Political clickbait. Like cookie-dough ice cream, I know it’s not good for me or society, and yet I find myself unable to resist mouthful after creamy mouthful. This is particularly true when it’s from The Spectator, a magazine that’s really more Buzzfeed than Addison and Steele. Hate-read the latest calmly-worded James Delingpole column, and then move on. Instant gratification.
Yet, there’s something about the latest article by Toby Young which gave me a little more to digest than usual. Not that it’s good – it’s extraordinarily bad. But it’s bad in such a way that it deserves a little gentle probing.
Young opens with the story of his (not doubt well remunerated) presentation to a recruitment consultancy to ‘provide an urban anthropologist’s take’ on the new ‘tribe’ of young people entering the workforce. The words ‘urban anthropologist’ are enough to make me fear for what will come next – this is a self-description, like ‘social media expert’ or ‘interested in evolutionary psychology’, that portends a lot of warmed-up shower thoughts framed in semi-scientific garb. Still, since we have not paid top dollar for what exactly Young said (hint: almost certainly less terrible than what he’s written here), TY then muses: what if he were to open a recruitment consultancy about how to recruit young people?
It’s at this point that things start to go sharply off the rails. Set aside the fact that this framing device makes no logical sense, as this smart new business venture is pretty much what he’s just said that he’s already doing. More importantly: why would you pay for a forty-three-year-old, who as far as I can tell hasn’t held a management position since the early 90s, to advise you about managing millennials? To any FTSE 100 CEOs who might be reading this blog, I have some advice for you if anyone ever comes to you with the idea of hiring Toby Young to advise you about the youth of today – fire this person. Trust me.
Anyway, Young comes to his main argument – young people are severely maladjusted to the workplace. The ‘me, me, me’ generation of ‘snowflakes’ is stuck forever in the ‘safe space’ of adolescence. It’s at this point that you realise that Toby’s really not giving his all here – this is a string of insults about under-30s that makes the paragraph sound like The Great Automatic Grammatizator set to ‘SPECTATOR’ mode. Putting aside this penchant for ad hominems, Young argues that this ‘kidulthood’ is because
their immersion in social media since the year dot has accustomed them to just communicating with their peers. It’s difficult to grow up if you have no idea how to talk to grown-ups. That, at any rate, is the theory of Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardises Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). ‘Never before in history have people been able to grow up and reach age 23 so dominated by peers,’ he told Time magazine. ‘To develop intellectually you’ve got to relate to older people, older things: 17-year-olds never grow up if they’re just hanging around other 17-year-olds.’
This is interesting, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s curious to wonder whether Young actually read Bauerlein’s book or just wrote his entire column on the back of a review he saw in Time magazine. More important, however, is what little sense the argument makes. For sure, the generation now coming into the workforce is the first to grow up with social media (although it’s worth saying that, for anyone in their late twenties, social media wasn’t really a big thing until they were well into university, if not later). But the idea that social media interaction with peers has replaced communication with those in older generations seems fairly unlikely – young people tended to be friends and associate with young people before the arrival of Facebook. The big shift took place fifty or more years ago, when youth culture arrived as a phenomenon, and more gradually as fewer teenagers went into the workforce as teenagers and more progressed to university. More than anything, however, the assumption that the new generation will be completely unable to comprehend their elders is utterly absurd, as any person who’s actually met someone under the age of 25 would understand. It’s an assumption that Young never offers a piece of evidence for, not even a measly anecdote. It’s almost as if urban anthropology isn’t really that rigorous a discipline.
After a bizarre joke about Millenials speaking Esperanto, Young explains why he thinks he might be able to help any employer working with these generational Martians – he was completely unsufferable as a new entrant to the workforce himself!
For instance, on my first day at work I was in the lift waiting to be transported to the 11th floor when an attractive Vogue fashion editor standing next to me tried to hold the doors open for her friend. They slammed shut, almost trapping her hand, and I turned to her and said, ‘They’re fashion sensitive. If you’re not wearing Prada or Gucci they will take your arm off.’ She gave me a baffled look: ‘But I am wearing Prada.’
Oh, Toby. Oh dear. I do feel for you, brother. Almost.
After I’d made a couple more of these unsuccessful attempts at flirtatious banter, someone left a copy of Condé Nast’s ‘Sexual Harassment Policy’ on my desk. ‘It has long been the policy of Condé Nast to maintain a professional working environment for all its employees, free of any form of discrimination or harassment,’ it said. The next bit was underlined in red felt-tip pen: ‘A joke considered amusing by one may be offensive to another.’
Well. Where do you start? He uses the word ‘banter’, which at this point in time is pretty much a synonym for ‘about as funny as a burning orphanage’. Then there’s the fact that Toby thought that (unsuccessful!) ‘flirtatious banter’ in the office was a great idea. And, finally, that he behaved grossly enough that someone at Condé Nast gave him a semi-formal warning from the Sexual Harassment Policy. That’s… not normal? Pretty worrying? Does he think this makes his argument stronger? It certainly doesn’t make me want to start writing out a cheque for Toby Young Millennial Consulting LLC, that’s for sure.
Anyway, Young remains confident that he can apply his own experience to today’s workplace. But here’s the key difference – unlike him, Millennials are ‘generation snowflake’, constantly ready to take offence. ‘Instead of them worrying about saying the wrong thing to people my age, it’ll be middle-aged men like me worrying about saying the wrong thing to them.’ With good cause, based on what you’ve just told us, but let’s put that to one side for a minute to admire how Young manages to cram in yet another evidence-free dig at the younger generation, from another dimension, that just happens to chime with current conservative orthodoxy. It’s a keen irony that, in the very process of arguing that young people are unwilling to accept alternative outlooks that he is feeding his readers the intellectual equivalent of baby food, mild and unchallenging pap that’s exactly what they want to devour. You can almost hear the whirr of the Great Grammatizator.
It’s difficult to reconcile this tirade against a whole generation with the fact that Toby Young’s great cause which he has written about more than anything else is actually education. The founder of the West London Free School, Young is soon to be the director of the New Schools Network and, back when Cameron was Tory leader, he was at the forefront defending his Free Schools policy. Toby must spend a lot of his time with intelligent teenagers, so why is he regurgitating this rot? Does he despair even of the special snowflakes educated at his own school? Is he just a hack? Is it a product of cognitive dissonance? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Either way, it’s representative of a broader trend in conservative discourse – away from the Cameroonian interest in youth and its values, to an increasing disdain and even hostility for young people, and for the more liberal ideas that they prefer. It also reflects an increasing dumbing-down of right-wing argument, as analysis and facts are replaced by sneering labels and wild leaps of logic. The fact that this column of this quality was published in the premier journal of British conservatism says a lot.
Even so, I believe that there’s hope for Toby. Take some advice from an egotistical, intolerant Millennial, if you can bear it. Meet some more young people. Talk to them. Learn about their interests. Make friends, if you can. And then, perhaps with some better chosen background reading, you can write a genuinely good piece about generational divides in the workplace.
And don’t write about your time at Conde Nast ever again.