Can the Young Teach Us Anything About Health and Safety?


I detect a certain amount of righteous indignation and resentment when young kids come out of college with a degree in health, safety, environment and quality (no doubt combined with media studies or sociology in this period of qualification inflation). The argument goes something like: “They have no experience to speak of. They have no significant scaring (mental or otherwise) and no regard for the traditions built up over a lifetime devoted to cynicism and ridicule.” But that’s not my view.

It’s fashionable in some circles to demonise the young (see here for example). Oscar Wilde famously said “I am not young enough to know everything”. Sure, the young can be arrogant, inexperienced (how can they be any other?) and impetuous but they are not a different species. As it happens, old people also come in for some stick, so maybe middle age is perfection?

What I do think is that the young have a lot to bring to the table, whatever their age. I’m not suggesting they should be waiters. Indeed, I think they can be very good for us seasoned ‘professionals’ (I use the term loosely).

I am generalising enormously but here goes. In my experience young people have a ‘can do’ attitude. They have not yet learned that some things are difficult or impossible to do. Young kids especially have an unfounded confidence that you, as a parent, will somehow come up with the solution that means their larger than life plans will actually work out. As parents we have probably greeted many a creative request from our kids with ‘I’m not sure we can make that’ and ended up creating a longbow (or other lethal weapon) and having tremendous fun in the process. Kids love technology too and their enthusiasm and vitality is catching. They make you try new things (some things old people probably should not try). They encourage you not to dwell on past failures or present excuses. This can drive innovation, challenge conventions and make your pathetic health, safety, environmental or quality life vibrant and exciting again. You find yourself also thinking ‘why not?’ again.

Young people (apart from the early teens, mostly spent asleep) are very often impatient. They want it now. They just don’t get our procrastination and deliberation. We often cannot see the irony of doing the SHEQ equivalent of volunteering coaching tips (as if we were supreme athletes) or disparaging remarks whilst sitting on the couch in our ‘fatter than life’ lethargy.

I was young once. I remember when I bought my first house. Whenever I was doing anything in the garden or on the house or maintaining my car, ‘Old Ted’ was almost always passing. He was hugely experienced and arrogant and I dreaded his coming. It was immensely discouraging to be told “So, have you learned anything from buying a house with a North-facing garden?” or “You know how to lay turf I suppose?” This was always rhetorical and rapidly followed by his perspective on life. I almost gave up trying or at least dreamt about having him killed. Yes, the young need to learn but not squashed.

Of course, I’m not suggesting a naked ‘gung ho’ attitude to SHEQ either. Rather taking the good bits, tempered with experience (the young sometimes need reigning in). One should always try everything at least once – though one should try and avoid capture. The young and old are allies. So, suck it in, keep taking the pills and get over it.