Want UK businesses to thrive? Children are the future.

Posted on Nov 15th, 2016 | News and opinion

Want UK businesses to thrive? Children are the future., image of school children raising their hands

“I believe the children are our future.” These words could easily have been written by any politician or motivational speaker of the last century.

In fact, they were immortalised by Whitney Houston, a woman who blossomed from the member of a baptist church choir to became one of the world’s iconic singers.

Whitney’s words popped into my head while listening to chancellor Philip Hammond discuss his vision for the UK economy at the recent Conservative party conference.

For those that could stay awake long enough, the key message from the grey man of UK politics was not about how the UK will deal with Brexit, but that Great Britain is on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution.

This is the term developed by economics to describe the growth of industries such as genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and biotechnology. Even just saying those words may be enough to invoke a career-questioning migraine for some.

But this, Mr Hammond and other experts tell us, is where the future is. And that’s where Whitney enters, stage right.

Divided kingdom

At the moment, the UK is fiercely divided as the fallout from the June 23rd vote continues.

The common perception of Generation Y (those born after 1980) is that their life chances have been damaged by a fearful baby boomer generation intent on turning back the clock.

To this angry youth, Hammond’s message was clear: now is the time for the younger generation to grab the Brexit Bull by the horns and set themselves and the country on the path to success. One problem – the UK has never been very good at getting young people into business from an early age.

Much of the focus of the primary education system – the time when the brain is most adept at absorbing new information – is on numeracy and literacy. When young people move up to the secondary level, the focus then shifts to other academic areas, like history, geography, and science.

Business Studies as a whole is seen as a bit of a joke subject; an easy option for those who are unsure where they want to go with their life. In fact, former education secretary Michael Gove listed it on his list of “soft” subjects and recommended it be struck off the curriculum completely.

Out of the classroom, and it seems that business is pretty low down on a young person’s to do list. Those most likely to be exposed to it at an early age are those with family firms, as parents and grandparents hope to pass on to their loved ones the fruits of their labour.

Yet research from Harvard shows that 70% of family businesses fail or are sold before the second generation takes over. But if you look at examples of successful business people, they all started out at an early age.

Lord Sugar was flogging fruit and veg on the streets of London while still at school. Richard Branson began selling records from a church while running a student magazine. Even Whitney herself was travelling round musical clubs as a teen with her mum, picking up tips from those in the know.

All these people learned their lessons at a young age – and what followed was global success. It is a lesson business leaders should never forget. It’s also a lesson young people setting out on life’s path should be eager to learn.

Time for change

Thankfully it looks as though times are changing, both inside and outside the classroom.

With the Government intent on widening out the academy and free school programme, it means many teachers have an increasing amount of freedom.

Earlier this year a school in Kent received national media attention after it became the first in the country to introduce a ‘kids MBA’ course. A little further along the coast in Brighton, Capita founder Sir Rod Aldridge is the principal sponsor of two secondary schools that “have a strong focus on developing entrepreneurial skills… in order to transform the life-chances of young people.”

Parents too can take a lead, encouraging their loved ones to start learning important life lessons from an early age. One mother I know has almost been bullied by her daughter into allowing her to start a business. The seven-year-old became obsessed with making cupcakes and thought up the bright idea of selling them.

Instead of stifling it, the mother encouraged it – helping her daughter and friend arrange a meeting with a local accountant, then sitting back as the children negotiated with the suited professional to oversee their finances in return for cakes.

Earlier the better

It’s proof that when encouraged, young people really can pick up skills quicker than anyone – and show those older and supposedly wiser that age is just a number.

Indeed, if the country is really intent on making a success of leaving the European Union and starting the wheels in motion on the fourth industrial revolution, there really should be no age limit on when people get started.

To return to Whitney, this is One Moment in Time that offers real opportunity to our young people. I believe that a business grounding at an early age could really see the UK flourish in challenging times ahead.

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Written by Tim Ridgway

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