Madeleine White illustrates how to engage teenagers in the world of work

New paradigm of work

MySpace, teen chat rooms, reality TV and webcams – we live in a truly interactive knowledge-based culture that offers alternative routes to being successful in an ‘adult’ working world. It is understandable then that many teens see it as easier just to ‘opt out’, to live this alternative reality that is so effectively modelled by celebrities such as Jade Goody, 50 Cent and various other reality talent or non-talent show winners, or even internet webcam celebrities who espouse this subculture so successfully.

Jade had no qualifications, went on Big Brother and became a millionairess. 50 Cent shot his way through to superstardom with language and lyrics to match, the winners of the latest X Factor can expect millions in similar measure – so why when this all seems so easily accessible should the accepted ladder of success based around working your way up through education seem attractive?

By 2008 there will be a recognised vocational alternative (DfES, 2005). However, there is a perception that this is still based on an industrial-age model of the world of work despite the fact that the information explosion has moved the goal posts way beyond this paradigm. Therefore, although the intentions are good, the move towards vocational education can still be seen as part of the system, one that can alienate and polarise. Most traditionally ‘successful’ teens of course will not feel this. They will still mainly come from backgrounds where they see success. They understand the system because they are already part of it. They can see it, touch it and feel it because it is modelled for them by their parents, teachers and friends whom they strive to emulate and compete with. The drive towards vocational qualifications by 2008 addresses their needs because these teens will become even more successful and employable – they are being offered another way into something they can already see the point to and the results of.

Working with hard-to-reach teens

It is, however, disenfranchised young people who may not be able to see how this vocational framework can benefit them. Yet they are the very ones who need to buy into it. There are obviously some wonderful success stories, but much of the energy that is harnessed can still be very negative as these hard-to-reach young people see vocational ‘qualifications’ as part of a system they don’t belong to and that doesn’t belong to them. So, how to move that step further, how to build a road to success that isn’t based around the X Factor get-rich-quick ideal and create more realistic aspirations that can actually be modelled?

The accepted norm is that vocational learning can have a major impact on how a young person performs and engages with the world of work. This is because, it is argued, by applying core subjects such as maths, English and increasingly IT within a framework that has tangible results in the real world, young people will be far more ready to enter this world when they leave formal education. But this should only be the first part of the story.

The other part of the equation is the recognition that a new and fresh way of thinking is also needed if the explosion of communication and opportunities offered by the knowledge age are to be truly grasped and applied within business and industry. The key benefit for business is not just that there will be better trained and versatile future employees. It is that these trainees, if given the correct forum and dialogue, might actually start to move business in a new and exciting direction through the fresh ideas.

By working with and cooperating on real projects, albeit built on an understanding of the teenage world, business can also be helped and guided by new approaches and thinking. Maybe in some ways this is the elusive ‘third way’ that gurus such as Stephen Covey refer to (Covey, 2006).

A real-life project

Oi!, Outspoken Individual Magazine, is living proof that this third way can and does work. This 24-page A4 magazine was funded in the first instance by Ramsgate’s Marlowe Academy and launched in conjunction with creativeuk solutions. It is based around the fact that teenagers need a real magazine to reflect their ambitions, views and ideals – not their world misinterpreted through adult eyes, as with so many of the national teen magazines. Oi! is written, compiled and, by issue 3, increasingly edited by an editorial team with an average age of 15. Its writers are drawn from around Kent which is also a reason for Oi!’s burgeoning local success with advertisers and sponsors alike. The current readership stands at 100,000 in Kent. Its strength lies in the fact that is written for teens and by teens, distributed through schools and produced in a glossy-magazine format that is instantly recognisable in a world hungry for entrepreneurial success.

Enterprise education projects such as Oi! offer a new route for disenfranchised teenagers to achieve. They are a key element of the contemporary vocational/educational process that rejects the traditional model of older and wiser business people ‘giving’ wisdom to younger recipients of certificates. They have far more to do with working towards mutual needs and goals.

It is thus that business and youth become shareholders in each other’s worlds and thus that true ingenuity and creativity can thrive because the teens and young people recognise the need for imposed structure which they might previously have seen as unnecessary imposition. From small and medium-sized enterprises to big corporations – listening to the vision and idealism of our teens might just create a different way of doing things.

Read Madeleine’s article on building entrepreneurial skills and stopping gang culture here


Covey, S (2006) The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. London: Simon & Schuster.

DfES (2005) 14-19 Education and Skills Summary

Madeleine White is managing director of creativeuk solutions

First published in Learning for Life, November 2006