Up in smoke
Post-graduation misery in the early ‘90s
“I truly feel pity for you both. You are grown up now! And yet you still act as children, who want to do nothing but run and play. You cannot run and play all your life, Dianne!”
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
1992 was a bad time to graduate from university. I was lucky to have gone at all, of course; just 19% of students went on to higher education then (53% do so now). I was even more lucky to graduate without student debt. The friendly taxpayer stumped up for my tuition fees and I spent three largely untroubled years rolling around campus, giggling.
Just what is it that you want to do? Well, we wanna be free, we wanna be free to do what we wanna do And we wanna get loaded and we wanna have a good time
Primal Scream, Loaded (1991), after The Wild Angels (1966)
But it was a bad time to graduate, nonetheless. I remember smoking on the back step of my parents’ house on a beautiful autumn day, listening to radio news headlines about chaos in the financial markets. It was September 16 1992, Black Wednesday, and sterling had fallen out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.
There's a disconcerting 47° slope against the Dollar, Yen and Deutschmark, and if we project in four months the Pound leg is effectively amputated, leading to a rogue leg with no hip constituency at all.
Collateley Sisters, The Day Today (1994)
The British economy nosedived, graduate salaries slumped and job opportunities dried up.Over that first post-university year, as it was repeatedly brought home to me that I wasn’t going to get a job in editorial at Penguin, our group of friends fell into two camps. There were a few – three or four – who found a toehold on a career path that genuinely excited them; and then there were the rest of us, who worked purely to earn money to spend in the pub. Not much money, mind you. As the theme tune to Friends (first aired in 1994) had it: ‘Your job’s a joke, you’re broke.’
Is there anything else you can do? Well not much – I've not been trained I can sit and stand, beg n' roll over
Happy Mondays, Wrote for Luck (1988)
This is, of course, a story about class. Some of us had working-class parents who had scrabbled to give us the unfair advantages they had lacked. Others came from families with a well-worn glide path from mortar board to boardroom. All of us had been carefully invested with potential; nobody had questioned whether we would fulfil it. We’d been raised on stories about turning up in London and being offered a job at the BBC by a funny little man you met on a bus, which in turn enabled you to buy a four-bedroom house in Belsize Park for £7,000.
Why can't I have an audition? It's ridiculous. I've been to drama school. I'm good-looking. I tell you, I've a fuck sight more talent that half the rubbish that gets on television. Why can't I get on television?
Withnail & I (1987)
It’s entirely possible we would have spent our twenties in a humiliated fug even without the left hook of Black Wednesday, because being twentysomething is structurally painful. Banished from childhood and thrust into the vast anonymity of the world, the very nature of your quest – find a career, make new friends, fall in love, make a home – drives a constant, pitiless analysis of your many faults and bottomless inexperience. Almost everyone you meet, from recruiters and managers to rental agents and attractive strangers, makes an assessment of your worth. Most of them find you lacking.
Hey girl, what's it like to be in New York? New York City – imagine that! Tell me, what's it like to be a skateboard punk rocker?
Michelle Shocked, Anchorage (1988)
But we didn’t know this was something everyone struggled with; we thought we had been judged to be uniquely underwhelming. Our cosseted childhoods had left us unprepared for this stunted entry to the world of grown-ups. And so we lapsed into a peculiarly bourgeois strain of sulky disappointment (‘entitled’ had yet to become an insult). My grandfathers had been miners; my grandmothers had been domestic servants. As we sat in our cattle pens doing data entry, to whom could we possibly have complained? And what would we have complained about? What on earth do you do, when the world suddenly stops indulging you? There is a mature answer (try harder, learn more, focus, dig in) but we chose something else: the soft, hazy, sun-filtered option of taking a lot of illegal drugs.
MID-TWENTIES BREAKDOWN: A period of mental collapse occurring in one’s twenties, often caused by an inability to function outside of school or structured environments coupled with a realization of one’s essential aloneness in the world. Often marks induction into the ritual of pharmaceutical usage.
Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991)
Taking drugs in the early ’90s was hardly rebellious. Youth culture was still coming down from the Second Summer of Love, and the media was full of tripped-out ravers and recycled psychedelia. We weren’t ravers, though. Rave culture had a working-class core we couldn’t penetrate, and its extrovert enthusiasm didn’t mesh with our disabling self-awareness. Instead, we aped the blissed-out insouciance and drawling disaffection of 1970s art-school freaks and dropouts; we were art-directed by Gus Van Sant, accessorising our miniskirts and oversized jackets with cigarettes and glassy stares. We consumed parts of the culture that reflected our underachievement, and there was a lot to choose from: the entire premise of Friends, the affect of Slacker (1990), the foundational text of Generation X (1991).
Ross: What is Chandler Bing’s job?
Rachel: Oh gosh, it has something to do with numbers.
Monica: And processing.
Rachel: He carries a briefcase.
Ross: Ten seconds, you need this or you lose the game.
Friends, ‘The One with the Embryos’ (1998)
I experienced moments of total social dislocation, particularly on the Tube; a sense that I was connected to the world by a few bare strands, and that my life was nothing more than a slippery chain of accidents. I could just as easily have been a clean and neat young blonde, leaving a job in PR and going back to a fiancé, a restaurant dinner and a flat in Fulham. Being stoned enabled me: both to escape my maddening internal dialogue, and to ignore my problems. Swathed in chemical euphoria, I was constantly starring in the opening montage of my own indie film, and if I screwed up my lines I could just go again.
Most people don't know how they're gonna feel from one moment to the next. But a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Several years passed in torpor and stagnation before our sense of a birthright started to reassert itself. Some of us began to experience serious mental health and addiction issues; we all began to worry about our lungs. Couples sprung up and moved in together and we saw our smelly, chaotic lives reflected through the unimpressed gaze of new partners. The economy sprang back to life, and with barely a backward glance we scrubbed up, bit down and scrambled aboard the middle class gravy train, leaving only our affected nonchalance behind to mark where we had stood. You knew someone was moving on when an enviable purchase suddenly appeared in their home: a brand-new sofa, a fridge with a proper freezer compartment, a pram. Our thirtieth birthdays were approaching and we began – finally – to grow up.
Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television.
Sometimes now, working with people in their early twenties, underneath the bright patter about side-hustles and hype-pods I catch the same sense of desperate freefall. If 1992 was a bad time to graduate it must be even worse now, amid the relentless pulse of successive global calamities. When I’m tempted to participate in complaints about entitled young people or discourse about avocados, I try to remind myself how it felt, becoming stalled in the vastness and failing to launch. Graduating sucks, but what comes next is worse, and the single saving grace of your twenties is that eventually, they come to an end.
People may really have in them some vocation which is not quite plain to themselves, may they not? They may seem idle and weak because they are growing.
George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-72)
Next week: we sail with a wizard to find dragons via a Portakabin in South Ascot
See Figure 2 in this IFS analysis. Graduate wages fell after 1992 and didn’t recover until 1999. The next comparable drop in graduate earnings occurred in the long recession after the 2008 crash <waves at late millennials>