I was on long-haul flights, exhausted and feeling used up. It's not a nice feeling to be a teenage cash cow and no amount of money can buy back your childhood."

Ironically, the careers that demand youth are the ones that expect high- achievers to behave like fully fledged adults. This microwave effect on a career will, for some, inevitably be a fast track to collapse. "If the problems of Robbie Williams, Kate Moss, Geri Halliwell and the late River Phoenix teach young people anything, it has to be the very clear message that early success opens a Pandora's box of insecurities," says Marcia Tate. "For the majority of professionals under 30, money is the primary goal: not millions but enough to pay off mounting student debts. When financial stress is relieved and success achieved, psychological difficulties fill the void."

A Faustian belief in rough justice tends to persist in the creative professions. When ascents are swift and money is ostensibly easy, the perception can be that a precipitous nosedive is "no less than they deserve". "I can imagine the people I was at college with smiling to see me crash out," says former club promoter Bruno. "They were all slogging it out in telemarketing while I was supposedly having a laugh running my clubs and stuffing Es down my neck every night. That's the thing with `fun' careers. On the outside they look glamorous. But you try staying up until five every night, making sure the staff aren't nicking money and the dealers aren't poisoning the punters. Having a coke habit goes with the job, which is fine when you're a teenager but it takes its toll when you're pushing 30."

As Marcia Tate says, early success does put psychological pressure on the "lucky" ones. Mike was a travel journalist on a national newspaper. At 24, he was on an average of three international assignments a month. "When you've always known what you wanted to do and you finally achieve it, I think it goes to your head," he says. "I started to believe the expenses money was my money. I thought I'd finally made it when I checked into flash hotels in Hong Kong or wherever. I suppose the constant jet- lag and feeling of displacement may have contributed to my eventual nervous breakdown. I had to take six months out of the business before I felt ready to come back with an older and wiser head on my shoulders. It reminds me of the dedication in a Truman Capote novel: `There are more tears shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones'."

Good old-fashioned teenage rebellion may be the motivation that pushes Nineties graduates to achieve. They have the cash-rich Eighties as a reference point and parents at retiring age as a cautionary tale. Refusal to mimic the older generation's 40-year trudge towards a gold clock and a pension may be a common goal, but how many twentysomethings can seriously hope to earn enough to retire by 30? The get-rich-and-go philosophy is making young professionals think twice about quality of life. Ironically the mid-twenties burn-out may force the microwave generation to take the gap year they never had.

The intense pressure to succeed made the traditional gap year between school and university a luxury only trust fund kids could afford. The closest most get to a gap year comes from reading Alex Garland's The Beach. But there are indications that the current crop of successful graduates have learnt their lesson from crash and burn cases. With an increasing trend towards freelance and contract work in creative professions, young people are reclaiming their gap year - albeit 10 years later than usual.

"I have made the decision to take a year off and travel around the world," says Chris Stuart, 28, a London-based PR account director. "I have financial security and a good reputation in the industry so I'm not worried about taking time off. To be honest, I never wanted to go backpacking. It's not my style. So I've booked some of the best hotels and will do it in style. I've worked long and hard enough to feel guilt-free about putting my career on hold. There is more to life than work." Judging by pictures of a laughing Hingis on a Greek beach this week, she'd probably agree.