Finally, a real scientific study has proved true what we’ve secretly known all along: that being cool in high school does not make you cool in later life.
Published last week in journal Child Development, the 10-year study on students from the age of 13 up to 23 looked at “pseudomature behaviours” – acting older than one’s age in a variety of romantic, social and delinquent ways. Findings showed that while the rebellious kids were more likely to be popular among peers at 13, all that behind-the-bike-sheds kudos declined over time and actually ended up having an inverse effect, with formerly ‘cool’ teens struggling to make friends by the time they reached their early 20s.
It’s the kind of news that makes you want to rush back in time and tell your former awkward young self that it’ll all be ok. “Hey Lauren,” I’d whisper to 13-year-old me as she turned down an invitation to drink Bacardi Breezers in a park to spend an evening working on her poetry journal. “It’s fine, those are not your people. Give it a few years and you’ll have legal access to all the sugary booze you could not want; but also legitimately great friends to not drink it with.”
Then 13-year-old Lauren would smile a big, gap-toothed smile (like all the coolest people, I didn’t finish losing my milk teeth until well into adolescence) and we would high-five before I faded into the sunset. It would make a brilliant film. You’d go and see it, wouldn’t you, because chances are you weren’t a cool kid either.
If I’m honest, I’ve never trusted people who were popular at school. Without a good dose of pubescent humiliation, how would you discover who your real friends were? How would you give one of those humble interviews when you’re a wildly successful adult, talking about how the bullies ultimately made you a stronger person? Of course it would be heaps better if there were no bullies at all - but then maybe that would make us ALL popular kids, doomed to failed relationships as soon as we hit our twenties.
And while there’s a genuine argument for encouraging children to stay children for as long as possible, plenty of us non-populars were precocious in our own ways too. In fact I’d say much of my own teenage behaviour was so pseudomature that it skipped right past the drinking and fumbling stages and left me about 38 inside, wryly observing the world from the edge of the party and refusing to engage with anything I deemed a ‘teenage cliché’. Among the clichés I rejected: were recreational drinking, under-18 discos, owning a mobile phone before 2003, and talking to boys. Any boys.
It’s possible, thinking back on it now, that all of this painful cynicism was a much greater effort on the part of coolness than it would have been just to go and sit in the park with the others. So maybe we should cut the popular kids some slack –they probably care far less about it than the rest of us do