Young hearts run free

Young hearts run free

In a new monthly editor's letter, Molly Flatt suggests that we stop millennial bashing and celebrate the young talent already redefining the publishing industry.


Imagine if you had the opportunity to question every aspect of the way you work. Imagine if you could approach your next project as if it was your first, as if you weren't bound by expectations or habits or pigeonholes. Imagine if the people around you were fearlessly focused on doing the best work of their lives, regardless of rules and unfettered by preconceptions - because they had nothing to lose.

In theory, this is what a new generation brings to the workforce. In theory, we're living in a youth-centric age, full of teenage tech titans and fresh-faced bloggers furiously monetising their adolescent thoughts. In reality, as we enter a year of extraordinary economic and political uncertainty, few of us would want to be attempting to launch a career right now - let alone one in the poorly paid and risk-averse publishing industry. 

Beneath the campaigning for paid internships and the rhetoric about embracing disruption, there's a creeping sense that the latest intake are just not up to the job. In a video currently trending on social media (3.7 million views and counting), British-American cultural anthropologist Simon Sinek explains why exactly millennials are so useless in the workplace. Thanks to a toxic combination of bad parenting and addictive technology, he says, Gens Y and Z are entitled, self-interested and lazy. It's not their fault, poor Snapchat-obssessed egoists, but they're struggling nonetheless, and business leaders are failing to create the environments that will help them thrive.

Yes, according to Sinek, It is the job of millennials' bosses to take on the role at which, as parents, they so spectacularly failed. Leaders should be teaching their minions self-confidence, social skills and "the joys and fulfilment you get from working hard on something for a long time," despite having demonstrated their utter inability to create a world where such values thrive. Sinek's single practical suggestion for how to actually achieve this, at least according to the clip, appears to be banning mobile phones in the boardroom.

Now, no texting in meetings is certainly a good thing - although in my experience tech addiction is a pretty age-agnostic, and if your juniors keep checking what's for dinner while you're bashing through the agenda, you might just want to reassess that 50-page Powerpoint. And watching Sinek opine from his leather chair, it's hard not to feel that millennial-bashing is becoming a far too popular - not to mention smug and lazy - sport. Whenever I see a bout kicking off, the lyrics to Bowie's Changes start ringing in my ears:

“... And these children
that you spit on
as they try to change their worlds
are immune to your consultations.
They're quite aware
of what they're going through...”

To be young in 2017 is, surely, pretty damn scary. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Trending alongside Sinek's video is Michelle Obama's tear-jerker of an outgoing speech, in wihch she exhorts young people, rather than being afraid of the world they're inheriting, to "Be determined. Be hopeful. Be inspired." Could these troubled times in fact be the making of the millennials? Could the not-yet-rebels have finally found their cause?

Where Sinek positions millennials as damaged goods facing a hard course of rehabilitation from their inadequate forbears, Obama strikes a note of empowerment and positivity that cannot fail to energise, whether you're fifty or fifteen. And it's a note that's already ringing loud in publishing, if you listen hard.

At last month's FutureBook conference, the keynote interview with twenty-six year old media entrepreneur Jamal Edwards MBE was bursting with insight, humour and passion - not just for the publishing industry but for his peers and the wider world. In an article shortly after, YA author Amy Lankester-Owen called for writers and publishers to look beyond the clichés of dystopian fiction in 2017 and instead engage young people in nuanced explorations of their hybrid digital-physical world "in a time of seeking and finding inspiration, of bravery, freshness and forward momentum."

Publishing has too long been dominated by figures agonising about the struggles of the trade to cope with the collision of the old and the new, the traditional and the indie, the physical and the digital. Questions over format, pricing, author contracts and the use of social media have dragged many into a combative mire. In the meantime, a whole army of young writers, publishers, agents, illustrators and booksellers has been getting on with producing, marketing and selling extraordinary work, trampling across 'boundaries' they never realised were there. People such as Jamal Edwards, Crystal Mahey-Morgan, Nikesh Shukla, George Burgess, Emmanuel Nataf, Emma Smith, Juliet Mushens, Aki Schilz, Catherine Allen and dozens more (the Bookseller's Rising Stars list is a good place to start) are embodying the change the industry needs - and there's already a whole new tide of even younger talent following in their wake.

So this year, perhaps we could stop telling young people what they're like. Perhaps we could instead make an effort to surface and celebrate how they're already redefining publishing from both within and without (if you have a tip, let me know).

And perhaps, above all, we could have the humility to invest them with our hope, rather than saddle them with our despair.