Life

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Can Irish entrepreneurs save the world with start-ups?

Generation Nice believes in tolerance, equality and social entrepreneurship, but are the most narcissistic generation yet. Can these Irish adults who live at home while working on their start-ups really save the world?

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO
‘They think Mark Zuckerberg is one of them - after all, he made a fortune setting up the company that fuelled Gen Nice’ - Facebook’s Zuckerberg, pictured at a conference.
Willow Smith.
George Clooney.
Taylor Swift.
Steve Jobs

Emily Hourican

'Socially responsible", "narcissistic", "trophy kids", "the worst employees in history", "gifted social entrepreneurs", "Miley Cyrus". Oh dear, what is it about the kids that is so polarising opinion?

Every generation tends to diss the one behind it - it's what Douglas Coupland in his book, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, called Clique Maintenance: "The need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient, so as to bolster its own collective ego" - but there is clearly something about today's 
20- to 30-year-olds that is causing 
profound elder irritation.

 

They are confident, ambitious, 
something called 'digital natives', which just means they have never known a world without the internet; idealistic and 
materialistic in almost equal measure.

 

Let's call them Generation Nice. To be nice. It is undoubtedly an affluence thing, but isn't a rigid age thing - half of Hollywood can be classified as Generation Nice. At one end, you have the honourably right-on George Clooney and his human rights' lawyer fiancee, and, at the other, Miley Cyrus, because of lines she blurs 
between manipulated and manipulating, and because no one over the age of 30 gets her.

 

There are plenty of 20- to 30-year-olds who are mature, conscientious, hard-working and (we desperately hope) offer a viable alternative future for the planet. No, essentially, Gen Nice is an attitude thing - it's a permanent state of Peter Pan mixed with Tinkerbell. "I 
won't grow up, and I believe in fairies. So there!"

 

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Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and CEO

 

Basically, it's that kid who used to live near you, who you never knew terribly well because he was too young to be a friend, too old to be babysat. He seemed OK, a regular Irish kid with freckles and sandy hair, who played GAA, and then you bumped into him one day and he had a bleached-blond floppy fringe, pink T-shirt, Celtic tats, ripped torso and a couple of identikit mates - girls and boys. He was friendly and said, "Hey!"

 

He sounded vaguely Australian and, when you asked what he was up to, he said he was interning at a digital start-up and training for an Ironman competition. To raise awareness for you-can't-remember-what-but-it-sounded-good. To which there didn't seem much answer, except: "Oh. How nice."

 

For some reason, you felt irritated by the encounter. Partly, you knew, because you were a bit jealous. At his age - not all that long ago - you were so desperate to get your first job in a world that seemed to be falling apart, that you would never have thought of taking time out from the desperate search to focus your attention on another cause, no matter how worthy, not even your own physical perfecting.

 

And because, when you interned for that magazine back at the beginning, they stuck you in a basement and made you catalogue piles of mouldy back issues, and you get the impression this is not the kind of internship experience he is having.

 

What changed, you might have wondered? It's what everyone thinks when they first come into contact with the irritatingly confident, but somehow touchingly naive lot who make up the backbone of Gen Nice. Impressive and infuriating in equal measure.

 

They were pre-teens when 9/11 happened, and that experience, followed too quickly by the vicious worldwide recession of 2006, has had a profound effect on their attitudes and expectations. Much of what bugs their elders about Gen Nice can be put down to the world they have inherited - filled with insecurity, downward social mobility, constant external pressure and relentless visibility.

 

Yes, we might sneer that they post pictures of every sandwich they eat on social media sites, and send texts of condolence to each other when they experience death, but they die by this sword, too. The great online community they have created can easily turn into one giant bullying jeer instead of a series of ego-boosting "likes" and, because that is the world they live in, they can't just ignore it and turn the phone off. They swim, and occasionally sink, in that online world, and do not see it as distinct from the "real" one, so there is no more possibility of escaping it than we could escape the air that we breathe by switching to water for a while.

 

Things that the 40-year-olds are struggling mightily with - the idea that "work" is less a physical reality and more an attitude of mind, for example - have been thoroughly internalised by Gen Nice; they wouldn't have it any other way. "Work" isn't a place you go every day, where you have a parking space allocated to you, and move your way through size and location of office until you graduate to the one in the corner with the views over the city and a PA sitting outside the door. "Work" for Generation Nice is an interior thing, a You thing.

 

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Willow Smith.

 

It's the skills and interests you bring with you to a whole array of different employers, that you carry out wherever you happen to be: in your house, in a coffee shop, poolside, as well as the formal space designated as "the office". Asked who they want to work for, Gen Nice responds first Google, then Apple, thirdly, themselves.

 

And let's not even start with technology. One thing we all know about Generation Nice is how completely they belong in the techie world their elders are still just visiting. They are hard-wired for this stuff, never having to "learn" how to use the latest touch-screen portable device, and seeing no limits at all in imagining where it can take them.

 

They really are the generation to dream and ask: "Why not?" At least as far as smartphones are concerned.

 

Joanna Fortune, a clinical psychotherapist specialising in child and adolescent psychotherapy, describes them thus: "I think there is, with this generation, far more of a shift towards being tolerant and inclusive, taking responsibility for how things are in our environment.

 

"They are more grounded than previous generations, more connected with the world. They are thinkers and talkers, but not necessarily doers. The figures show they are staying in college longer, living at home with their parents for much longer, because of high property prices, and have a very different definition of what it is to be an adult. They define this in terms of personality traits - being inclusive, responsible, reflective and educated - rather than in terms of life events: having a house, a career, a car, children. That's a huge shift."

 

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George Clooney.

 

One of the key things about this lot is that they are the children of the Baby Boomers, and that means something. A lot. They have been brought up by - often still live with - parents who chucked out the old, authoritarian, hierarchical family system. Who encouraged them to consider themselves equal; to ask questions, interject, opine and comment without ever thinking that their "elders and betters" might not be fascinated by their input.

 

Who did away with the old "prizes for winners" system and instigated the current "everyone gets a trophy" system, who tied themselves in knots around sports day and how they could take the competitive edge right out of it. These are the kids who were never told, "Not now, darling, Mummy isn't interested." Mummy was always interested; Daddy, too. Fascinated by every word and deed these children produced, and usually shared these same words and deeds online, with a community of friends who "liked" what they saw. Who told their kids, like a mantra, that they could be whatever they wanted to be.

 

The result - and no wonder - is a whole lot of expectation and entitlement, as well as a reluctance to break free of their parents; Gen Nice ring home a couple of times a day. Every day. Now, you'd think this careful upbringing would produce more enlightened children, and, perhaps, it does - we'll get to that - but it also produces more self-regarding ones.

 

A recent study of American college students, carried out at San Diego State University, showed that they score 30pc higher on the 40-item Narcissistic Personality Index than they did back in 1979. Gen Nice displays an ease and familiarity with authority figures, whether that is their teacher or the CEO of their company, and a tendency to question the things they are asked to do (utterly infuriating to their Generation X bosses). They like to be minded and mentored at work, just as they are at home.

 

Along with this comes a genuinely global perspective - heading off to Australia for a few years is not seen as emigration by this lot, no matter how devastated their parents may be at the prospect of a relationship conducted over Skype; it is a rite of passage, a coming of age.

 

However, for all their confidence and insistence on workplace mentoring, the 
externals are still against them. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, describes it thus: "We live in a time when high self-esteem is encouraged from childhood, when young people have more freedom and independence than ever, but also far more depression, anxiety, cynicism, and loneliness . . . More than any other generation in history, the children of Baby Boomers are disappointed by what they find when they arrive at adulthood."

 

"A big problem with this generation is underemployment," agrees psycholologist Joanna Fortune. "They are doing jobs they are overqualified and underpaid for. They are the generation that has benefitted least from the economic boom, and from the recovery. Economic indicators may be better, but they are still battling for jobs and decent pay. They are still emigrating.

 

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Taylor Swift.

 

"They perceive the decisions made by the generations ahead - to rush into career, marriage, house purchase - as pointless, because they have ended badly for so many. Generation Nice looks at their parents struggling to pay a mortgage, perhaps doing a job they dislike, and thinks, 'Why would I do that?' So they have children much later, they're home-renters, not buyers, they change jobs frequently. They don't hate their parents' generation, but they do judge them."

 

As well as success, Generation Nice is into "meaning". They want to stand for something, be ethical - yes, "raise awareness!" And William Strauss and Neil Howe, who wrote Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, believe they will do it: "Over the next decade, the Millennial Generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged - with potentially seismic consequences for America."

 

It began with wristbands - in every colour of the rainbow, in support of everything from testicular cancer to animal rights - and has ended in mycharity.ie sites, fundit.ie and all the many other ways in which Generation Nice reaches out to, and supports, each other. "You give me €20 for my experimental short film today, and I'll give you the same for your trek across the Himalayas in aid of cancer research tomorrow," is how it goes.

 

"Causes" are huge for Generation Nice. They genuinely want to "give back" and create a more ethical world. They think and talk a lot about this stuff. They wear slogans, like Ayn Rand: "The question isn't who's going to let me; it's who is going to stop me," or Ziggy Marley: "You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses", but the delivery is a lot woollier.

 

There is a lot of crossover with hipsters at this point, the same identifying need to shout about the sustainability of the products they consume, a desire for authenticity and heritage; "real" things rather than "manufactured" - they love cafes like The Fumbally in Dublin's Stoneybatter, for its mismatched china and gilt-framed blackboards, and the way it's a hub for a like-minded community, staging artistic "collaborations" and AeroPress championships (something to do with coffee) - a sense that they are changing the world by asking about the recycling policy of their employer.

 

They are knee-jerk in favour of feminism, socialism, vegetarianism and a bouquet of other isms. Often, all they need in order to support, or be outraged, is the knowledge that "everyone else" is. But, in a relentlessly globalised world, geared towards the benefit of capitalism, covert and overt, it is difficult to follow any ethical strand through the snarl of economic and social threads, and, often, Generation Nice isn't very good at it.

 

So they admire Google for the freewheeling corporate culture, ping-pong tables, bean bags and ethical smoothies, but are less coherent on the very troubling personal-freedom implications of Google's hold on the world. They buy water where a percentage of profits go to help indigenous peoples, but don't ask how far the water has travelled and what the environmental consequences are of using countless plastic bottles.

 

They fly thousands of miles to take "eco-holidays" in remote lands, where they like home comforts - hot showers, air conditioning - along with their survivalist experience. They think Mark Zuckerberg is one of them - after all, he made a fortune setting up the company that fuelled Gen Nice; he wears jeans and hoodies - but what they don't quite realise yet is that Zuckerberg is actually just a modern plutocrat indulging in a massive new land grab.

 

They are "Against" the way their elders have run the world so far (rightly, no doubt), "Against" the selfishness, individualism and profit-driven goals of traditional capitalism, "Against" the double-speak and social isolation of most politicians, but, when it comes to what they are "For", the protest runs out of steam a little.

 

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Steve Jobs

 

Russell Brand on Jeremy Paxman was a Generation Nice moment - plenty of good rhetoric, an entirely likeable performance, but, when you start applying the forensics to it, "drill down into it", as the despised politicians like to say, meaning seems to scarper like a shoal of fish disturbed, fleeing in every direction, leaving just calm, unruffled water behind it. Lots of noise, lots of grand-sounding rejections, not so much concrete solutions.

 

They want to change the world, in fact, they believe they are changing it, for the better, one retweet and "like" at a time. Because they think the rest of us are a bunch of selfish strivers, they are determined to be the opposite. To be generous, open, community-minded, part of a collective of small businesses supporting each other.

 

All of which is great, except that, too often, it doesn't get any further than one big giant online shout-out. They are not going to get dirty for these ideals. They subscribe to the idea of "more" for everyone, equally, but have not yet had to tackle the moment when "more" for someone else can only be got by "less" for them.

 

"They are theoretical not practical," says Joanna Fortune. "They wish to promote inclusivity in a multicultural world. But the practical application of that doesn't match up. There is a disconnect - idealism in how they think about the world, but, in terms of action, that doesn't follow through. They reject the big corporations, yet sign up to the very ones who store their data and will sell that to marketing companies, who use it to sell their identities back to them. The very things they claim to dislike and be against, they are feeding, and they don't seem aware of that." The disconnect, she reckons, comes from being slower to grow up. "Being adult means taking action. They are being fed and minded by their parents - it's easy to discuss the economy when you are not paying bills and a mortgage." Much easier.

 

Easier, too, to be judgmental about the choices of the generations above, as long as they aren't the ones tasked with making the decisions, forced into compromise as you try to share a limited pie and negotiate which of all the millions of "good" projects to invest in.

 

Justin Bieber, I'm afraid, is pretty Gen Nice, too. They may not all be Beliebers - far from it - but Bieber, with his nice-boy-trying-to-be-naughty thing, is very Gen Nice. As are his political inconsistencies: support for PETA, thoroughly undermined by his history as an animal-owner. He auctioned off his pet albino snake, handed his baby pet monkey to German immigration authorities, and gave his pet hamster away to a random fan.

 

Then there was the time he flew a six-year-old fan, who suffers from brain cancer, to New York, where he spent the afternoon playing board games and eating cupcakes with her. That is very Gen Nice: woolly, well-motivated, generous-in-isolation. Not to mention the cupcakes.

 

"Social entrepreneurship" is a big buzzword for Generation Nice, the idea of doing something successful, for yourself (Gen Nice doesn't want to work for "The Man"), but community-minded. It also taps into the certainty of uniqueness that Gen Nice subscribe to. They believe they are new-minted, and live by the Oscar Wilde quote: "Never love anybody who treats you like you're ordinary."

 

Guys like Paddy Cosgrave, founder of the Dublin Web Summit, are their heroes. Not only did Cosgrave set up a successful business, it's one that "helps" the world by encouraging communication, clarity, community. The fact that he seems to be living the dream: young, successful, one half of a power couple, with model girlfriend, Faye Dinsmore, helps, too.

 

Vanity is a big thing. They don't even drink that much any more, because they are all constantly in training: 10km 
triathlons, "fun runs", 100km cycles - this is now their social life, their community, and their hobby.

 

Where Generation X had their lost years - all-night raves and E, the wonder drug that was going to break down social barriers and create a Brave New World of love, until we realised it was actually just as selfish and individualistic a buzz as Thatcherism - Gen Nice have enthusiastic exercise and the pursuit of physical perfection. Smoking and drinking, although still problematic, are both on the way down for Irish teenagers, as are teen pregnancy rates.

 

They have no fear of strangers the way we all did - because, in their world, there are no strangers, only friends you have not yet met via Instagram, Twitter or Yik Yak, and so they have "supper clubs" in their houses, where they cook for a bunch of like-minded people they don't know, they set up cooperative gardens and go to free drop-in clinics giving legal advice on the arts. This is their thing, community. Their secret weapon in the face of the mess they feel we have made of the world.

 

An excess of individualism, they believe, has led to the vicious polarisation of the world, in which the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer, and so the antidote must be knitting circles, sharing their lives online and connecting with as much of the world as they can get their virtual arms around.

 

Perhaps, too, subconsciously Generation Nice are readying themselves for a future in which they may well find sharing a house with young children and elderly parents, as dwindling wealth, rising cost of living, longer lives and later births converge into one giant need to husband resources by collecting them all under one roof.

 

Frankly, it is a tricky world that Generation Nice is inheriting, and they have many of the right ideas. The question is, what happens when those ideas meet the tricky world head-on, rather than from behind a barrier of parental support and financial infantilism?

 

Can a generation known for tolerance, equality and inclusivity, as much as immaturity and narcissism, grow up sufficiently to "be the change" they want to see?

 

Generation Nice Icons

 

George Clooney

 

He’s a bit old, obviously, but his relentless political correctness qualifies him, and now he seems to be heading into classic Generation Nice territory, by thinking he can travel from celebrity to politician, and take his 100pc popularity rating with him. He won’t be the first Hollywood star to go this direction, but he may become the most disillusioned.

 

 

 

Willow Smith

 

She may be only 13, but Willow has plenty of Gen Nice clout. An actress, singer, dancer and style icon from a very young age, she has collaborated with Jay-Z (she’s the youngest artist to be signed to his RocNation label) and Nicki Minaj. Raised by her parents in classic Gen Nice fashion — collaborative, not authoritative — she is precocious, controversial, androgynous. And shops vintage.

 

 

 

Lady Gaga

 

It’s not just the insistent fashion statements, it’s the tolerance — the arms-out-to-misfits, accept-yourself approach — that has made Gaga such an icon for Gen Nice. Born This Way is probably the anthem of the age.

 

Taylor Swift

 

Openly professing vulnerability through her songs is as much a country-music thing as it is a Gen Nice thing, but add in that Taylor comes from three generations of bank presidents, but has chosen to go the creative way, along with her support for LGBT causes, modelling for Abercrombie & Fitch (practically uniform-wear for Gen Nice), and the endless name-checking of her parents as “amazing people”, and you’ll see she fits.

 

Generation Nice Icons

George Clooney

 

george.jpg
George Clooney

 

He’s a bit old, obviously, but his relentless political correctness qualifies him, and now he seems to be heading into classic Generation Nice territory, by thinking he can travel from celebrity to politician, and take his 100pc popularity rating with him. He won’t be the first Hollywood star to go this direction, but he may become the most disillusioned.

 

Willow Smith

 

Life-Willow-Smith.jpg
Willow Smith.

 

She may be only 13, but Willow has plenty of Gen Nice clout. An actress, singer, dancer and style icon from a very young age, she has collaborated with Jay-Z (she’s the youngest artist to be signed to his RocNation label) and Nicki Minaj. Raised by her parents in classic Gen Nice fashion — collaborative, not authoritative — she is precocious, controversial, androgynous. And shops vintage.

 

Lady Gaga

 

FEA_2014-06-26_LIF_034_32104202_I1.JPG
Lady Gaga

 

It’s not just the insistent fashion statements, it’s the tolerance — the arms-out-to-misfits, accept-yourself approach — that has made Gaga such an icon for Gen Nice. Born This Way is probably the anthem of the age.

 

Taylor Swift

 

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Taylor Swift.

 

Openly professing vulnerability through her songs is as much a country-music thing as it is a Gen Nice thing, but add in that Taylor comes from three generations of bank presidents, but has chosen to go the creative way, along with her support for LGBT causes, modelling for Abercrombie & Fitch (practically uniform-wear for Gen Nice), and the endless name-checking of her parents as “amazing people”, and you’ll see she fits.

 

Steve Jobs

 

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Steve Jobs

 

For making it all possible, and for being true to his beliefs until the end.

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