A generational perspective on infrastructure

Published: 29 Aug 2019

By: Victor Frebault

Victor Frebault

Millennials spend all their money on Netflix, Ubers and takeaway coffees. We’re card-carrying members of the snowflake generation. We stay living with our parents for longer, join the workforce later and languish in seemingly eternal adolescence. We’re glued to our phones – more concerned with our curated and self-indulgent online worlds than the reality of the one around us.

Well, that’s the story we hear all too often. In truth, we’re just trying to find our way, the same as those who’ve come before. We’ve managed to swerve some of the challenges of the past, but now we’re presented with new ones. The struggle to get on the housing ladder and the pressures of social media are just a couple.

So let’s drop our weapons in this intergenerational war. Society has much to gain from combining the wisdom that comes with age with the fresh perspectives that we can bring to the table. As a member of the National Infrastructure Commission’s Young Professionals Panel (YPP), I know how powerful this approach can be.

We support the Commissioners, eight of the most experienced and respected minds in the fields of economics, architecture, transport and energy. Their task is to tell the government what infrastructure the country needs to thrive through a National Infrastructure Assessment, the first of which was published last summer.

It makes a series of recommendations covering the essential things we rely on to go about our daily lives – transport, energy, waste, water, flood resilience and digital connectivity. It doesn’t look at what we’ll need tomorrow or next year: it’s a plan for the next three decades, all the way up to 2050. By then, I’ll be celebrating my 57th birthday!

The YPP is made up of individuals just starting out in their infrastructure careers who support and inform the Commission’s work. Unlike the Commissioners, our CVs haven’t racked up the years, but we bring first-hand experience of how our generation interacts with the world around us. Our behaviour patterns aren’t the same as those of our parents and grandparents, so we need to give serious thought to how they will fundamentally alter the demands on our infrastructure.

We have distinct expectations for how we want to travel and stay connected. Various factors are driving a downward trend in car ownership among young people: Growing urbanisation, a lower proportion of homeowners and the high cost are just some of the reasons why it’s falling out of fashion. As more of us move towards cycling, trains, trams and buses, we need to ensure our public transport can keep up.

Millennials have cut their teeth in the internet age. We’ve grown up against the backdrop of social media and we’re the most likely of all age groups to choose a job because it offers flexibility, like working from home. With broadband and 4G increasingly viewed as essential utilities, we’re fuelling demand for first-class digital infrastructure – an area where the UK is currently falling behind many other European nations.

User experience is also important to our generation. Whether it’s food, music or clothes, we’ve become accustomed to rating different aspects of our lives, loyally following reviews, shares and likes. The twenty-something customer will come to expect more from their infrastructure too. Whether it’s how their local station is designed or the environmental impact of their energy provider.

The Panel is currently researching how these generational shifts will transform what we need our infrastructure to deliver. But the benefit we can bring isn’t limited to the youth perspective on policy. We’re working to engage younger audiences with the decisions being made about their future; as part of this, we’re running a series of InfraCafés – informal events held across the country to give them a chance to have their say about what matters to them – and we’ve also launched a podcast, Infra[un]structured.

The YPP is a pioneering initiative, but this type of reverse mentoring should be the norm, not the exception. Whatever the sector, there are valuable lessons more experienced leaders can learn from their younger counterparts – and vice versa. By bringing people together and celebrating diversity in decision-making, we can get the best outcomes for everyone.

Victor Frebault is a member of the Commission’s Young Professionals Panel

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