Why William Pitt the Younger sets a bad example for the youth of today

Published on 18 May 2020 by Adam Leigh

Spare a thought for my 20 year old son Matthew.

He’ll be livid I mentioned him in this article. Still, if he wants to carry on ploughing his way through my gin and wine collection in lockdown, he’ll just going to have to accept that his new fame is necessary to enhance my corporate profile.

He has just completed his second year at university in Nottingham. Lurching from striking lecturers to no lectures at all, he packed his bags in March to gleefully return home to Mummy and Daddy. His exciting third year abroad in Ottowa and Berlin, like the economy and the prospect of a holiday, has been annulled. Any summer plans have evaporated and the pub where he works is of course uncertain about its re-opening.

He has got better at shooting enemy soldiers on the Xbox at 2.00 am, but otherwise there is little to motivate him aside from the regular opportunity to physically assault his younger brother.

Sadly, Matthew is no different from his cohort of fellow students facing complex challenges to establish themselves in the world, whilst retaining the ebullience and penchant for excessive partying that is their inalienable human right.

The other day, I told him a parable based on my O Level history exam. Predictably, he was completely indifferent to my precautionary tale of the pitfalls of youthful overachievement as demonstrated by tale of William Pitt the Younger. Here it for those of you who also didn’t ask.

Pitt was definitely an over-achiever. With little evidence of a tiger-mum pushing him by booking wall-to-wall tutoring, he went aged 13 to Pembroke College Cambridge to read Classics. At 21 he entered Parliament, at 22 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer and at 24 Prime Minister. When I was that age, I had mastered how to use the photocopier and my coffee-pouring in meetings was so accomplished that clients would often compliment me.

Pitt was mocked for his youthfulness when he acceded to high office. A popular satirical magazine at the time produced a poem which ended:

“A sight to make surrounding nations stare/A kingdom trusted to a school-boy’s care”

Still he had the last laugh. (Not perhaps, if you look at any of his portraits.) Historians attest to him being one of our greatest leaders, perceived to have transitioned the office into the modern world, particularly as the American and French revolutions threatened to destroy the foundations of the old one.

In total, he was Prime Minister for nearly 20 years. He balanced the nation’s finances, (introducing Income Tax for example) began the process of parliamentary and judicial reform, managed the madness of King George, the modernisation of the colonies and war with the French. 

He died at 46 from an ulcer, exhausted by the demands of the office. His demise was exacerbated by being a ‘three bottle-man’, which referred to his consumption of port, making him a bit of lightweight as far as Matthew is concerned. In many ways, Pitt was still something of a student when he died: unmarried, preferring to socialise with Cambridge rather than political companions and £40,000 in debt.

The comparison raises the important question for our frustrated generation of graduating students ‘what’s the rush? We have taught our children to embark on linear progression through school exams and higher education to plan trajectories based on work experience, internships, graduate recruitment and measurable advancement. Now they are denuded of that conventional structure for some time to come. Traditional sectors of employment are closed to them and competition, once great, is now several notches more intense. It is not as if they can even dust down their rucksacks at the moment and travel the globe.

For the aged amongst us, well basically anyone over 25, we have a collective duty to brighten up their prospects as best we can. Let’s create a syllabus of future opportunity and here’s what it should cover:

  • Being on hand to advise anyone that asks for help. Really spending proper time with them. Going further to be give practical assistance.
  • Generously doling out the chance to shadow, observe, do projects and generally help out. More than before and with greater imagination. Dedicating more internal resource to facilitate this.
  • Create new, more flexible roles. Part-time, home-based, irregular hours – whatever it takes. Start thinking about how you’d answer the question ‘what more can I do do to provide opportunities?

At the same time and more importantly, re-assure them with this observation.

Take your time. Do as many interesting things as you can. No one cares about whether you have a job by the time you are 25. Try several things at once. Experiment, pivot and fail if needs be. And if you are ever short of hope, just remember what happened to poor old William Pitt. 20 years of precocious leadership of the country yet he died a penniless drunk. 

I tell this wisdom to Matthew repeatedly most afternoons. Well, we don’t see much of him in the morning these days.