“This is a generation where many high school districts have eliminated the position of valedictorian, where everyone at the swim meet gets a ribbon,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “[Many have] been raised in a variety of ways that makes them not suited for the world of [traditional] work. Their political skills in terms of playing organisational politics are under-developed. And the levels of narcissism and overinflated sense of their own abilities and entitlements make them not perfectly suited in a large organisation.”
Pfeffer is being diplomatic. The article from which his quote is taken is ultimately positive about a generation of unemployable, entitled brats who insist on assembling their own “projects” rather than going out and getting a job. But I’m not sure its author, Connie Loizos, ought to be quite so upbeat. In fact, the narcissistic roots of the present entrepreneurship bubble promise to be explosively damaging to the already precarious financial architecture of a technology industry within which people holding cheque books are finding it ever more difficult to separate wheat from chaff.
Young people are told they can accomplish anything – with a minimum of effort. Our entire society colludes to propagate this fiction, from the reality television shows that persuade every overweight ginger checkout girl that she can be the next Mariah Carey to the government departments that encourage no-hopers with no talent and no business acumen to move to east London and “do a start-up”. They are are condemning an entire generation of young people to a life of frustration, disappointment, and, ultimately, reliance on the state for subsistence when the dreams come crashing down around their ears.
The truth is that not everyone can do every job, especially those that require unteachable personal qualities and certainly not to success without brutal levels of dedication and hard work. Few people can sing. Even fewer can write. And, representing perhaps the smallest constituency of all, an almost imperceptible speck of the general population has the rare combination of ambition, mild sociopathy and sheer bloody-mindedness it takes to build a profitable, scaleable business, particularly a technology company. So why do we lie to our children? How did we arrive at this sorry state of affairs? And what can be done to restore sanity to the present surfeit of absurdly naive optimism?
Part of the blame, as Professor Pfeffer correctly intuits, rests with the education system. In our own country, relentless grade inflation under the last Labour government and the senseless, barbaric removal of all competition and jeopardy in state schools has bred a feckless, ill-educated batch of kids yet to hit the labour markets. We still have no idea of the damage done to a generation of young people reared in the socially engineered “all must have prizes” culture that is so inimical to the central tenets of entrepreneurship, and indeed excellence in any arena, because they haven’t graduated yet.
The current Government’s education minister, Michael Gove, perhaps the only serving parliamentarian deserving of genuine admiration, is engaged in the business of repairing some of the structural damage. But it is too late for the decade and a half’s worth of children retarded by the cruel joke of equality and betrayed by the teachers who ought to have been instilling in them a ferocious desire to succeed, to win, to be the best. In their obsessively stupid wars against “low self-esteem” in the young, the educational establishments in the West have been engaged in the business of crippling young minds. Now we are in the absurd position of lazy, entitled, self-important brats starting businesses – the precise opposite of the personality type required.
Popular culture, too, bears much of the responsibility. In a decadent, socially fragmented society in which the gap between richest and poorest is widening exponentially, hope is extended to desperate and occasionally tragic individuals by talent shows and reality television. These programmes promise easy fame and riches, quick-fix surrogates for the healthy self-fulfilment denied to the underprivileged by shitty educations and crappy neighbourhoods. We laugh at the hopelessness of deluded X Factor auditionees, but what we’re watching is the insidious and damaging re-education of the working classes. They’re being taught that luck, rather than talent or hard work, is the route to correcting their traumas and shortcomings.
Then, of course, there is the wild, uncontrollable engorgement of the state, best represented in our own small corner of the universe by the hapless and hilarious Tech City Investment Organisation. What a misnomer that is, and what a bastardisation it betrays of the word “investment”, which Gordon Brown re-engineered to mean “expenditure”, and which now means nothing at all – especially since even venture capital, that high-risk flagship, that bastion of red-blooded capitalism, is slowly and grotesquely mutating into a branch of the welfare state, with venture capitalists cast as the newly enriched, unaccountable public sector fat cats. No wonder they roll over so compliantly when Tech City comes knocking: look where they get their management fees from these days!
Finally, the fourth estate must admit its own role in the tragedy. We have presided over more reckless debasement of the language even than the cheapening of the terms of finance; we have aided and abetted a comic dilution of sense, after which every blog owner is now a “founder”; every idiot with a laptop a “CEO”. We did it – and, in particular, the tech blogs did it – because it was not always so fashionable to be an entrepreneur. In 2005, when few were writing about European technology businesses besides the valiant Mike Butcher, it made sense to overplay our hand; to be blithely optimistic.
It doesn’t any more. Not when a glut of meaningless iOS apps threatens to engulf Shoreditch, spreading talent so thin and driving rents up so high that businesses with genuine potential suffer horribly from the increased costs of doing business. Not when the obscenely arrogant cult of the tech start-up founder makes journalists who dare criticise them personae non gratae at the swankiest gigs. And not when the only people in town with money to hand out (public money, that is) are failed bankers who don’t know their arse from their elbow, and who spray cash at what can only be described as digital faecal matter. Awarding titles on the basis of self-pronouncement, rather than achievement, has been disastrously counter-productive.
We need fewer entrepreneurs, pursuing better projects with larger teams and more capital available to them. That won’t happen so long as every weft and every warp of our cultural fabric insists that equality of outcome is possible so long as the public trusts in public and private sector oligarchies to catch them as they fall; so long as we believe in the benevolent intentions of the bureaucrats and the quangocrats and the vast armies of “helpful” people we’re surrounded with these days: the “mentors”, the “facilitators”, the, yes, management consultants. Ye gods! These days, it’s as if talking about being an entrepreneur is the same thing as being one.
There’s no shame in working for someone else, and there’s no shame in working hard. 95 per cent of the population will need to spend the majority of their lives doing just that. So why are we insisting, in such shrill tones and with such seductive, desperately Ozymandian monoliths, that all is growth and goodness and happiness and light and economic salvation, when we are in fact headed for such a calamitous abyss of narcissistic, unproductive, wrong-headed nonsense? Look on Tech City’s works, ye Mighty, and despair. Common sense, economic best practice and the proper limits of government are dead, and we have killed them, by systematically undermining our national genius for hard graft.