The second edition of the Next Gen festival brought together leading young minds shaping the worlds of technology, business, fashion, art and politics to discuss current events and the pressing issues of today’s world. Here are some of their conclusions.
Determination and agility will keep freelancers in work
Flexibility is the future for freelancers, says Claer Barrett, the FT’s consumer editor. “Having a range of clients is a good idea. The blend of different things that you can do as a freelancer, the flexibility. Being able to pivot and quickly change in response to the way the market is changing. Staying close to those important clients. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. I’m so fed up with Zoom calls, so try picking up the phone. Keep touching base, coming up with ideas.”
For Poorna Bell, a journalist and author who freelanced throughout both the 2008 financial crash and the pandemic, social media is an essential marketing tool for freelancers. “Social media can cut through the red tape of hierarchy. You can communicate what you are in a way that’s very authentic. I have people contacting me on social media for paid work all the time — that now accounts for about 40 per cent of my income. It’s yet another tool in terms of being able to connect with people.”
Youth activism is more important now than ever
In 2016, Hong Kong activist Nathan Law became the youngest legislative councillor in the city’s history, winning a landslide victory with his pro-democracy message. A year later, he was disqualified from the legislature, sparking a global outcry. Following China’s decision in June to introduce national security laws that effectively criminalised many forms of peaceful protest, Law decided it was impossible to continue his work from Hong Kong. His political party, Demosisto, disbanded, and he upped and moved to London. Yet he remains optimistic, and argues that his election to the seat should act as a rallying cry to young demonstrators. “It proved that young people are a specific category of voice, and that we can be taken seriously. You don’t have to be from a certain background; I’m from a very humble background. It’s not about age. It’s not even about education. If you can demonstrate your belief and your determination in front of the camera and convince people that you genuinely believe in your cause — that kind of sincerity can move a lot of things.”
In the fight against authoritarianism, these young voices are crucial, he says. “We shouldn’t take our freedom for granted. You must have eternal vigilance and always be aware of what’s happening in your society. You have to act when things go wrong. The best way to solve conflict is by holding the powerful to account.”
Collect art thoughtfully
“Art-market tastes change but if you commit to work that moves you, that will always have some kind of long-lasting nature.” So says art writer and curator Aindrea Emelife, when offering advice to young or inexperienced art enthusiasts looking to start a collection. “Go with how you feel, and don’t be bogged down by ‘I should be buying this because everyone is buying this or my friends are buying this.’” Marine Tanguy, chief executive and founder of emerging artist talent agency MTArt, likens the experience of shopping for art to dating: “First you feel attracted to the person, and then if they have this amazing, interesting story, then it’s long-term.”
But collecting isn’t a one-way relationship, emphasises Emelife. You need to buy thoughtfully from artists. Following this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, she was overwhelmed by requests from collectors and galleries for “art by a black artist”.
“That removes the nuance from it,” she says. “Not all women make art about being women and not all black artists make art about being black. Do some research. A lot of artists have statements, and they love to know you’ve done the research rather than to feel that they’re trendy or tick a box. That way you’re not tokenising; you’re getting an artwork because it means something to you.”
Activism and the algorithm
Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests made a global impact — but where does social media come into that? News coverage moves on quickly, says Charlton McIlwain, vice provost for faculty engagement and development at New York University, but digital media “has a means of sustaining protracted conversation and attention to critical issues”.
Victoria Alexander, a diversity and equity facilitator, uses Twitter and Instagram to teach her followers about “actively” practising anti-racism. “I enjoy providing an education to counter ignorance or a lack of exposure,” she says. “People being hungry for that information has been really gratifying.”
It’s important to understand the limitations of digital activism, says Rashad Robinson, president of racial justice organisation Color of Change. “We use and leverage these tools because they’re there for us,” he says. “But we also have to hold these institutions accountable.” Social media platforms weren’t built with a view to fighting racism. “Their goal is growth and profit over safety and security,” he adds. “We have to force, whether it’s cultural institutions, political institutions, individuals or power structures, to actually respond to our needs and concerns.”
Fashion is waking up to the environmental movement
This year saw power brands including Gucci, Armani, Michael Kors and Prabal Gurung announce that they would cease producing half a dozen shows a year, and instead focus on two core collections, responding to calls for the industry to reduce emissions as well as worries over excess stock after the pandemic. It’s necessary for the planet, says Gurung, and for designers it’s a dream come true. “Two collections is the dream of every designer,” he says. “We need time to breathe, think, marinate, to percolate with an idea. Four shows — everything feels banal. I’ve always needed time. Sustainability isn’t just about fabrics, it’s about mental health, culture, everything. I wanted to really focus on storytelling. We have an incredible platform as designers to not only reflect what people wear but to change culture.”
Ecommerce is king
The development of ecommerce is another point of progress for the fashion industry, says Chris Morton, chief executive and co-founder of luxury digital retailer Lyst. “We’ve jumped forward maybe five years in five months,” he says. “A lot of it is people have understood that ecommerce is a wonderful experience. We won’t go back.”
The argument over the costs and benefits of lockdown persists
Did the UK’s decision to lock down completely do more harm than good? Did the emotional and financial damage to the country outweigh the number of lives saved? Toby Young, chief executive of the Free Speech Union and founder of LockdownSceptics.org, thinks so. “The visible harms are starting to outweigh the harms people were trying to prevent,” says Young.
But it’s not that simple, argues Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at University of Edinburgh Medical School. “If you have uncontrolled transmission of the virus, hospital staff will be off because they have Covid and we won’t have enough people to treat other sick people. Uncontrolled transmission leads to higher GDP loss. When your ICU beds fail and you start having people die outside of the hospital because they can’t get oxygen, government shuts down. There will be unrest if the government isn’t protecting people.”
The mistake, argues Sridhar, is to think that Covid-19 doesn’t affect the young. “One to 10 per cent of healthy young people get long Covid to the point that they can’t work. What economy can support that level?”
With the property market in flux, buy for love, not money
How should prospective buyers play the pandemic property market: wait out the turbulence or strike now? “We’ve had a very long period of uncertainty and there’s no end in sight,” says Jo Eccles, managing director and founder of luxury London realtor SP Property Group. “People are realising they can’t wait for ever.”
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In the current uneasy financial climate, buy for love, not investment return. “You need to take a slightly longer view. Fifteen years ago clients were buying for much shorter periods, whereas now you need to be buying for the next five to seven years in order to hopefully see some capital growth on your purchase. If you can’t commit — because of job uncertainty or moving abroad — it might be a question of renting.”
Richard Donnell, director of research and insight at online property site Zoopla, adds: “Don’t compromise. Don’t get on the ladder at any cost. Buy what you’d be happy to live in for several years.”
Zoom has been a great democratiser
“It’s quite beautiful what online events have done to a very London-centric approach to programming,” observes Liv Little, founder of gal-dem, a media company focused on women and non-binary people of colour. “You can reach people outside London and outside the UK.” Chris Stokel-Walker, a journalist and author who has written extensively on big tech companies, concurs: “After a long period of reeling at tech companies — they’ve saved the day. They’ve allowed us to connect with our families and keep working. We’ve had voices put on TV that wouldn’t have been, because they weren’t in London or they couldn’t get to a BBC studio.”
Digital dating is the new norm
“We’re seeing more dates than ever, and more people exchanging numbers than ever,” says Justin McLeod, chief executive and founder of dating app Hinge. “People are coming to dating apps because they’re the only game in town right now. There’s no weddings, no dinner parties.” Sean Patrick Henry, who develops product for LGBTQ+ dating app Grindr, adds that they’ve seen a different kind of interaction happening on their app: more long conversations, more questions.
For Lindsey Metselaar, chief executive of social media company Lindsey’s Lunchbox and host of dating podcast We Met at Acme, these are exciting developments. “The kind of connection-building you can have when sex is off the table is huge,” she says. “More people should take advantage of that. It could actually cultivate stronger connections.”
Pandemic messaging for the young must be improved
Images of overcrowded beaches and pool parties circulating on social media over the summer prompted cries that young people weren’t taking the pandemic seriously enough. Were they really to blame? “I think what we’re seeing is a long history of mapping blame on to young people and their decisions,” says Jennifer Reich, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Denver. Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, points to misleading messaging as the cause: “Young people have not got the message that they’re not vulnerable to the virus.”
That messaging also failed to acknowledge the challenges faced by young people of colour and key workers, says Marcella Nunez-Smith, associate professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine. “Studies found that young people of colour feared wearing masks would put them at risk of being stopped by law enforcement . . . People needed to be told, ‘If you’re going to be interacting with customers all day then this is how to be safe, if you have to take public transport then this is how to be safe.’ If no part of the message speaks to you, then you think there is nothing in the message for you.”