Comment – Game Over

Why attempting to attract young people into the demolition and construction sector via comparisons to computer gaming is folly.

There is no greater sign that a youth trend has peaked than when it is adopted by the mainstream.

I was a teenager at the time but I distinctly remember watching as a children’s TV presenter wearing bondage trousers, a handful of safety pins and spiked hair attempted to explain what punk was all about. By this time, the Sex Pistols had already imploded with John (Johnny Rotten) Lydon signing off the band’s first and last US tour with those immortal words: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Yes Johnny, I recall thinking. You’re damn right I do. I am getting that feeling right now watching this berk doing the pogo on Blue Peter.

I saw the same thing unfold with the absorption of hip-hop into the mainstream. As a huge fan of the Friends sitcom, it pains me to say it. But there is an episode in which Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel Green character attempts to rap. It remains cringe-making to watch and potentially did more harm to the hip-hop movement than Vanilla Ice and Robbie Williams’ god-awful Rudebox ever could.

The problem is that, when the mainstream borrows or steals a youth trend, it takes only the surface. That 1970s children’s TV presenter wore the clothes but failed to comprehend or convey just what punk actually was: a rebellion against pompous and self-indulgent prog-rock; a backlash against youth unemployment and a country in political crisis and plagued with civil unrest.

Hip-hop, at its core, is a latter-day blues. It is a music of protest and struggle. Jennifer Aniston’s failed attempt to rap was a far cry from seminal songs like The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five that shone a light upon the plight of young black men in inner-city America in the early 1980s.

And all of this is not peculiar to the media. I vividly remember visiting London’s Carnaby Street some time around 1978 to buy my own pair of bondage trousers (laugh all you want but these were not my greatest fashion crime. Not by a long way). Carnaby Street in the 1970s wore its edginess on its torn sleeve. Even though it is just a few hundred yards from the glitz and glamour of London’s Regent Street, the entire place felt sleazy and slightly dangerous. To myself and my friends at the time, Carnaby Street felt like it was ours.

The Carnaby Street of today is transformed, and not necessarily for the better in my opinion. It is as if Regent Street itself has seeped in. Carnaby Street today looks and feels like any high street in the world. It even has a Starbucks. And while Japanese and American tourists still gather beneath the street’s famous overhead sign for that all-important selfie photo, the reason for the sign’s iconic status has long since been buried beneath designer shops and corporate homogeny.

Likewise, London’s Camden Market – the spiritual home of punk – is now a haven for groovy media companies where tattoos are a prerequisite of employment, and yet more franchise coffee shops. A handful of sorry-looking and ageing punks with wilted mohawks remain, but their sole purpose is to pose for photographs with passing tourists. Joe Strummer must be turning in his grave.

Now I say all this not as a statement on the corporate appropriation of youth culture for its own nefarious needs (although, while I am about it, this does demonstrate a lack of vision and original thinking). Nor do I say it to appear “cool” and youthful (I am neither).
This is, in fact, a long-winded and tortuous lead in to a discussion about the demolition and construction sectors’ ongoing failure to attract young people into the industry. More specifically, I am calling time on the constant comparison of excavator controls with those of an Xbox or PlayStation as a lure with which to hook unsuspecting youngsters.

To my mind, this is wrong on so many levels and it speaks to a perception of the youth of today from the perspective of a middle-aged man in a suit who is probably aware of the existence of Instagram and TikTok only because his son or daughter seem to talk about precious little else.

For one thing, not everyone in the combined fields of demolition and construction drives an excavator. In fact, comparatively, very few people actually do. Look at a typical demolition project (whatever that is) and there may be 20 or more people on site but only one or two people actually driving a machine of any kind. Suggesting that an ability to play Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto is somehow preparation for a life in demolition or construction is, therefore, misleading and doesn’t actually represent the realities of the industry as a whole. The ability to operate a PlayStation prepares no-one for life as a general site operative, a soft strip operative, a burner, estimator, site manager, supervisor or just about any of the multitude of other jobs that make up the modern demolition world.

In my opinion, the combined demolition and construction sectors could learn much from the advertising carried out by the Armed Forces. That advertising goes to great lengths to point out that there is a huge number of careers and disciplines on offer, very few of which involve being shot at. Those ads are noticeably non-gender-specific and they play upon some of the unspoken perks of a life in the Armed Forces: transferable skills; camaraderie; international travel; discipline and self-reliance. Although the international travel is not readily available to all, all those other perceived perks exist in the field of demolition and construction. But who is talking about that?

Setting all of that aside, there are further issues with the Xbox/excavator comparison. Not every young person plays video games. Those that do are predominantly male. In fact, a recent study suggests that as few as six percent of young women identify themselves as gamers compared to around 33 percent of young males in the same age bracket. Selling demolition and construction on the basis of its perceived similarity to a games console is – at best – appealing to just a third of young men, making it a poor use of its advertising dollars. Furthermore, by appealing predominantly to young men, it further perpetuates the gender imbalance that continues to plague the sector.

Bearing in mind that – today more than ever – young people aspire to a lifestyle of maximum income for minimum effort (footballers, reality TV stars, YouTubers and Instagrammers), why do we not focus more upon the potential earnings within this industry? Admittedly, not everyone will get to own a Bentley (though some do). But £80k/year for a senior estimator – quite possibly in their early 30s – is not to be sniffed at, and neither is the company BMW that goes with the role. (For the record, I am not suggesting that the job of estimator is minimum effort. That £80k will require a lot of hard work and dedication).

In addition, for most young people, computer gaming is something they do in their spare time. In all likelihood, both young men and young women will spend more time on their mobile phones and devices. They will likely be extremely computer savvy having never known life without them. They come pre-wired with the ability to operate social media. They inhabit a world of email and apps; WhatsApp and mobile mobile communications. They have their fingers on the technological pulse. In the age of BIM, email and social media marketing, remote working, drone surveys and machine telematics, we need all of this and so much more. So why are we spending so much time and energy trying to convert gamers into excavator operators when so many young people possess precisely the skills and expertise we need in other areas right now?

I will leave you with one final thought. Unless they’re in a band, middle-aged men have no business wearing baseball caps back-to-front. Unless they are Tony Hawk, they have no place on a skateboard. They should not be wearing skinny jeans, they should not have body piercings, and they most certainly should not refer to anyone as “bro” or “dude”. Like computer gaming, all of these things belong to the young. Any attempt to appropriate any of these things merely serves to cheapen them and to alienate the very people to which they belong.

So can we all stop trying so hard to be “down with the kids” and start showing the kids what’s down with demolition and construction.