Praise amid the teenage angst

5th January 2001 at 00:00
The jolliest story of Christmas was the Daily Telegraph's account of the 17-year-old schoolboy, Adam Hughes, who went on a fortnight's work experience at an ailing Liverpool printing firm.

He spotted within hours that their mailshot marketing was years out of date and, within the fortnight, had put a new Internet strategy in place. The results, says the managing director, Mr Mulligan, were "astoundingIwe received an American order for pound;70,000 to supply barcode tags in major airports, and now we expect to make more than a million dollars from the system that Adam was solely responsible for".

This story contains more good things than you could shake a stick at. First, the boy had the confidence to make his views known, rather than just giggling with his mates about the outdated old farts he worked for.

Second, the company listened to the ideas of a work-experience kid rather than going "Tcha!" and sending him off to stack cardboard boxes: no harm in a bit of hard work, lad; when you've been in printing 40 years we might listen to your computer fol-de-rols, meanwhile there's that warehouse to sweep...

Third, Mr Mulligan had the grace and humility to stress that it was indeed a 17-year-old who turned his company round. He could easily have pretended that they had been "looking for some time at cybermarketing in a dynamic hands-on context, and Adam usefully fitted in to our ongoing rollout of Y2K technology" . But, being an honest Liverpool printer, he refrained from spouting the usual management bollocks and gave the lad his due - and a job offer.

Which brings us to the fourth good thing: Adam turned the job down to take an architecture degree. In other words, he knows what he knows, and intends to learn what he doesn't. Internet marketing is a good thing to know about but it is not everything.

He opted not to settle for being a nerdy, self-satisfied, hollow little millionaire with his picture in the papers. I shall inform my son and daughter (when they wake up) of this heartening tale. Not by way of reproof for having failed to make the fortunes of the flower shop and boatyard which hosted their own work-experience. Rather, I hope they take it as a long overdue salute to that maligned creature, the British 17-year-old.

It is not much fun being 17. This generation has been nagged and tested to destruction year after year; the group now approaching A-levels sat the first infamous seven-year-old SATs, the ones tha were remodelled without apology after a chaotic year of tick-boxes and bewilderment.

They have lived through unparalleled public criticism. While they revised for GCSEs, scornful commentators sneered how "easy" the exams were. The same fate awaits their A-levels.

Outside school they are regarded with suspicion: the girls forever being stopped and insulted by hard-eyed store detectives in Hamp;M who assume they are shoplifters, and the boys followed by police cars as they drive sedately along, proud of their test pass, kindly taking their mother's car to the filling station. And on top of it all, they are in UCAS hell.

With immense thought, they read prospectuses, fill in forms and try to stop their ears to fearsome rumours ("They won't look at you if you've tried Oxbridge, it's spiteIprivate school kids don't stand a chanceIno, they only want the public schoolboys, 'cos they think they won't drop out").

They have suppressed all natural self-doubt, modesty and sense of irony to produce embarrassing "personal statements". They have hoped that their head's recommendation will be eloquent enough to catch the eye of a jaundiced admissions tutor. A very few have actually been interviewed and had work read, at ancient universities which maintain the capacity and curiosity to look for individuals. Mostly, they wait humbly for a verdict from distant dons who have never met or read them. A conditional yes is good news, but still nerve-racking. A rejection is a brick wall: strangers have effectively said "Judging by your personal statement and your GCSEs, we don't want you even with straight 'A's." Sometimes they wait from September to March for this verdict.

Meanwhile, the quality press runs jeering stories about how universities are so "desperate" for bums on seats that they'll let in any old rubbish. So they cheer themselves up by planning gap years, labour to earn a modest adventure, while contemplating Prince William being praised to the skies for spending two-and-a-half months kayaking and wiping down a lavatory.

During A-levels, they will be rubbished once more for being a dumbed-down generation, mainly by rich north London journalists who fancy putting young Damien through the I-Bacc.

Poor old teenagers. Never mind. Soon they will burst on the world and reform it as Adam did, by being young and energetic and optimistic. Maybe their experiences will make them nicer to the next generation. We can only hope.

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