Why I'm Bearish on the Future of Britain's Youth

24/07/2012 10:59 BST | Updated 22/09/2012 10:12 BST

Brian Spencer continues his analysis of youth unemployment, this time exploring youth culture and looking at how a lack of ambition in the classroom is hurting Britain.


I'm bearish on the future of British youth. But I shouldn't have to be; here's why:

Respected Chicago economist Raghuram Rajan prompted my bearish stance on Britain's youth when he said in his recent publication, Fault Lines - How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten The World Economy, that: in too many schools in America being smart can be positively dangerous.

I can't directly comment on the US, but as regards the education system in Great Britain I can say with a great degree of confidence that in too many schools in the UK being smart is positively dangerous.

I and others would be lying if we were to suggest that youth culture finds being smart cool. Sadly it is not cool to show initiative or to exhibit drive that goes beyond the lowest common denominator.

This is an idea that I have captured in my latest cartoon above: in the first half, an individual has shown a degree of ambition that goes beyond the norm, and for that he is the subject of scorn and disdain - exactly what Raghuram Rajan noted in his book when he suggested that it can be positively dangerous to show be smart.

Whereas on the right, all the young people share an equally mediocre outlook; an all too common scenario where not one individual has singled him or herself out for fear that he or she would be singled out for ridicule and mockery.

I believe that this is a societal and cultural truth that holds that we in Britain far prefer a homogenous mass of people as opposed to a mass of people that is diverse and heterogeneous in its ability and outlook.

This bearish sentiment is not mine alone and is shared by others: Martin Rowson, esteemed political cartoonist of the Guardian and self-confessed hater of power, has said that one of the greatest things about the English is the way we hate success. While I don't advocate his reverential tone for a national perception that dislikes ambition, I think he hits the core of the issue at hand when he says: Britain hate's success.

Britain loves success in a Bradley Wiggins, I don't know the guy way, but hates success in the success of your brother, sister, peer or friend, kind of way. We hate success of someone we know; its a success that is tangible and unfolds before our very eyes. However this makes for a nation that, under the public conscience, revels in a dangerous culture of mediocrity.

This gloomy sentiment is also shared by Gillian Tett, assistant editor of the Financial Times, who said that Europe lacks a sense of positive energy and mission, as featured here (

The effects of this truth are profoundly damaging: ingraining a culture that celebrates mediocrity and penalises success.

That culture in itself could very well trigger a misshapen demographic profile and harbour long term structural imbalances. That conjecture is premised on the scenario that successive generations of young people have grown into adulthood under a national mood of mediocrity; a mood which gives genesis to a populace with stunted skills development and untapped human capital - a wasted aggregate potential of countless good minds.

The saying goes that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. But as the liberal economist Paul krugman added: "wasting the minds of a whole generation is even more terrible."

And for these reasons, compounded by the continuing economic volatility, slowing growth and rising unemployment, I and many others can be counted as bearish on the future outlook for British youth.

I presented my bearish conjecture to Stephen Twigg, MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Education, and he largely agreed. However given his response and other considerations I believe that we don't have to be bearish - we can correct this chronic flat lining in the human capital yield curve.

We can change the way people, society and our nation perceives ambition, free thinking creativity and ambition.

But how do we embed a culture that rewards and celebrates ambition and success?

Firstly, we need culture and perception-shapers to positively shape the perceptions of young people.

We need the youth's role models to preach about the riches and importance of education. That means we need Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Johnny Wilkinson, Rory McIlroy and the like speaking on TV, online and to class rooms about the hope that educational credentials bring.

We also need high profile civic and business leaders to do the same and speak to young people about the benefits of a full education.

This proposal builds on the aims of Robert Peston's Speakers for Schools initiative which brings the successful in Britain to speak before the young and impressionable.

Secondly, equally as important to the success stories is the need to extol the stories of failure to the young and impressionable. By doing this we can ward against educational underachievement. Ultimately, 30 year men and women, who dropped out of school early, should testify to the young and vulnerable about the promise of education.

Thirdly, we need the enlightened and outward looking in society to mentor and work with the young and the impressionable in deprived areas and schools who are all too often caught in a trap of introspection. This could be done by setting up a government initiative like the one such in America called Big Brothers, Big Sisters.

After all parents are key to informing their children about industry insights and key career sound bites on how to get by on life, but if they can't do this, others should.

Fourthly, blending point one and two we need successful alumni to come back and mentor and speak with the students at the school.

This proposal builds on the Future First initiative: a social enterprise which operates in the greater London area under the philosophy that riches can be reaped from successful alumni feeding back into their old school and into the lives of the young students at the school.

Fifthly, we need less stick and more carrot. That means we need to show the end result of hard toil to a student instead of keeping the end result as a distant and far off ideal. This means bringing about more synergy between the world of education and the world of work.

All too often education is an island, entire of itself.

This would not only act as an incentive to hard work and a disincentive to educational idleness, but it would also make for real-world-literate school and university leavers.

Finally we need to restore a perception that other nations hold and that we all too often take for granted: that liberty, freedom of expression and education are priceless commodities at the core of a functioning democracy.

People come from abroad full of drive and ambition and ready to make the most of and capitalize fully on our education system. Yet the people born on this very land simply look upon our fantastic service with disdain and derision.

Unfortunately the same freedom that allows people to be the best in this country is the same freedom that allows people to get away with doing the bare minimum.

Ultimately with today's young generation advancing through life under unprecedented economic headwinds and under a most unhelpful national mood that looks upon ambition with contempt, things look bleak. However with the six recommendations noted above and other helpful pointers I'm sure we could go some way to mitigating the worst of these two evils.