You are here

Teenage angst

Average: 3.8 (50 votes)

Partly because I was always being asked whether my books Junk and Doing it were autobiographical, I started to write a memoir some years ago on my own teenage years, 14 - 19.

I was expecting it to be a fairly unpleasant task. Teenagers, as everyone knows, are nasty pieces of work - arrogant, spotty, ill tempered, unpredictable and generally unlikeable. Even their parents find them difficult to stomach. Fortunately for the rest of us, they are usually too cowardly to give other people a hard time, except when they're drunk or stoned, which is as often as they can get the money to pay for it.

I remembered my teen years as being one long crises of confidence, punctuated by a series of failures - a failure to get my hands on enough girls, drugs or go far enough with them when I did; a failure to make enough friends - and no really good ones at all. A failure, in fact, to be good at anything, even, or perhaps particularly, at enjoying myself.

As I got older the list of failures only increased. I'd failed at school, failed to appreciate my parents or to capitalise on the advantages I'd been handed on a plate. I was clumsy, lacking in confidence, ugly and graceless. That, I think, is the worst and most common teen failure of all - the failure to be graceful, in body, spirit and mind.

And I'm not the only one, am I? Of all the many people I've asked about their teen years, only a handful claim to have enjoyed them. Teen angst is an act of life. You, me, our children, and as far as we know, our grandchildren and their children as well, have and will all suffer and be miserable during these most important years of life. Teenage angst has been a great source for artistic endeavour over the past fifty years or more. Rock n roll, of course, was all about the stresses of teenage life. Teenage fiction would probably not exist without it. My own books, such as Lady: My Life as a Bitch, Junk and Doing It, have all in some way taken their inspiration from teenage angst. And yet both YA (young adult) literature and modern popular music are of the modern era. The very concept of being a teenager is a thoroughly modern invention - no one ever heard of them before 1950-something. It begs the question - was it always like this? Does human history down the ages echo with cries of existential teenage pain? If so - why is it so little recorded?

The fact is, there is a good deal to enjoy about being a teenager. Sexual awakening - come on, what could be better? When I wrote my book on teenage sexual culture, Doing It, I found as much to cherish as there was to wince at. New friendships, new freedoms, the idealism of youth. It sounds great! So why all the pain? In short - where does all that angst come from?

There's a belief, perhaps because the experience is so general, that teen angst is a biological event; unfortunate, but necessary. Not much point in trying to alleviate it, is there, when it's going to be like that anyway? But what if it's not? Suppose it's cultural? Suppose we do it - to our own children, year after year, generation after generation. If that could be shown, how far would you be prepared to stick your neck out and treat your child sufficiently differently to make a difference to the sum total of human happiness - to your child's happiness, and to the happiness of any children in your care? Imagine it - a word full of happy, angst-free young people! Is such a thing possible? Surely we'd all vote with our feet if it was so.

Is it any wonder that modern teenage literature sells so much better in fantasy than in realism - when real life is so stressful? One thing you can be sure of as well, as we all watch the world of work get increasingly busy and hard on the nerves - when young people leave school, already exhausted from being mentally hag-ridden for by their elders for fourteen years - it's certainly not something restful they'll be moving on to.

As a teacher, perhaps of young people, would you be prepared to change your working habits, perhaps even your job, in an effort to help stop perpetuating the endless worry, strife and unhappiness that we deliberately bring down on the innocent heads of generation after generation of young adults? It's my belief that teachers, even more than parents, are implicated in causing unhappiness in our young adults. In one word, here's why.


Let's take a moment to look at teenagers and consider what they are, what they're doing - what the biological and cultural need for them might be - and compare that with what school does. We will see that these two areas are at hopeless odds with one another. Perhaps, by addressing it directly, it may be possible to change this deplorable state of affairs.

Let's begin right at the beginning and admit for starters that if you're going to make people jump through academic hoops, ages 14 - 16 are the very worst times to pick, period. I can think no more inappropriate age. Anyone who has done any studying knows that it gets infinitely easier as you get older, and please don't flatter yourself by imagining this is down to the fruits of hard work and the accumulation of knowledge with age. Our brains are simply not well wired for that sort of work in those mid-teen years. Ability to concentrate, not to mention having a clearly defined direction in life, are all over the place until about 18, when it begins to settle down.

So why on earth do we pick 14 - 16 to administer this admittedly necessary process? Getting kids to sit for hours studying at that time of life is a simple attempt at cultural control of a difficult time of life. There's no developmental reason for children to take these kinds of tests at that kind of age. Even in our own culture, that takes such pains to provide no alternatives for teenagers BUT school, it's not really necessary. It's a well kept secret in England that you can leave school, pass an infinitely easier access course at age nineteen and go to university as a mature student with better grants and a far higher possibility of success. All you have to do is leave school as soon as possible. It's a secret kept by teachers and parents from young people, almost to man and woman - presumably from a fear that they'll all jump up and go off on some hideous teenage rampage, due to our own failure to supply them with anything better to do.

Perhaps we want them to suffer. We did - and look what it did for us...

School itself needs a root and branch reform. Thirty odd hours of compulsory learning every week, little or no choice of subjects, lasting for fourteen years? It suits some people, I guess. I'd personally be prepared to kick anyone who wanted to do it to me in the teeth. No wonder the phrase, "best years of your life" is such a joke. And the truly horrible thing is, it could be so different. It could be so fulfilling. If only we would tailor school and teenage lives to their own needs, rather than those of an increasingly competitive society, with an ever more voracious appetite for a better trained, more amenable, flexible and hard-working product - what would we find out about ourselves and our young people then?

Teenagers are learners by their nature, but not in the form of English or biology A levels. There are melting pots, catalysts, all about finding out links for themselves, experimenting, developing.  As well as the obvious need to prepare for the future, they need to live for now and find out who they are and what they want. OK - we all know it’s not going to happen. Our whole economic structure depends on a tightly controlled young product coming out the back end of a highly focussed education system in nice, neat coils that employers can easily evaluate and process on. But since it's New Year, let's take the time out to wonder how the school day, and the school year come to that, would be organised if we were really trying to optimise the abilities and talents of young people, maximising happiness, personal development and learning potential, instead of focussing on those oh so valuable employable skills.

Here's my suggestion for a kick off.

  1. The school day needs to be kept down to a maximum of 20 hours a week. No one, even adults can concentrate for much longer that. Difficult subjects like maths, science and so on, should not be taught after 11am in the morning, by law.
  2. The school day should start at 10.30. This practise is already implemented in a number of schools. Teenage brains do not function well first thing in the morning.
  3. All schools should serve a decent breakfast. There should be a financial incentive for eating it. The recent innovation of paying people to attend school is a good one. If we're not going to let people work, it's the least     we can do. A great many problems we have with young people come from keeping them on short supply of money.
  4. A great deal of the money currently spent on "education" should be spent on other activities - sport and art, of course, but also music - young people should be given an allowance each month for music, art and literature of their own choice. They are the future, not you, and believe me, they are far more likely to know which way the wind is blowing on that account. I would also suggest they be sent on paid trips abroad, and have a system of well funded youth clubs set up across the country -  properly funded - with gaming facilities (this is an art form, I'm afraid, and it's appreciation is only going to increase) as well as a selection of any other skills members would choose to try. 

That'll do to start. I hope you don't think I'm being facetious - I'm not. We spend a fortune on education. I'm just trying to think how we might turn out better young people at the other end. Having said that, I'm a writer, not an educationalist at all. Any other suggestions very welcome.

Melvin Burgess

Check out our BritLit kits for teachers, based on stories by Melvin:

Coming Home

Whose face do you see?

Billy Elliot