Young Britain: All work and no play in the stressful Nineties

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The Independent Online
Najneen Ahmed is worried. She's worried about her degree. She's worried about not having any skills. And she's worried about the job market. At 18 she is typical of a generation who juggle their lives in true Nineties style.

"I'm not alone when I say that the pressure on us to prepare for the future is enormous," she says. "We have to think about getting good grades at school and about getting into a respectable university, then getting a job at the end of it. There is no time for anything outside of that."

Through 10,000 interviews with young people, a picture emerges of a generation plagued by traditionally adult concerns. Forget City types who burn up under excessive pressure, young people are today's stress casualties.

They live a life which is all work and no play and are often forced to give up hobbies to concentrate on their education. While many are employed in part-time work, others start laying the foundation for future careers at 14.

Like hundreds in her generation, Najneen found this pressure all too much. "During my A-levels I had a kind of nervous breakdown from the pressure of work," she says. "Now I'm having a year off before starting university just to get myself back together again.

"I have always been dedicated to my academic work and I didn't have much life outside studying for my subjects. In fact all my leisure activities were somehow related to my exams, like going to drama."

As a pupil at Dunottar, a private all-girls school in Reigate, Surrey, Najneen passed four A-levels, gaining three grade As and a B, but was still rejected by her first choice university.

"I had set my heart on going to Edinburgh University and in a way I had already planned my future, so it was very hard when I got that rejection letter. I think this contributed to my breakdown, you see I just never expected to be rejected because my academic work was very good," she says.

"It made me realise that life is a lot tougher than I expected, so I took a long, hard look at my CV and came to the conclusion that it was too academic."

Najneen is now spending most of her gap year working, partly to save up money for university, partly to build up her CV to improve future work prospects.

Traditionally, the gap year between school and university was for travel and freedom. But as Jo Gardiner, campaigns director for the Industrial Society explains, the time when students went travelling to exotic parts for the hell of it is long gone.

"Gap years used to be a time for personal growth and fun," she says. "Now they are all about focusing on skills development which help young people launch themselves into the working world as successfully as possible.

"The young are like no other generation before them. They are balancing three things: education, part-time work, family and are expected to plan for their future career."

Packing adult demands into a teenage life seems to be a necessity for most. The young want to do well at school, in order to insure future job security, while earning enough money to give them sought after independence from their parents. By the age of 18, a staggering 83 per cent of young people have been employed in some kind of paid work.

David Hopes, a 15-year-old with two jobs, is a just one example of this statistic. Every weekday evening is dedicated to homework and most of this weekend is spent working, with only Friday nights off for fun.

"I'm saving up for a holiday in Texas with the Scouts. I'm going to need about pounds 700 and I don't expect my parents to pay all of it," he says.

"I don't really have much time for myself as the moment, but that is just the way things are for a lot of young people."

Every Saturday night, from five in the evening to midnight, David chops vegetables and washes dishes in a Chinese takeaway. Catering is always hectic. David has no break and only just manages time to sit down and eat his free evening meal. He takes home pounds 20 for the night's work.

"I don't like working, but I've got no choice if I want to go on holiday," he says.

On alternate Saturday afternoons, David gives out promotional leaflets at Newtownards shopping centre in Northern Ireland, for the Belfast Telegraph.

"The leafleting is actually quite fun. I get pounds 15 for three hours work, which is good pay," he says. "I don't have a lot of time to go out to the cinema or just sit at home relaxing, but I always manage to get to Scouts on Friday evenings."

Young Britons are hard grafters. From their early teens they are stuck into a mini-rat race, where the stakes are high. Some burn out, others manage to juggle their way through childhood.

As Najneen says: "We have to give up our leisure time to plan for the future. That is just the way young people think these days. You have to juggle all sorts of things at the same time. That is the definition of success."

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