While hiding from the riots in an ill-timed vacation to Colombia this week, a couple of Financial Times articles caught my eye. My penchant for the potential of social media compelled me to click on Robert Shrimsley's article on LinkedIn opening up to those as young as thirteen -- a plan he brands "utterly and miserably aberrant." I struggle to agree.
There are all manner of blogs circulating at the moment that bemoan the loss of youth/growing up too fast. While many valid points are made, I'm starting to get a tad bored of this attitude as it relates to the Internet/technology. These views are typically voiced by the non-digital native and can be summarized in one phrase -- "It should be like it was in my day". But the fact is -- it isn't. The wheels of time continue to turn, no matter how much anyone laments them -- and with this turning comes new ways of doing things that don't have to be automatically branded "aberrant" -- or not in a bad way.
Large proportions of young people are of course already engaged in numerous social networks, but few of these are explicitly based on respectful, responsible grown up interactions. This current Wild West of social networking for young people (and older ones) is a world where virtual interactions can create the illusion of disconnection to real world manners and repercussions -- where people who would interact in a socially appropriate way in person find themselves engaged in online bullying, or making racist or sexist or homophobic jibes or threats that they would not do if face to face with someone. Since it is fairly clear the direction of travel of the social Internet is towards the increasing merging of the virtual and the physical -- and since both are becoming part of 'reality,' increasing young people's appropriate engagement in a respectful, reality-focused online social tool is surely no bad thing.
Nor do I believe is it somehow "aberrant" to encourage young people to learn to present themselves in the grown-up world through LinkedIn. I remember having helpful classes at high school on CV-writing. Rather than being something somehow alien, LinkedIn is simply a new incarnation of the CV -- one of the current, mainstream tools for presenting oneself to potential employers and the like. It seems to me that rather than somehow 'shielding' young people by not encouraging them to use LinkedIn well is in fact disempowering, and dismisses the opportunity to prepare them with relevant life skills to help get the education and career they want. Of course there are other ways to do this, but why discount a useful tool understood well by digital natives and used by professionals all over the world?
Another of Shrimsley's arguments is that having a LinkedIn profile puts stress on young people to undertake activities that are LinkedIn-worthy -- but it was ever thus. At the age of fifteen I was dashing around trying to find activities I could showcase on my sales pitch essay/CV for medical school. In the knowledge that what the universities sought was a well rounded student, I -- along with my classmates -- racked up hours at drama clubs, school committees, nursing home volunteering, gymnastics... And rushed to list them all proudly on our CVs. I'd started thinking about all that long before thirteen, but as I hadn't recorded any of my activities systematically, it meant a last minute disorganized dash when the application deadline loomed.
The young digital natives systematically inputting their adolescent transferable skills into LinkedIn as they input their Facebook and Twitter updates will become experienced in building narratives. They will know how to ascribe value to their diverse experiences outside of school as part of their online personas in a way that might hopefully merge seamlessly into their adult life. They will develop and recognize new categories of valuable experience to fit their circumstances, and will embrace flexible, technology-driven ways of working that support the pursuit and appreciation of that experience.
The FT's Mrs Moneypenny mused in her weekly column on the frustrating news that a female public sector executive in Scotland was heavily criticized recently for taking on a Non-Executive Director in her spare time (donating the money earned to charity), instead of focusing solely on the job in hand, despite her objectively having the time to do it (during her vacation) and the potential to contribute and to build new experiences and skills that would likely contribute positively to her professional development. Not to mention the opportunity to address the miserable proportion of women on Boards. Today's public depressingly couldn't see the value -- they couldn't stomach the idea that time spent in this way wouldn't be to the detriment of her day job -- but how about tomorrow's public?
I predict that today's young people will become accustomed to LinkedIn profiles that showcase a more diverse range of experience and become adept at identifying and appreciating transferable skills. They will understand how technology liberates people to work flexibly and fit in different, valued activities and achievements. Because for them, it's always been that way. These people will be better able to appreciate that a public sector executive can take on a Non-Executive Director role without neglecting her day job thanks to new tools and ways of working -- and that this diverse experience is valuable rather than detrimental. This could also apply to childcare responsibilities and other activities that require flexible work patterns currently foil aspirations like gender equality in the workplace. Aberrant perhaps, but in a good way. A brave -- and probably better -- new world beckons.