My friend’s girl is sixteen and has just left school. She had her prom last week, an event which set her parents back over a grand. Luckily for her, they can afford it but what about the girls whose parents haven’t got that kind of spare cash? I don’t even envy the lucky ones with their spray tans, limousines and enormous prom dresses. I dread to think where I would have fit as a pasty, awkward geek in this world of teeth whitening, manicures and general perfection. Just thinking about it is enough to trigger an onset of stress related acne.
It was so much simpler when I left school. We had a leaver’s disco in the school hall and all anybody had to worry about was whether or not they’d get a snog at the end of the night. My night ended badly when my friend snogged the love of my life, a spotty, ginger boy called Steven Chivers. But that aside, I don’t remember anybody sporting anything particularly glamorous. It was 1978 and I wore drainpipe jeans (which have since been reinvented as skinny) and a Fred Perry.
Actually that Fred Perry has its own story and, maybe things weren’t that much different, after all. My friends are always moaning about the latest brands and designers that their kids are demanding but I was just as bad. I demanded a Fred Perry and my mother agreed to buy me one for the said school disco. Now instead of just giving me the money, she introduced the element of surprise, which is never good. Even worse, she used her initiative, which let’s face it is downright dangerous. The woman in the shop persuaded her to buy a cheaper version which was “exactly the same.” Except it wasn’t, was it - because it wasn’t a Fred Perry? I had a tantrum of such spectacular proportions I think my mother feared I’d gone over the edge and, in a most uncharacteristic move, took it back and changed it for the real deal.
All through June and July, I’ve seen advertisements in hair salons offering ‘prom deals’. It would seem shaving your legs and blow drying your hair does not suffice these days. It’s the full works or nothing. When I look back to my own youth it merely involved a lot of back combing and eyeliner. My uniform was Levis, Doc Martins and my granddad’s cardi. In the days before vintage, flea markets were the place to pick up all the best clothes along with the local charity shops. I had a fantastic dress that had been my grandma’s but she was a tiny woman and even when I breathed in I couldn’t get the zip up. Not to be deterred, my answer was a cardigan, which was fine until, in the midst of a crowded pub or club, I’d start to feel as if I was going to spontaneously combust. Friends and strangers alike would express concern as I became red, uncomfortable and sweaty, all the while clinging to my cardi. I can only be grateful that in the early 80s people weren’t on the lookout for suicide bombers because I probably would have fit the profile perfectly.
Just as my friends now despair of their daughters' clothing or lack of it, mine was horrified by my choices. It was the time when girls either went the route of the rah rah and polka dots or the more androgynous look. I never wore a rah rah but my mum’s friend’s daughter did. Carol Wragg, my nemesis and the daughter my mother always wanted. How she would wax lyrical, as I tried to watch Top of The Pops, about how Carol could be a model and how all the boys were queuing up to take her out. No boys were queuing up to take me out and I tried not to be smug when poor old Carol was impregnated by a butcher’s apprentice and had to get married fairly sharpish in the Spring of 1981. My mother’s worship of her never dimmed, however, and I still get to hear about Carol and her successful new career as an estate agent. My mother claims I’m just being petty when I try to point out that technically it’s the third husband who’s an estate agent and Carol is his unpaid helper.
Life seemed so much smaller when I was a girl, we didn’t have the same pace of life or pressure that young people have to endure today. Take work experience, kids today have to do a two week slot and are often doing high level tasks in slick, professional environments. Environments like that simply didn’t exist in 1978. We did our work experience as part of RE and it took the form of a project. I went to a convent called The Little Sisters of the Poor, where they cared for the elderly. I suppose it was a glorified old people’s home and I spent the fortnight cutting out teddy bear shapes in fur for the oldies to sew. It was basically zero stress and I can’t remember anyone arriving back at school with anything that even remotely resembled a work related skill.
Applying to university is another minefield. These days, there are open days, pre-application interviews and youngsters seem to be working on their application forms from the second they enter sixth form. I remember choosing five universities at random, then doing the same with polytechnics as back up and that was it. I didn’t even have an interview; you were offered a provisional place on the strength of your application and dependent upon your grades. It was more or less pot luck. You made your applications and hoped for the best. I suppose the difference is that these days mistakes are costly when your parents are paying the exorbitant tuition fees.
No, there’s no doubt in my mind, I wouldn’t cope with youth today. In fact, there is no youth and that’s the rub of it. Girls seem to go straight from being a child to full on glamour model. Kids are expected to be planning for careers while still at school, knowing that they’re going to be competing for a handful of jobs that aren’t even jobs anyway. We suddenly have the concept of internships, which I’d never even heard of until the Bill Clinton incident. I mean what’s that all about? Competing for a job that doesn’t even pay.
Chatting to my friend’s offspring I realise, not only do these modern kids cope admirably with everything that life throws at them, but do so with more poise and skill than I possess at three times their age. As a sixteen year old wonderkid shakes her perfectly groomed head in despair at my ineptitude in pretty much all areas of life, I can’t help but wonder if she knows my mother.