I read a potentially rather depressing report recently about a survey of British teenagers post-GCSE (aged around 16), who were looking ahead to their futures and commenting on what was important to them, what they envisaged doing with their lives and what skills they thought they would need. The main takeouts of the survey, as reported in The Independent, were that roughly two-thirds of the cohort valued a high salary above all, while around a third only wanted to do something that helped others. In addition, only 35% were concerned that their employers were socially responsible. As far as their personal skills were concerned, only 7% thought that numerical and analytical skills would be important in 30 years’ time, and although 44% recognised the importance of communications skills, only 23% felt that creativity was important.
Surveys are notoriously difficult to write, and even more difficult to interpret, and reports on surveys – even KPMG’s own press release about this particular survey – are easily skewed to editorial whims. This survey, of 289 students in state schools, gave a snapshot of what those particular students thought, but we have no information about their backgrounds, to understand them better, or to be able to interpret better why they might have chosen certain responses, nor have we any comparative data to understand how this cohort, or any wider cohort of this age, compares either with what they themselves previously thought, or with what other cohorts have gone before them have thought.
With all these caveats in place, we can still recognise that more of these students value a high salary than value a career that helps others, and only 7% seem think that analytical skills are important. On both scores, we should have something to say: for the human race to succeed, we are all going to have to learn that we must do something that helps others, and in order to do this, we are going to need every ounce not only of our creativity, but also of our critical analytical abilities.
We shouldn’t be too hard on these young people who responded to this survey, however. In an economic recession, income is important, and high incomes are associated with success – and do, after all, allow people to support others – their own families and communities. And maybe the survey was phrased in such a way to suggest that those analytical skills were tied to standard, easily automated tasks, which we might expect to diminish over time. Several of the other results were interpreted as positive – “ambitious and entrepreneurial” were the headlines of the press release.
Equally, though, we should not be complacent or dismiss the results. We have work to do to show our young people that working selflessly for the good of others is important, that strong, humane values should define us as as people, and that by developing their critical faculties, they will be well-placed to learn this and to make the most of their capacity to do the right thing in life. This work starts in families and in schools. As this survey shows, we certainly have our work cut out for us.