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The generation game

It’s years since I last took an exam but there is still a tinge of panic in early summer when the smell of the grass or an annoying wasp brings back memories of sitting in the local park and revising. 

Of course, 2020 has been very different for many kids. Whether it’s been home schooling by well-meaning but fractious parents who have gamely tried to balance the day job with ‘the three Rs’ and some semblance of sanity, or the removal of exams altogether for some.

For one year only, we hope, a cohort of students has missed out on the things that many of us recall with mixed feelings, whether the rite of passage that is saying goodbye to your classmates and ‘going up to big school’ or knowing you haven’t revised well enough but praying that a specific question comes up on the exam paper anyway.  

And for those going to university, the decision this year hasn’t been where to go for the best student experience. No, it’s been more a question of ‘Why bother?’

The attraction of online lectures and seminars wears off when there is no upside of new horizons with new mates, away from home. Living with Mum and Dad and zooming into lectures doesn’t really cut it even if the exam results did eventually come out all right.

So what’s the alternative? A gap year travelling the world isn’t on the cards with lockdown being a lottery and some parts of the world still waiting for Covid-19 #1 let alone a second or third wave.

Going straight into work, particularly across the built environment sector, is also tricky. The implications of furloughed staff facing redundancy is very real. The recession that is starting to bite means that jobs for graduates are hit and miss. The last 2008 recession was bad, but this time around we simply don’t know which will be the lucky firms securing the contracts, able to feed their teams and potentially looking for more staff.  

“A gap year travelling the world isn’t on the cards”

We do have Boris’s ‘build, build, build’ edict to keep housebuilding and infrastructure projects moving, so those of us working across the planning, development and construction sectors are luckier than many.

Compared with the last pandemic just over a century ago, we have the benefits of digital systems and flexible working. So, in theory, despite the number of people looking for work, the options today are wider, whether it’s for graduates or those caught up in company restructures who find themselves looking for new pastures with a family and mortgage to look after.

Although September may be upon us and the shops, those that are still open, are already planning their Christmas campaigns, we need look out for those in our profession who need a break. It could be the student who would benefit from a few days’ work experience or the graduate who desperately needs their first job so they don’t lose their enthusiasm for placemaking, or those with more experience who would welcome even a short contract.

Whether the government can pull off real changes to ‘make the planning system work’, at least it recognises that supporting the development industry is vital for the supply of homes that are needed. Its enthusiasm for infrastructure, whether it’s HS2 or the more mundane shovel-ready projects just down the road, will need people to ‘do the doing’.

We can’t afford to lose a generation. 2020 might have seen incredible challenges but let’s hope that our workforce of the next few years isn’t compromised to the point that we risk losing it. We need to look after both the class of 2020 as it moves into the working world, and the ‘freshers’ who will head to university and be able to sit in the park and revise next year and the year after.  

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director

Illustration l Zara Picken


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