School's out forever!
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (June 18th 2023)
What I've learnt about Gen Z from 17 years at the school gate...
It truly is the end of an era for me. On Friday my little one finished her A levels and ended her school career. That means that my seventeen year stint as a school parent – yup all those interminable emails about jumblesales and assemblies and Year 10 trips and World Book Day – are now firmly in the past. That feels weird. Good. But also strange. I went to a party last night and bumped into an old pal who was two years above me at uni who asked if our local state primary is any good: her daughter is four. It’s a peculiar facet of our Queenager generation that at 50 you can have an 18 and 20 year old, or a four year old, or no kids at all. Which is quite a leveller!
So what have I learnt from my decade and a half at the school gate (metaphorically, at least)? Well for starters, that it’s great for kids to grow up with a stable cohort of mates in their local area. I went to school on the other side of London and did most of my homework on the tube which I navigated for an hour there and back with my cello. I hated it and all my friends lived miles away which made socialising difficult. I didn’t want that for my kids; and the two year stint mine did at private school convinced me that was no good either: pure Succession – Russian mums in head to toe Chanel, chauffeurs, private jets, 8 year olds with fleets of servants. No thank you!
Our local state comprehensive – Camden School for Girls – has been fantastic. We live round the corner so by contrast to my own teen years, my house has been like an overflow sixth form common room. It’s always full of teens smoking vapes or fags on the balcony, watching Netflix or raiding the bagels. I’ve always taken the view that I’d rather the kids were under my roof, where I know, mostly, what is going on. It’s also a pleasure to chat to them and hear their news and views of the world; I think the future is in good hands with Gen Z. They are thoughtful, moral, kind to each other, very open in talking about what is really going on in their friendships – and they express true empathy and strength in supporting each other with their mental health issues.
I know there’s a tendency for our generation to roll our eyes at this and murmur about snowflakes but the mental health epidemic amongst teens is a real thing. They really struggle. It’s not just that it is more recognised or diagnosed either – there really is a difference in degree to how it was when we were growing up. The incidence and normality for this lot of self harm, extreme anxiety issues and eating disorders is terrifying. (I really like this post which digs deep into all the different studies to make a persuasive case for the link between social media use and mental illness in this cohort).
It’s not just hype either. I know about a third of the readers of this email, or our Queenager community, are childfree. So I am writing this so you know what is going on with the teens, first hand. I have so many good friends with teenage girls who have to deal with them cutting themselves regularly. This week one called me saying she felt physically sick when she saw how badly her 15-year-old had cut her legs – and then the next day I heard the same thing from someone else. It’s pretty normal as a teen parent now to go through a time when CAMhS (Child Adolescent Mental Health Services) become a part of your life; to worry whether your teen will actually make it through when they are saying they want to die. And these are the ones with loving families and parents who are trying their best; the really scary stuff, where it gets really entrenched, is when these kind of behaviours are masking much more fundamental damage or abuse.
But it’s not all bad news. The teens these days are much more open-minded and have far broader role models. The upside of social media is that the scattering affect of not everything going through a hegemonic corporate media means they are exposed to different kinds of role models and content. If you haven’t come across Lizzo, then you should. This incredible young woman of colour has taken body positivity to a whole new level. When I was a curvaceous teen you couldn’t buy trousers in most shops bigger than a size 14, lycra was still to come – I spent far too much time hating my stomach because I couldn’t get the trousers done up. Or worrying about my thighs. (Ditto). These days Cosmopolitan writes articles about Chub Rub shorts (to stop thighs rubbing together in the heat) and Lizzo and her amazing ladies shake their admirably large wobbly bits around the stage in rhinestone tiny catsuits with total pride and confidence. Watching them can make me tearful with gratitude. Younger women with curves today have a plethora of clothes to choose from and role models showing them to enjoy their bodies and revel in their flesh. The websites even show larger models so you can see how your bum would look in their clothes if you are a size 16 or more. A revelation truly and I can see its positive effects in the body confidence of the larger teenage girls who come through my house. They look beautiful and they feel it.
Of course as well as being more body positive and accepting of multiculturalism (somethings have changed for the better) Gen Zs are breathtakingly, gloriously fluid on all things gender and identity. You can’t hang out with them and use the wrong pronouns. Some are ‘they’ which means they identify neither as a boy or a girl (fair enough, why do we have to conform to one or the other?). Some have bravely changed from what they used to be. Because of them, I’ve got used to using the right pronouns and have watched admiringly as some have transitioned – to the point where I now forget they were ever anything other than what they now are. It is as if they have become what they knew themselves to be all along. They seem happy in their new selves. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
The best antidote to the scare mongering in the press about this and the polarity on social media is just to spend time with young people. They are just totally accepting of whatever anyone wants to be. I went to the launch of a report into Ageing last week where a focus group of LGBTQplus 55 year olds talked about “how the Gen Z cavalry are coming”; meaning how pleased they are that this new generation have taken up the baton. Intergenerational conversations between these groups are fascinating; the Gen Zs can’t believe that the 60-something they are chatting to grew up in an age where homosexuality was illegal. We should welcome these changes. If I think back to my days at public school, homophobia was rife. I totally welcome the fluid, accepting ways of Gen Z – to do anything else, it seems to me, is to be entirely on the wrong side of history.
So that’s what spending a lot of time with Gen Z has shown me. Basically that the world is in much safer hands with them than it was with us! Particularly when it comes to sustainability; they really care.
I’m going to miss them terribly when they go off inter-railing round Europe (next week) and then off to Uni (September). It’s a huge shift into an unknown future; the house feels pretty empty when its just me and my partner rattling around. It’s weird to have no-one who needs dinner, or putting to bed… but then they come back from Uni quite often. And at the merest hint that we might sell the family home and downsize or move out of London there is a huge Gen Z rebellion. They’ve lived here all their lives; they want to come back to London to see their mates and get jobs… from what I see of the boomerang kids of families who are a bit further along, it seems they don’t go away for long at all. And yet, and yet… there will never be that trusting little pudgy hand in mine gripping tightly as we walk to school. No more hearing the bang of the front door and the feet stomping up the steps as they troop in after class.
I mourn the end of an era. The passing of a more intense part of parental time. But it also leaves far more time for me, for us, for all that Queenager becoming…
What do you think? Tell me. Eleanor@inherspace.co.uk
ps Date for your diary – Noon Circle for Paid Subscribers on July 18th in Soho . We’re going to have some special guests joining us for a session around divorce including Sally Jackson a divorce coach who wrote this excellent piece on Noon.
The Queenager with Eleanor Mills is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber (£6 a month)
pps Noon Book Club tomorrow, Monday 19th – free for everyone here is the link to sign up for so you get sent the Zoom.
By Eleanor Mills