Stephanie Smith: Let the young waste their youth ...

Youth is wasted on the young, at least that's how the saying goes. It's one of those universally acknowledged 'truths' that older generations insist on rolling out to younger ones, usually accompanied by a wistful gaze skywards as they ponder what might have been,

This week, a query was posed on the forum of parenting website Mumsnet by a young woman in her early twenties who had noticed, increasingly, that many of the older women she knows or meets “always go on about ‘making the most of your youth’ but never say how best to make sure you are doing this”. She wonders if any other forum members can elaborate, and ends with a smiley face.

And elaborate they do. Travel and sex so far seem to be the greatest regrets of many respondents, usually wishing they had had more of either or both before settling down with one partner and acquiring children and a hefty mortgage.

Most of us, I suspect, have been guilty of voicing dissatisfaction with our life in this way, using younger ears as sounding boards as we perhaps express our uncertainty about the paths we have taken. I certainly have been guilty of it. Ever since I was about 28, I have been envying the freedom of pretty much every newly graduated young woman I’ve ever met, cautioning against settling down “too early” and pulling faces when they tell me they are considering not moving away for better career prospects because the boyfriend wants to stay in Leeds.

I’ve considered it my duty to tell younger women that commitments and responsibilities tie you down and hold you back. I mean children, of course, because they do tie you down and hold you back, no matter how hard women try to juggle. And women do try very hard indeed. As was pointed out yesterday in this paper by lawyer Paula Dillon, in an excellent piece to mark International Women’s Day, women are exhausting themselves trying to combine domestic work with money-earning work. “Until we stop doing this to ourselves, no amount of legislation or diversity policies will help us,” she says.

When we look at young women just starting out, we see ourselves and how we used to be before we became exhausted. We want to intervene, before they become exhausted too, but we – I – should not discourage them from having a partner or family, nor from taking any career path they want to follow. Let them at least start out in hope. Yes, youth is wasted on the young, and that is exactly as it should be. Maybe it’s we older women who need to relearn the art of time-wasting.

As Helen Mirren once said: “At 70 years old, if I could give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be to use the words ‘flip off’ much more frequently.” Although she didn’t say “flip”.