The event had been set up to help children at a secondary school with career advice and, perhaps because the theme was working in the creative industries, it was well-attended.
The questions most frequently asked of me were: What qualifications do you need to become a writer? What training would you recommend? How do you become a writer?
My replies – “none”, “none” and “get writing” – were clearly not what the children expected. A more substantial career ladder seemed to have been envisaged. When I suggested that sometimes the best way of finding out what you want to do in life is to take a chance, to have a go at something and see what you can do, young faces looked at me with open scepticism. That, the unspoken message seemed to be, is not how it works these days.
It was odd, and slightly disheartening, this exaggerated faith in formal qualifications. Bright and motivated, the children were already convinced that, without the right exams on the way to their chosen career, no one would take them seriously. In effect, their caution was not that far from the deadly company ethic of the pre-1960s when the highest ambition inculcated into school-leavers was to find the security of a job for life.
The economy is only partly to blame for this new mood of anxiety. According to the clinical psychologist Professor Tanya Byron, children are being raised at every turn to fear risk, and particularly the risk of failure. In the educational magazine SecEd, Professor Byron argues that rigid teaching around core curricula means that children are not thought to think, or indeed to feel, for themselves.
At home, their parents are often fearful of danger, both physical and temperamental. Failures, even the small ones, are seen as life-changing setbacks from which it may be impossible to recover. Cosseted and nagged on all sides by a culture of competitive anxiety, children learn to distrust the unconventional and individual, to see taking a chance on something that may not work out as irresponsible and risky.
The effect, according to Prof Byron, is not simply that originality, flair and enterprise are dampened rather than encouraged. Increasing numbers of bright children from secure backgrounds suffer in their everyday lives. “There is real concern that we have a generation of young people massively lacking in emotional resilience.”
Caution, aversion to any risk, anxiety about not jumping through the right hoops, a fear of not taking the conventional route to a socially accepted career: what a grim, life-denying legacy this is for one generation to pass on to the next.
Be cool. Fall in love with a tree
This year’s must-have moral accessory is a deep concern for trees. Two or three years ago, these adornments of the landscape were pretty much taken for granted. Now, thanks to the work of organisations such as the Woodland Trust, people have very sensibly begun to see that it makes as much sense to worry about the ash or horse chestnut as it does to fret about pandas, cuckoos or hedgehogs. The Government’s idiotic plan to sell off parts of the National Forest caused a startling furore earlier in the year. Ash die-back, and diseases threatening other species, have added a tug of emotion to tree mania.
Inevitably, celebrities are learning the joy of tree-hugging. This week that national treasure Joanna Lumley revealed that, although essentially pagan, she “kind of believes in trees”. It can only be a matter of time before a guest on Desert Island Discs chooses as a luxury a gorgeous selection of saplings – sustainable, of course.