Shed experience, hire young fools

  • September 13, 2012
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From The TimesJune 16, 2009 Shed experience, hire young fools Companies have stooped to delivering thank-you notes to young staff just for turning up on time Stefanie Marsh I’ve become morbidly fascinated by young people of late. Specifically, young people in offices. There seem to be so many of them about all of a sudden, elevated to quite startling positions of responsibility on the basis of a breezy manner and zero merit. They are cocking things up in the workplace, these young folk, having replaced all the middle-aged people who, until recently, used to do the same jobs with some degree of competence; employees who, unlike their teenage replacements, never sign off work e-mails with a smiley face or think that Madeleine Albright and the toddler who was abducted in Portugal were just, like, the same person and, who cares, nobody will notice the difference anyway :)

The reason this proliferation of young people has become particularly noticeable to me is because I’ve been away, locked in my home office for ten months in the total hell and despair of writing a book. In that time I read no newspapers and the only television I watched was reruns of Columbo, in which a middle-aged policeman solves crimes in Los Angeles. Conceptually, Columbo would have failed had they cast Peter Falk when he was 12, as his credibility as a character rests on the fact that years of experience have led him to develop some unfailingly accurate crime-busting antennae. Anyway, when I eventually emerged, blinkingly, last month I was fully prepared to find the world a changed place. Disappointingly, however, only three things seem to have altered: a networking site called Twitter has been invented; we are in some sort of economic recession; and, as a result of the two aforementioned, all the good people who used to work, especially in the “creative industries”, have been replaced by children who cost less and who, in the old days, no sane employer would take on to do much more than clean the loos — this last because it was then generally still recognised that anyone under 25 was a liability in the workplace. Take me, for example. I look back on my early twenties as a time of unprecedented idiocy and serious, though inadvertent, professional misconduct. In my inexperienced hands, attempts to carry out even the simplest tasks were likely to end in some sort of Armageddon scenario, which is why, in my first job, at an averagely poncey contemporary arts magazine, the only thing they let me do was pick up lunch from the Italian deli across the street: I was given the choice between buying mortadella or salami and, on several occasions, I would fail at even this menial task by having it sliced too thick. Because it was taken for granted that, as a person with no experience of either life or work, I was utterly useless, all I was allowed to do the rest of the time was watch older people talk about Jay Jopling. They didn’t even let me answer the phone. At my next job, “working” for another magazine, I moved up a step: I was permitted to make written appeals to Westminster council about the parking tickets my boss had picked up over the weekend. After about a year of this, the boss in question conceded that it would be fun to allow me to write a piece about Far Eastern childrearing techniques, for which I spent three days in Edgware in what was then the Japan Centre when I could have done all my research on the phone in an hour. A few months later, some fool of an editor asked me to stand in for whoever was supposed to be interviewing the author of The Horse Whisperer but was off sick: I excitedly wrote the most incompetent and possibly most damaging piece of Nicholas Evans’s career. Not long after that I was dispatched to interview “Dennis Wise”. Halfway into my second question about his off-the-pitch anger issues, he interrupted me and said, rather sternly: “My name is Greg Wise. I am an actor and married to Emma Thompson. I have never played for Chelsea.” Thinking back, the only thing I did achieve in a professional sense was commissioning Hunter S. Thompson to write an article on polo, but I was too young to comprehend the nature of my achievement and let the man I then called my mentor take the credit. As a result, Giles Coren has a signed letter from Thompson hanging in his loo and I do not. This was the (self-) sabotaging nature of moronic youth in the workplace. It is only now, aged 35, that I’m starting to get the hang of things. And this is in line, I discover, with what a YouGov survey of more than 2,000 people suggested recently. It is only when you turn 37, once you have amassed about 30,000 hours of work, that you reach the point where you consider yourself to be “competent”. You then have to wait another 13 years to start feeling “fulfilled”. It follows that people who are really good at their jobs tend to be somewhere between their early forties and fifties. I’m looking forward to it. But it’s more than likely that I’ll be sacked and replaced by a pubescent child instead. When the numbskull child messes up, there’s a slim I chance that I’ll be rehired in a consultancy role to sort things out. Not that you can blame the young. The problem lies with employers who are in awe of anything technological that they don’t understand — such as Twitter — and mistake computer proficiency with intelligence, initiative and even wit. A new book, Not Everyone Gets a Trophy, concludes that employers should be in no doubt that, for those born after 1979, unlike previous generations, “their personal life comes first” and they have a “short-term and transactional” mindset. Managers, says the author, Bruce Tulgan, should effectively practise “in loco parentis management”, holding the young to high standards and “helping them every step of the way to reach those high standards”. This, of course, goes against all the received wisdom about the young at work. Some companies have actually stooped to delivering thank-you notes to Generation Y employees just for showing up on time. Others have turned offices into “fun” spaces , rearranging training so that it revolves around interactive computer gaming; encouraging young workers to find a “best friend” at work and teaching managers to soft-pedal their authority in these hard economic times. All this, claims Tulgan, is wrong. “Generation Y is the most high-maintenance workforce in history.” They take their problems to the office, don’t observe the same respect for boundaries as their elders and, unless they are disciplined by their substitute parents (their employers), tend to float along happily from job to job, causing low-level mayhem. Couldn’t we just hang on to our fortysomethings?

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