So, lockdown again. This time around, there will be fewer loved ones around a lot of dinner tables, fewer businesses on main streets, and fewer (and/or greyer) hairs on parental heads.
I looked through this AP photo collection recently, and by the time I got to the end I was tired and sad and overwhelmed. And it got me thinking of the biggest group of people I didn’t mention above: kids.
Kids are having their own hard time through all of this, but even more than the adults, they’re learning and being shaped. What that’s going to mean in five or 50 years, I don’t know.
I thought about mentorship, and almost laughed. Because what the hell are we going to tell the next generation?
Of course, as is the way of things, young people know that old folks don’t know anything. At least not anything relevant. Or so the stereotypes go. But in the future, they may well have a point.
We’re talking about people who never knew a pre-9/11 world. Didn’t grow up without broadband internet (or any internet) or YouTube or smartphones. Where every subsequent year wasn’t the hottest ever recorded. Where there was no same-sex marriage and no one had yet said “Me, too” or “Black Lives Matter” so publicly. And now they have this pandemic.
Yes, those of us who were and are in the tech world are going through this, too. But it’s not the same. We’re already formed. Our education wasn’t disrupted by anything like this. Our home lives weren’t disrupted by anything like this. We got jobs as students, and later as graduates.
Sure, maybe we weren’t of the generation that could get a high-paying union job out of high school and raise a family on it, but still.
We’ve founded companies and gotten investment and grown organizations and failed and closed up shop and took corporate jobs again to pay the bills and eventually started again. But the world we did it in was safer. It was easier. (It was also less equitable and more conservative and definitely not easier for everyone...)
For many who’ve worked as hard and as smart as is possible, and who’ve tried everything, and still lost their businesses, there is no shame in it. Rainy day prep and savings only work if it eventually stops raining.
But for some who’ve crashed and burned in the past, wasting millions or billions of someone else’s dollars on bad ideas with worse execution, inept management, and/or rampaging egos?
Well. There’s failure, and then there’s failure. I don’t think they’re qualified to be mentors.
We’re going to need innovation and entrepreneurship in areas that weren’t the sexiest before. Rebuilding, or starting over in some ways, is about digging the foundations, not the finish work.
The aspects of tech and society and business that were failing many before won’t be magically fixed once they declare the pandemic over. Areas of healthcare and education and finance social supports and labour that were crumbling before still are, and much faster in many ways.
For so many people things haven’t and aren’t going well. Their mental and physical health, their housing and food security, and their economic futures are dimming. What are they going to need (besides a lot of money and social supports) to climb back out of this? It’s unlikely to be a podcast monetization play or Elon Musk’s latest whim.
Problem is, we’re really bad (societally wide) at actually listening to those with these needs when they try to tell us. We often don’t listen well to kids, either. Hmm.
One thing the next generation has, though, is each other, in ways older cohorts don’t. For decades now we’ve glorified individual achievement. To the victors have gone the spoils. But victors are poorly served by that when they start losing badly and need help. They don’t know how to ask, where to get it, and haven’t accrued social capital to trade for it.
The kids these days have had an oft unstable world, and us old folks don’t seem to be fixing much very quickly (COVID vaccine excluded). They have to support each other and fight for each other. Imagine starting over or rebuilding on a community-based foundation, rather than winner take all being the only acceptable business model.
In addition to new ideas and hard work, rebuilding and innovating is going to require a lot of money. Likely even more up front than it would have in previous eras if we build in in more equitable and sustainable ways. (But it pays for itself over time.)
Where’s it going to come from? Despite getting even richer even faster through 2020, billionaires haven’t opened their coffers wide and invited everyone to take what they need. Governments and a lot of potential investors are, and are going to be, a whole lot less flush for some time.
The way we’ve constituted capitalism hasn’t been working for many, and is going to work even less well in the future. We grownups won’t fix that, because capitalism has worked too well for a bunch of us, and it’s what we’re steeped in. But don’t be surprised if the next generation isn’t cool with maintaining that status quo. In fact, expect them to be pissed.
Now, sure, there are the foundational things about starting and building a business that this generation can teach the next. How do you write a business plan? How do you read a term sheet? What do you need for hiring?
But once we’re out of the COVID woods, we can’t guarantee there won’t be other future disasters. And we can’t promise to steer the ship through them any more smoothly than this time. Because we’ve been safe. So how much guidance can we really provide?
And there are disasters we’ve brewed that haven’t come knocking yet. I mean, sure, large swaths of Australia and the western U.S. burned this year. But once the pandemic hit we largely went back to ignoring climate change. But as much as we may focus elsewhere, we brung her, and we’re gonna have to dance with her eventually.
On a granular, main street level, what else is the next generation of builders and business owners going to need to know? How do they learn to grow as part of the community while helping strengthen and change it as a whole?
I’m sure plenty of folks who have or will lose businesses before this is over will have plenty to say, but to a point there was no more they could have done to prevent it. Not sure how much additional mentorship is to be found there.
Or maybe there is, in the human side of things. When things went to hell, how did they work with their employees, their customers, the business community? How did their landlords and creditors work with them? How did they stay sane, take care of their families, pay their bills? There’ll be some cautionary tales for sure.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, if we teach the next generation anything, I think it ultimately comes down to a lesson we can learn from those who’ve experienced trauma.
Those who’ve experienced trauma often present one of two opposing attitudes. “I had to go through it, so why should anyone else have it easier?” Or, “I had to go through it, and I never want anyone else to have to.” One perpetuates, the other transforms. I am quite certain the next generation will be transformed by these experiences.
So maybe I’m thinking about it all backwards. Maybe in our rebuilding and innovating efforts, they’re meant to do the mentoring, not us.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.