World beckons the narrow horizoned

August 14, 1998

Student friends talk wistfully about travelling around the world once their exams have finished, and a few of them even do it. I always ask why, plaintively, as I scrub them out of my social life for the next 18 months. They invariably reply: "Well, why not?" There is nothing new about graduates travelling around the world before they settle down to get a job: making use of that downtime between "student life" and "life" to have an experience that is much more difficult later on. Most seem to enjoy the experience and get a fair bit out of it.

But when they fly off they are not only expressing a positive desire to travel and gain new experiences. They are also expressing their attitude to the rest of their lives. And, it appears, life beyond university has never seemed as unattractive as it does now.

Chatting to a fairly typical group of depressed post-finalists recently about what they were planning to "do", it was clear that most of them had no idea. They pointed out that the only company actively recruiting from their university was a supermarket chain.

I asked one what her ideal career would be, at which point she perked up. But, she admitted she had given up on this idea because her careers adviser had told her that this field was particularly difficult to get into and that you always end up stuck at the bottom. In short, the "careers advice" which she had been given was that she should forget about a career; and she was left drifting.

On graduation you are actively discouraged from even aiming at the career you want and presented with a view of the rest of your life that is, unjustifiably, peculiarly bleak. So why not, indeed, travel the world?

To anyone with a sense of adventure, the positive side of travelling is self-evident. You get to explore new countries, meet different people, feel independent. The downside is the mundane nature of the things you have to do before you pack your rucksack: months of poorly-paid, unskilled work to raise the initial cash while you stay at home with your parents.

When your plane lands in the countries of your choice, you generally spend even more months selling encyclopaedias or working in bars. If that is the only kind of work that graduates are told they are fit for, you can see the logic in choosing to do it in a different, sunnier, more interesting environment than Britain.

This may be logical but it indicates a problem. As opportunities for graduates narrow and professionals discourage them from seizing even those opportunities that do exist, young people's aspirations are being lowered to the extent that an extended holiday becomes the only thing that it is possible to get excited about. Graduating, in and of itself, is seen as a drag, and adult life is seen as a thing to postpone at all costs.

It is depressing that everyone seems to agree that a year drifting around abroad is one of the best things graduates can aspire to, if only because it implies they cannot do anything more fulfilling with the degree they have spent three years gaining. It would be nice, occasionally, if graduates needed to argue the case for seeing the world, rather than the all too readily accepted case against beginning their "real life" now.

Jennie Bristow is a freelance writer who graduated a year ago from the University of Sussex.

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