Communication breakdown leaves old and young at odds over industry

Younger people’s attitudes towards ‘industry’ have almost nothing in common with those of older people, a new survey has found.

Whereas people over 45 tend to think of smokestacks and coal mines, noise and grime, those under 30 – and particularly those under 24 – tend to be future-orientated in their word associations, summoning images of computers, success, money and technology.

The word-association poll of 1,000 people across the UK was designed to test perceptions of industry at a time when it is frequently assumed that the UK has become a ‘post-industrial’ nation.

The study asked people for their mental pictures of industry and found that attitudes to industry may be in transition, with young and old coming up with dramatically different images:

  • The top word associations among people aged under 24 for ‘industry’ were: ‘money’, ‘business’, booming’, ‘computers’, ‘success’ and ‘technology’.
  • The top word associations among people over 45 were ‘factory’, ‘decline’, ‘dirt’, ‘strike’, ‘China’, and ‘masculinity/maleness’.
  • Overall, the most popular word associations were ‘factory’ (26.6%), followed by ‘money’ (19.8%), ‘decline’ (11.7%), ‘busyness’ (6.2%) and ‘computers’ (6.2%). The older the respondent the less ‘money’ tended to be associated with industry
  • Most people were pessimistic about the state of British industry. Asked whether they thought it was doing better or worse than 30 years ago, a total of 54% said it was doing worse, 33% better and 10% about the same (the remainder said they didn’t know).
  • Among younger people, the perception was considerably more positive, with 79.3% of 16-24 year olds saying British industry is doing better than 30 years ago.

There were also regional differences. People in Wales, for instance, were more likely to associate coal mines with industry than in other regions, while Londoners were more likely to associate industry with money.

The survey was commissioned by construction giant Amec and the Work Foundation consultancy.

Will Hutton, chief executive of the Work Foundation, said it was striking that the attitudes of older people towards industry – involving mental pictures of production lines and strikes – meant absolutely nothing to younger people.

“They [the young] see industry in more positive terms,” he said. “For them it’s about IT, not factories – which is probably much closer to the truth.”

Sir Peter Mason, chief executive of Amec, said younger people recognised that industry is more about computer screens today than hard hats.

“That’s good news – because we are still very short of new graduates in engineering science and technology,” he said. “Moreover, as these graduates enter the workplace, they will reshape industrial relations, as their expectations of their careers will be quite different.”

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