"I'd rather be younger," says Becky. Becky is 16 but weighed down with the burdens of a 40-year-old. "I'd like to be lower down the school and have less pressure." Her friend Kelly, 16, nods: "I don't feel old enough to go into a job yet. I don't feel right." Neil describes, at 16, his own premature mid-life crisis: "I wish I could start again. I'd do a lot less messing around. It's too late now. I've wrecked my chances of a college place." Neil is regretting a youth on the football field and watching the Blues (Birmingham City). He plays for five teams: school, two Sunday sides, a Saturday eleven and a mid-week team. So far the Blues' scout has missed his talent.
Like their friends, Becky, Kelly and Neil are looking at the job market. They don't like what they see. They don't want to join the 88,000 school-leavers who are currently unemployed. Several of the girls already have Saturday jobs, earning at most £15 for a nine-hour day stacking shelves or serving in a shop. Some of the boys have paper rounds.
The class will take their GCSEs in the summer and are just back from doing work experience. Becky spent her fortnight in a job centre. The people without qualifications, she says, are getting bad jobs. "My brother left college last year and got a packingjob. He's given that up now and he's going back to college to do a training course in shop fitting."
The library fills with stories of other ill-fated attempts to make a start in life. "It's easy to get a job, but you can't get a job you want to do," says Emma, 15, whose parents have been in and out of work for the past 10 years. "You can get a job in afactory or a shop, but you don't get paid much and there's no respect. You're just a factory worker. My mum has had loads of jobs. But they're all rubbish jobs."
All of them want to go on to further education. Half would like a university place. They are part of a generation which recognises that young unskilled workers have a dog's life, if they can find a job at all. Their fearful remarks help explain why since1975 the number of school-leavers entering the job market without graded qualifications has halved.
Their parents do not have degrees, but times have changed since the days they left school in the mid-1970s to take up what they expected to be jobs for life. These teenagers were born as Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. The West Midlands saw manufacturing industry badly damaged by the recession of the early 1980s. The job market has shifted from traditional industries to services.
They have grown up on the Vale, one of Birmingham's roughest estates, on the edge of Sutton Coldfield. None of them wants to follow in their parents' footsteps. Sarah's mother is a cleaner and her dad a milkman. "I don't want to do what my mum does," shesays, "and I hate the way my dad smells of milk all the time."
Top of everyone's priority list for a job is money. These teenagers are realists and unashamed materialists. They see their success as solely dependent on their own efforts. Status, power and happiness resides in acquiring wealth. Politicians and trade unions do not figure in their language except as irrelevances. They know that the dole offers few comforts. Since 1988, benefits have not even been available to 16- and 17-year-olds apart from those on youth training schemes. They can expect nothing untilthey are 18 and even then payments are at a reduced rate compared with older people's entitlement.
They want interesting work, but most of all they want a job that pays well. Emma saw her family's situation deteriorate in the 1980s amid job loss and divorce. Her father, a tool-setter, has changed jobs repeatedly. Emma used to live in a "lovely, brand new house" and ended up in a small maisonette. "You need money, otherwise you have got no kind of life," she says. "You need a lot, maybe £200 a week. You want to own your own house, car and you need clothes for going out. If you don't have money, you'reliving in a cardboard box. You're freezing. When you see people on the streets, people are taking the mick out of them. I wouldn't like that."
These teenagers know only too well the social problems around them. "There's such a big jump from the rich to the poor," says Becky. "People work and scrape but get nothing." Law and order is a big concern. "Everyone is getting away with everything," complains Becky. "I know a boy who robs loads of people and he is still out. There are families on this estate with boys who are thieving and stealing. I know a couple of boys who ride around on £1,000 mountain bikes with guns in the back and the police jus t run away from them."
Few, however, have ambitions to set the world right with their work. Apart from Emma, who wants to manage a nursery, poorly paid caring jobs, indeed public sector careers in the police, teaching or the NHS, appeal little to Castle Vale's young.
The talk is of being in business, the law, advertising, nice office jobs. Terri-Anne strikes an idealistic note. "I'd like to have a job where I felt I achieved something that would help someone else." But then she adds. "I mean if I was working for a company, in advertising, say, I woul d want to feel I was helping the company."
How does she see herself at 25? "I'd drive to work in style in a Porsche, to a computer company or one involved in communications. I will probably have inherited one of my grandparent's homes and I'll probably be living with someone."
America is seen as the promised land. A generation that has grown up watching American television sees the United States as a country of opportunity, where it might be able to satisfy aspirations to material wealth and security. "Everything seems bigger and better," says Becky. "Everyone seems rich. They have bigger houses, bigger cars, more money." Andrew, 15, a serious, fresh-faced boy, wants to live in Hong Kong. "I'd like to be a businessman. You get paid a lot and have a lot of power. I'd go anywhere other than England. It's boring and cold. If you don't have money, you don't have a life."
At Ackland Burleigh comprehensive in north London, the disillusionment and hardheadness of Castle Vale is also evident. Shola, Nana, Laurraine and Tiffaney - all with African or Caribbean-born parents - are preparing to sit their A-levels in June. Each of them plans to go to university.
"I don't know quite how to say it," says Nana, "but I don't want to be a pleb, one of the masses. People with power are not nice to people without power. I want my voice heard. To be successful in this society, you have to be relatively young and relatively wealthy. If I felt I had touched people's lives in some way, it would be great. But you have to get a job and it has to be something that pays well. You can't be a social worker because it doesn't pay. It's extremely stressful."
Laurraine, 17, is taking four arts A-levels and is expected to gain top grades in each. Her parents, an electrician and a cleaner, have frequently been unemployed. "I have worked for a charity," says Laurraine. "But the more I worked there, the more I wanted to stay away. You know what poverty is there, but when you actually see it, it is just too much reality. You can't do anything. That's why we watch soaps. You can imagine that everything is rosy."
Yet what is remarkable about these young women, and those in Birmingham, is their drive and determination. These girls are strong, mature and powerful, outshining the boys. Boys of this age group seem to be less confident and less articulate than their female peers. Career - and only in later years, children - is the dream of the girls. They know that the division of household tasks still weighs more heavily on them than their male contemporaries, so they are in no hurry to take on domestic responsibilities.
"It's every girl's nightmare to study and end up as a housewife," says Shola. "I would sacrifice everything, even having a family, to show I can have a career. That is how you are measured, " adds Laurraine. "Women can do jobs better than men. They haven't really had the opportunity before, so they will work harder. Men assume that they will get a job, but women know that they will have to prove themselves." Like many of her contemporaries, Laurraine knows that she will face prejudice, but is aware of t he abilities she can employ to overcome this handicap.
Likewise, Shola is hardheaded in her attitude to work. She does not expect to do a job for life. "If I find that the industry is not booming, then it will be time to leave. But if the industry is doing well, then it will be good to apply for promotion and stay on."
All these young people seem to have come to the conclusion that they have little hope of changing the world. But they are determined to achieve at work, however difficult that may be. Those who know most acutely the hurdles they face - in particular young black women - seem most determined to thrive. As Thatcher's children, they know that their survival and success is solely in their hands.Reuse content