Bonnie Greer: We have to get young people as creators of the solutions #cgeni

NICVA’s Centre for Economic Empowerment ran the first of three half day conferences on Friday under the banner of Creating the Good Economy For Life with a focus on Generation Y (people born after 1979).

triptych of Gen Y NICVA CEE conferenceGeneration X and the Baby Boomers will get their turn later in the year.

NICVA CEE wanted the conference to cover:

Are the economic difficulties of youth simply a consequence of the recent downturn, which will improve as the economy picks up? Or are the problems more deep seated, requiring more radical reform?  … what should be done to ensure a good economy for young and old alike.

Topics of being jobless, trying to find employment and questions about the value of university education are not new to Slugger. Journalist and author Ed Howker used his talk to identify some of the issues facing “the jilted generation”. It’s also the title of his book, co-written with Shiv Malik: also available on Kindle (though do make sure you download the updated 2013 edition).

The Jilted Generation front coverAre young people really KIPPERS? (Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings) Are they feckless idiots who lack grit, or is the current generation living at home because house process are rising, unpaid internships are “exploitation by another name”:

When did it become acceptable for private companies and businesses not to pay workers simply because they were young and inexperienced?

  • 35.5% of 18-25 year olds (in NI) are living with their parents (UK average 26%), which naturally has an effect on “couple formation” (“just try taking your lover back to your parents’ house to understand why”);
  • 44% of 17-24 year olds are in fuel poverty;
  • Youth unemployment in NI is highest in UK at 24%;
  • A near doubling of part time work for people in their twenties from 16% to 30%;
  • Over £7bn of PFI (Public Finance Initiative) schemes of which “£4.8bn will be paid back by younger generations after 2023”.

Ed finished his speech by asking: “what is the mark of prosperity?”

I’d say that “prosperity” is defined by the opportunities that we create for the next generation, about our attitude towards them, about what we try to leave behind and what we’re trying to create in the long term. And how we do that is the pre-eminent challenge for all of politics and all of our civic life. Unless we can answer that challenge we will inevitably create a jilted generation.

The Ulster Bank’s Chief Economist Richard Ramsey challenged back on Ed’s observations with figures to suggest that rather than being jilted the youth just needed to be jolted. [Richard’s full slides are available to download.]

  • Richard listed lots of countries in which youth unemployment was worse than Northern Ireland.
  • He pointed to huge inward investment in the Laganside area of Belfast between 2004 and 2014.
  • He did note that the total number of driving tests being sat has fallen further in in Northern Ireland (down 36%) than GB (down 22%) … while the rate of death/serious for 16-24 year olds in road traffic accidents has fallen by 42% in NI.
  • Outward migration was much greater in the early 1970s than over the last ten years where there has been a positive inward flow of population. NI also loses a lot more people to GB then to other international destinations. The use and abuse of internships, and the perhaps misplaced focus on university education were particular bones of contention.
  • Lastly he proposed his own “pledge card” of policies and measures to improve the economic lot of 18-34 year olds. Amongst some contested ideas was a proposal that BBC NI should have a weekly business/economics equivalent of The View.

youth unemployment @ramseconomics Ulster Bank Laganside 2004 2014 fall in driving tests ramseconomics pledge card migration
As NICVA’s Lisa McElheron commented:

There was robust debate between the speakers, the three panellists (Adrienne Peltz, Chris Quinn and Alastair Ross) and the delegates with Ed challenging Richards rosy picture, and the Private Secretary to the DETI minister defending governments role. The

Finally it was the turn of author, playwright and commentator Bonnie Greer.

My generation [Baby Boomers] simply outgrew the welfare system. We were supposed to be all dead at 75. That’s how it was built. I can remember back in the 60s when our elders and policy makers were talking about us as a “time bomb” but they didn’t do anything about it, so here we are and it looks like we’ll be here for a while!

Bonnie’s instinct is to means test her generation.

I know that a lot of people think that the welfare system is a bank where you put money in and therefore you’re supposed to be able to take it out. It ain’t. I don’t think it’s fair for people in my generation to own homes in Benedorm, Nice, … and collect pensions. I just don’t. We’re in a different age and we can’t do that anymore.

She acknowledged that her (older) generation were “the ones to vote”. Russell Brand was wrong to tell people not to vote.

You have to vote. This is the system we’re in. Just get into it, change it later.

Bonnie also recognised that the Baby Boomers generation were perhaps the last to be “local” (“an American baby boomer is different to a British baby boomer”) while later generations are starting to converge because of technology. The convergence started with Gutenberg is now greatly heightened by the internet and new media.

Bonnie Greer’s thesis is that “the young have to lead”.

We have to put young people in positions were they are not just spectators, they’re not just fodder for people to fret over, they have to make policy, they have to shape the world that we’re living in because they’re doing that anyway.

Bonnie and Newton Emerson debated this point on Thursday night’s The View.

For Generation X and Generation Y, business is social. It’s not about going to a factory. It’s about collaboration, it’s about unlocking the engines of collective knowledge, differentiate expertise and rapid learning. Social is no longer just about collaboration: it’s about enabling, it’s about breaking down organisations, it’s about breaking down hierarchy, it’s about breaking down silos, it’s about breaking down barriers …

The convergence of social, mobile, analytics and the cloud is rapid.

Bonnie believes that it is young people who best exploit this new normal and hence they need to be listened to and made room for within institutions.

Too many of my generation are in the way – and I’m saying this with great respect because again many of us weren’t built to survive the system, but we’re going to survive it by 20 or 30 years and there’s a lot of fight left in a lot of us, but – we need to step back because the young have to be the ones to create this world.

She concluded with some ideas (from other people) that confront this reality, including the continued impact of robotics (which are aware of their surroundings and can work alongside human beings but aren’t unionized and don’t need a pension).

The meaning of a degree will begin to change. Focus will be on what you learn not what degree you have. And online activity will be become a data-mine for recruiters …

[Ed – I’d take that further and say that it is the demonstration of how you can learn and could thus apply learning skills to other problem spaces in the future that will differentiate potential employees.]

Agility is the skill we have to go for. Are we preparing our young people to be agile?

She encouraged young people not to leave Northern Ireland which she described as a “goldmine”.

We have to put young people not as spectators or as problems but as problem solvers. We have to get young people as creators of the solutions. The board room, the classroom: it has to be blown open. That way we will be equipped for the new world. And I can’t say it enough as someone who is looking at this, let’s find out how they think, let’s listen to them, and let’s build structures so that they can show us the genius they have.

Richard Ramsey described the conference as the first proper economic debate he had witnessed in Northern Ireland. There is surely room – and need – for more self-reflection and less absolute reliance on bankers and politicians to set policy in isolation?

NICVA’s Storify collates together some of the key moments from Friday’s event.