Generation game: Yearning for a simpler timeby Virginia Larson
Today's "iGen" teens are super-connected, but are they happy? Is it so bad to lament the loss of free-range young adulthood?
This exercise in nostalgia was my idea, so I can’t complain about having to heave the potted palm and pile of books off the top of the wooden chest, then dig through family memorabilia to find my photo albums from the 70s. Having delved back to the Precambrian era of Fred Dagg, Muldoon and milk-bottle tokens – and found a photo of me and a school friend hard at work as Christmas elves – I lingered for a flick through my teenage years, preserved in faded Kodachrome prints and typewritten captions.
When you’re well into middle age, it’s easy to forget the self-doubt, boredom and bouts of the blues that accompany being a teenager. (Janis Ian’s angst-filled “At Seventeen” wasn’t a mid-70s hit for no reason.) And like today’s students, we suffered from exam-time panic and career-choice quandaries. There was a suicide attempt among my wider group of friends, with a diagnosis of depression. But compared to a similar cohort of middle-class teens in these twenty-tens, I don’t think we faced the same levels of stress and anxiety.
In stark contrast to today’s “iGen” teens (a name coined by American psychology professor Jean Twenge), we were anything but “super-connected”. The household landline was it, and phone hoggers were quickly booted off by parents and older siblings. There was zero opportunity for “virtual socialising”, so we did the next and, it turns out, best thing. We socialised. In person. My old photo albums comprise page after page of tribal teen adventures, many of them staged in the great outdoors.
One of the boys had a Bedford van that could transport eight, precariously. We pooled family tents, sleeping bags and rudimentary cooking gear; petrol, food and beer expenses were crowd-shared through our part-time jobs. We freedom-camped when no one cared about freedom campers because there weren’t many of us, and there was always a spot within walking distance of the loos. Waipu, Whangapoua, Pakiri, Lake Okareka – we’d skip Friday-afternoon lectures or race home from school and take off. In Auckland, we took day trips to Karekare, the Waitakeres and Wenderholm. We always knew someone with a boat. Three of us once rigged a borrowed sailing dinghy at Westhaven and went on a picnic sail to North Head, with a beach umbrella as an accidental spinnaker.
I’m rose-tinting my teenage years, for sure, but Twenge isn’t the only generational-change researcher to finger the ubiquitous smartphone for contributing to higher rates of teen depression and anxiety. There’s talk now of “nature deficit disorder” and why getting into the outdoors improves both physical and mental health. Today’s youth are also more cosseted and safety conscious – not necessarily a bad thing, but they don’t have the same freedom to roam we enjoyed, unfettered by health-and-safety texts from nervous parents.
New Zealand’s bush, beaches and lakes were wilder and less populated in the 70s, too. Greater Auckland was unrecognisable. I understand absolutely the export earnings delivered by international tourism. And it’s nice having the population to sustain festivals and an abundance of cafes and restaurants in our cities and tourist towns. But I can’t persuade myself that growth is always good, especially when so-called “smart growth” seems in short supply. These days, a Saturday summer excursion from Auckland to an old favourite, Tawharanui Regional Park, has to be launched pre-dawn to avoid gridlock in Matakana. On a sunny public holiday afternoon last year, my sister and I drove to Hunua Falls for a hike. The vehicular melee in the car park was like Countdown on Christmas Eve.
It’s probably some kind of cultural heresy to say you miss simpler, less crowded times. Still, I figure I’m in good curmudgeonly company, thinking of the likes of Brian Turner and Grahame Sydney, and their battle to preserve the natural, empty splendour of Central Otago. Maybe it’s selfish, too, wanting more empty splendour for ourselves. But New Zealand doesn’t need a big population to be economically successful. It doesn’t need more tourists, just more of the high-spending ones who really value a wilderness experience. It needs for us to treasure our wild and wonderful places before we lose them.
Besides, I’m not quite ready for “virtual hiking and beachcombing”. Are you?
Summer Job Stories
North & South staffers relive their first forays into the world of work.
Virginia Larson (above)
Waitress, barmaid, motel cleaner – most of my student and summer jobs were stock-standard for young women in 1970s Auckland. I broke from tradition a couple of times: a soul-destroying stint as an egg collector at a poultry farm in Kumeu, and three weeks of ridiculously good fun as a Christmas elf, shared with a school-friend. The elven brief, as I recall, was simply to spread Christmas cheer to downtown shoppers. We had a minor Santa problem: our first Father Christmas was fired by the city business association after it became apparent he was less interested in giving lollies to children than asking pretty Queen St office workers to sit on his knee. Bad Santa II was as thin as a drainpipe and the kids were rightfully unconvinced by the pillow-tum. We were nearly all fired one hot day after a local publican delivered free lemonades, each with a shot of beer, to our Vulcan Lane grotto. Our boss wandered past just as the froth hit our upper lips.
Growing up in one of the last horse-racing stables in suburban Auckland brought with it responsibilities to the neighbourhood – chief among them was to ensure the smell of dung didn’t waft over surrounding homes. The local council decreed that our four paddocks had to be cleared of manure daily, so my job after school and during holidays, for which I earned the enduring nickname “Dungy” from my father, was to scrape it into a bucket with a couple of bits of roofing iron and load it into a lidded concrete bin. Ironically, the steaming-hot compost became a magnet for local gardeners, who were only too happy to put up with the smell if it was fertilising their tomatoes. I can’t recall ever being paid for the task – although I occasionally benefited from a winning tip on
a longshot, straight from the horse’s… er, mouth.
Aniseed balls, milk bottles and spearmint leaves were two for a cent, and silver-top milk came in glass bottles when I worked at the Roundabout Dairy in Havelock North, rolling endless ice creams and making up mixed-lolly bags. No wonder I have such a sweet tooth. That was in the late 1970s, when I was about 15, and the dairy is still going strong. Same name, most of the same lollies – just the prices have changed. Later, I worked in the village’s rival dairy, on Joll Rd, and in the bookshop, too. In summer, I ate my way through strawberry fields and prickly boysenberry patches alongside the seasonal fruit-picking crews, warding off sunstroke in the blistering Hawke’s Bay heat. But my real education came in the seventh form (Year 13), when I waitressed at the Village Restaurant and realised how rude customers can be and how easy it is to irritate a volatile chef.
After my first year at varsity, I drove a truck collecting cardboard and paper for recycling in Blenheim. The truck was called the Box Grabber, its name in big swirling letters down its side. This led to the best student job I ever had – working on the town rubbish truck. I did this every May, August and summer holiday throughout my time at university. The truck (owned by the same company as the recycling business) was called the Bag Snatcher. It was a fantastic job: there were only so many streets to collect from each day, so the faster you went, the sooner you finished. We’d go like hell and be home by lunchtime. We were fit and tanned and there were all sorts of useful things thrown out. Being a poor student, I got several pairs of running shoes from the rubbish truck. They were all odd ones, though – so I’d be wearing a Nike on one foot and an Adidas on the other – but only other people seemed to find that strange. I eventually graduated to driving the rubbish truck; easier, less smelly, but not half as much fun as being on the back snatching bags.
When you grow up on a farm, “work” blends haphazardly into everyday life. Was making scones for shearers less “worky” than sorting the wool while your father sheared, or feeding out hay to the cows? Our pocket money came from the calves we raised. This is not to say that my brother, sister and I were actively useful on the farm; we spent most summers happily rearranging the bales in the hayshed into a complicated architecture of passageways and rooms, and destroying the maize paddock with labyrinths and crop circles.
It couldn’t last. One day, in the early 70s, a place was found for me in my great-uncle Geoff’s nursery in Bell Block. This required a momentous phone call to IRD for “the number”. My workmates, two lean, sunburnt and capable men who I admired unreservedly, held snail races in the potting shed when it rained. One told me he thought the sun revolved around the earth. This was an eye-opener. It turned out I had little affinity for nursery work. I pulled out a long line of azaleas on my first day, thinking they were weeds. Despite this crime, my great-uncle, a man of few words, wrote me my first cheque – with only the briefest of hesitations.
My most memorable summer job, which also converted me to vegetarianism, was in a chicken-processing factory. I was put on the frozen free-flow line, so I was dealing only with frozen bits, but I witnessed thousands of six-week-old chickens strung up and sent through the line. It made me realise what goes on behind the nicely packaged meat products in the supermarket.
Now, I’m heartened to see vegetarian and vegan numbers growing – and people generally just eating less meat. I didn’t go vegetarian straight away, but back at school one day, some guys were talking about duck shooting for sport. I protested. They said, “Shut up, Mitchell, you still eat meat.” I said, “No, I don’t,” and I never have again. Randomly, during my stint at the chicken factory, I contracted chicken pox.
This was published in the January 2018 issue of North & South.
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