Personally Speaking

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The Independent Online
AT A recent birthday party I sat next to a pleasant, early-middle- aged woman. Her son had just finished a media studies course at a popular southern university. I told her that according to a survey I had read, only 1.7 per cent of media studies graduates obtain work in their chosen industries of film, television or journalism. She looked crestfallen.

I could have gone further, to tell her that most thirtysomethings I know in the business - the editors, the producers and so on - actually make a point of not employing people with such qualifications.

The point is this. These, and many similar courses, make sound business sense for the colleges, by exploiting the exponentially increasing desire of young people to work in such "cool" arenas as fashion and the screen and music industries.

In my new play, The Death of Cool, there are two such characters. They are not bad people - indeed, I am very fond of them - but, as another character observes, they are people who will not get out of bed unless they can be famous, or rich, or in some way extraordinary.

When holding auditions for the part of Tara - an attractive aspiring actress - we searched for the adjective that would neatly describe her. In the old days it would have been "stage-struck", but we realised that Tara's ambitions have little to do with the work, or the craft of being an actor. What she wants is for the show already to be over, and to be at the after-play party, sipping cocktails in the latest Soho bar.

Everyone agreed that they knew a Tara, but I also wondered whether, at almost twice Tara's age, I too suffered from such over-inflated expectations.

I am a tail-end baby-boomer. My parents, immigrants both, arrived in Coventry at a time when that city could be described, without irony, as a boom town - a city still bathed, in Harold Wilson's words, in the White Heat of Technology. My father was - is - a genuinely idealistic doctor; I remember the victory over smallpox, which we toasted with champagne. Overall, there was a sense that the world was becoming a better place, one free of the war, poverty and disease of my parents' childhoods; a world of prosperity, opportunity and fulfilment, with my place, by dint of a tip-top grammar school education and a place at university, assured at this table of plenty.

Even had the 1973 oil crisis not put paid for ever to the myth of unending growth, could my expectations of this world possibly have been satisfied? My guess is that they could not have been. After all, could we all - us baby-boomers - have been as special as the parents and teachers of the time encouraged us to believe?

As Stephen, the main character in the play, puts it: "Your great-grandparents hew rocks. Your grandparents make things. Your parents use their brains. Then you get sent to college, where you study a poet who drank absinthe, kept a lobster on a string, and made a living out of despising people like your parents. You learn the entire history and geography of Bohemia - and then - what? You're supposed to unthink all that? Do something useful?"

We are not all of us as decadent as Stephen - and, of course, there is a lot to be said for the study of 19th-century French literature - but perhaps it is time for educators to take a serious look at those courses whose particular function is not to educate, but to indulge a host of egotistical and quite unrealistic expectations.

Imagine if, instead of deconstructing chat shows or studying splatter movies, it were suddenly "cool" to start imagining solutions to the problems that the children of this media studies generation will eventually have to face: dwindling resources, burgeoning population, massive underemployment.

Clearly, this is unlikely to happen. But, with fewer job opportunities and far greater leisure time, the next generation will, whether it likes it or not, have to reinvent its preoccupations. And as long as students are encouraged to believe - not just through their education, but by the culture as a whole - that they can be anything they want to be, real humanity and self-esteem will continue to be jettisoned in favour of this obsession with surfaces: the ultimately destructive pursuit of the "cool".

`The Death of Cool' by Alan Pollock is at Hampstead Theatre from today (0171-722 9301)