Ryan Shorthouse: A generation that's running too fast and getting nowhere

I'M on the platform of a train station, sort of hyperventilating, as I've just sprinted from the gym to get the 19:55 train – to meet a friend for dinner. The next train would have been in 15 minutes. Dinner is scheduled for 20:00. Obviously, I'll be late. I'm always late.

I'm subconsciously repeatedly pressing the button to open the doors to get on the train, even though the light indicating I can do so has yet to come on. Honestly, I do this for nearly half a minute.

The sound of the button activating and the train door opening finally breaks the spell. To the left I see a rather attractive woman staring at me as if I'm slightly unstable. I go red then try to laugh it off. She's not amused.

I think several factors conspired to make me foolish. More generally – I began to think – several factors have contributed to me constantly being in a rush, impatient and irritated with having to wait, even for a tiny bit.

Firstly, the pace of urban life. Now a fully-fledged City Boy after four years living in London, I'm so used to travelling seamlessly from place to place. The efficiency of urban transport has programmed me to assume that waiting is a system failure.

Secondly, the way I work, the internet providing instantaneous answers to most of my queries, means my mind becomes frustrated with overly long periods waiting for information.

Nicholas Carr, the controversial author of What the Internet is doing to our brains, believes the internet is negatively affecting the way we think. He cites a study from Stamford University which shows that people who use multi-media intensely are more likely to be distracted by environmental stimuli.

As more of us download our lives from the worldwide web, we are flitting from task to task, unable to concentrate for an extended period of time on one activity. As Carr puts it: "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski."We seek stimulation from a variety of sources, but

shallowly, rather than devoting time just to one.

It sounds a lot like my weekly diary: yoga, running, swimming, going out, theatre, tennis, singing lessons, volunteering. I am not alone in this franticness – my peers all try to maximise all the opportunities life can throw at you.

Here is the third major source of my impatience: trying to fit too much in to my diary that I'm always late. To get on the ladder of life, careers advisers at schools and universities constantly reinforce the value of extracurricular activities.

The standardisation of academic qualifications – a string of top grades at A-level, a 2:1 in an undergraduate degree – and a tough labour market for young people to join, with 70 graduates now chasing every graduate job has also increased the need to do more activities to stand out from the crowd.

Ironically, David Cameron's Big Society, with volunteers abundant, may be forged by the grade inflation, university expansion and youth unemployment, which my generation now face and which the last Labour government oversaw.

For those of us in employment, what economists call the substitution effect is evident: the prospect of greater returns per hour means there is more to lose from not working, so we attempt to extract as much from our leisure time as possible. There is a strong desire not to waste time. Life feels manic.

The effect of these social and economic changes – pushing us towards physically and mentally rushing – means many young people have little desire or time to spend meaningful time on one activity. They want quick stimulation from a variety of sources. Yet our society needs people who can spend long periods on one activity, mastering a skill and becoming experts: it's vital for generating world-class craftsmanship, research and development, maintaining our competitiveness.

It's also triggered impatience, causing poor manners in social settings, degrading our public arena. Look no further than the London Tube system, where City workers were described as "selfish animals" earlier this year.

Slower rural life – which young people turn their back on – may have fewer opportunities, but it provides time for deeper reflection and really does seem to be friendlier and more neighbourly.

That strange episode on the train station platform was a helpful epiphany for me. A few more visits back to the countryside will help. Good for me. Good for my employer. Good for our society.

Ryan Shorthouse is spokesman for Bright Blue, a group that campaigns for progressive Conservative policies.

Back to the top of the page