The UK youth work ethic: The simplest mystery

This post is filed under “r” for “rant”

Jamie Oliver made the media jump around in excitement and caused small disgruntled and self righteous youth eruptions around Facebook a few days ago in an interview with Good Housekeeping by saying that his restaurants would be unable to run if it wasn’t for the help of young foreign workers to pick up the slack of the UK’s own home-grown talent.

Claims that the UK’s youth workers lack a work ethic, lack ambition, are lazy and generally “wet behind the ears” as he put it were predictably met by protestations from hundreds of genuinely hard working young workers who disagreed with him. As with any inflammatory statement, there is no right or wrong answer here and both sides have merit, but I’ve been thinking about those young workers that are actually apparently lazy and all I can really think is “it’s really not their fault”.

I hesitate there a little because I wonder if I should in fact be saying “it’s really not our fault” but I’m not really sure if I’m lazy or if I still class as a young worker.

This has been kicking around in my head for a few days in-between frustrating bouts at work where I work as hard as I can only to be met with a tide of disconnected corporate apathy, impotent sympathy and a growing feeling that I never had a chance to get through my work in the first place. It tends to build to a quiet anger and just occasionally makes me want to stand up and scream out “well what do you expect!?” but doing that sort of thing tends to raise eyebrows in my office full of young 20-somethings who work close to nine hour days in a call centre, trying to sell things to people that don’t really want to be talking to them.

This is why I don’t find it hard to believe that some UK-grown youth workers might have a little bit of a limited work ethic: They have been taught to dream.

A generation of dreamers

Children of the 80s and 90s were brought up on a diet of cartoons and children’s TV that taught them everyone was special. He-Man might have been strong with an amazing riding-cat-thing, but he was no better than you, dear 7-year-old viewer, and as the after-show moral-of-the-story would often tout, even the smallest of people can make a difference (although maybe this just meant dwarves and hobbit-like things as opposed to children). Captain Planet could defeat evil polluters with limited motivation and planning abilities, but you were just as important in preventing oil spills and dumping toxic waste somehow. The Hurricanes might well be an international team of footballers with a secret island base, private jets and the ability to play detective, but…actually the Hurricanes don’t look quite so ridiculous this close to Transfer Deadline Day apart form the characters having some moderate personality.

The education system then made sure to congratulate every minor success we had. I’m not talking about the absurdities of more recent “everybody wins” sports days, but more ingrained leanings. Routinely disruptive thugs, the type who would be stabbing those around them under the table with a compass point, would be showered with praise when they spelled their name right, or at least started with vaguely the right letter and even significant transgressions were rarely severely punished simply because the authority to lay out such authoritative measures was hobbled. That’s not saying “bring back the cane” by the way, just a simple observation that once a parent turned up to say “little Jimmy wasn’t stabbing her, he was trying to get her attention” there wasn’t really much a teacher could do about things other than mop up the blood.

Then all the way through to reaching adulthood, we are bombarded with ads telling us how we deserve to live in luxury, how we can have such wonderful lives if we just buy these select products, that we can get great deals on a new sofa for just a monthly fee so long as we get down to the warehouse soon because sale must end Sunday (of indeterminate date). As for how much it actually costs, well you can buy now and pay later so don’t worry about that whatever you do. You can have it now – you don’t need to work for it, just pay later. Somehow.

As for impressionable young adults finding their way in the world, after they’ve been told they’re special and told they can have anything they want right now, what are they then hit with? Support on how to find a fulfilling career? Advice on how you can earn money to put a roof over your heads? Not really. But there is an overwhelming pressure from the ever-present media that the only thing that is a worthwhile investment of your time is to sing shallow pop-songs, or dance and gyrate around like a stripper in front of a baying whooping hoard whipped into a frenzy by flashing lights and loud noises.

Everybody loves Mondays

The only area of life that doesn’t match up to the expectation of fame and fortune and comfortable living is the world of work. One of the accusations levelled at this generation of dreamers is that it lacks ambition, but this simply isn’t true. This generation has plenty of ambition – there’s just no diversity in that ambition.

My mother was a teacher for many years (she’s feeling much better now though) and one of the things that often distressed her was that all the children in her year six (10-11 year olds) class would almost always say that when they grew up, they wanted to be famous. Famous for what, they didn’t know – they just wanted to be famous.

They didn’t want to be entrepreneurs, they didn’t want to be scientists, they didn’t want to be TV presenters, actors, rock stars, footballers or models – they just wanted to be famous. That was the ideal position in their eyes and it is hard to blame them for it.

I’m just as guilty of this really. It’s only recently that I’ve got my act together (sort of) with regards to work. I’m now doing something fairly close to what I want to do and working in areas that will build a career out of it or at the very least serve me well in the future, but going into and coming out of university, I had no idea what I wanted to do, other than also having this odd “I want to be famous” hangover from when I was younger.

I can clearly remember thinking that if I was not famous in my life and recognised by those around me, then I would have failed in my life. I also remember more recently hitting my mid-20s, seeing I was carrying cardboard boxes full of paper around and printing out 60,000 letters a week to be sent, glanced at and binned and thinking that was it and I’d failed already because of that stupid, ridiculous and unrealistic ingrained notion. Not to get too “back in my day things were different”, but I can’t help feeling that pressures around young people these days has got a whole lot worse.

You see my thoughts of failure-without-fame echoed if you ever watch the “sob story” parts of whichever gaudy talent show is being shovelled down your throats during the year. Sometimes the person’s story that classifies them as “strong for trying” is just that they didn’t get onto the show last year. Others are often peppered with remarks that this audition will be their “last chance” or something, as if the production team is going to rip out their vocal chords and break their kneecaps backstage if they’re not a hit with the audience and judges.

I have no idea what’s wrong with doing the pub circuit and building up a strong consistent and dedicated fan-base if it’s what you want to do, other than the fact that it isn’t the instant gratification and meteoric rise to the top that we’ve been led to believe we are entitled to.

But maybe that’s exactly the problem. We’ve been brought up to believe not only that we deserve a life of luxury because we’re special, but that it’s easy to get and you shouldn’t have to slog your guts out to get it.

Only fools and horses (and maybe the happy ones) work

Jamie Oliver claims that during his early 20s, his working week was between 80-100 hours. That, if it is true and was sustained for a significant period of time, is incredibly hard work and highly commendable to a point. It is of course from someone who is clearly passionate about his career and chosen line of work, although in fairness, maybe that wasn’t always the case.

These days however I would be incredibly twitchy about witnessing someone stacking shelves, making sales calls, serving tables, writing up news and features or doing anything for 100 hours a week and my instincts would tell me that person was being exploited. I also wouldn’t be surprised if I found out it was part of an internship scheme, but that’s a rant for another day.

Perhaps Jamie Oliver can’t inspire his workforce to work harder and is a poor leader.  Maybe they’re just not happy with the idea of labouring for a third of their week, let alone two (before deductions for sleep) to make their boss rich. Maybe they’re doing it to pay their bills and not to follow a life-long dream to work in the catering industry.

Maybe, just maybe, they have been programmed to believe that they are in fact the centre of the universe and are moments away from becoming the Next Big Thing thanks to some fickle fame-lottery.

As a society, we so frequently attribute value to those with none and so others will inevitably try to emulate them. There’s no easy fix to this.

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