The Boy Wonderstuff

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Age is a rather tricky topic. First there is the problem of remembering your own. I find this quite a challenge at times. Nor am I the only one. In fact, after a certain age, some people seem genuinely puzzled when asked how old they are. "Hmmm," they say, brows furrowed. This means they are in denial. But it's time to strip away all of that now because, before reading on, you need to remember how old you really are.

You are probably wondering whether this is a trick. It is not. I am doing this to prepare you because this is an article on boy wonders. This is traumatic for all concerned. It is tricky for the boys, because they believe themselves to be men. It is tricky for me, because I find myself talking about "young people" and acting as if I am 72. And it is tricky for you, reader, because you will have in mind an age by which you should have accomplished something important in life.

Suspend such thoughts for a moment, or you may find yourself mired in resentment before too many other paragraphs are read. The topic is a minefield. "When I left university I felt as if I could do anything," said one thirtysomething. "But it was only arrogance and intellectual expansionism." He doesn't like boy wonders but I'm not sure if that's because he can no longer be one. Others talk mistily of past specimens. Winston Churchill, perhaps. Or William Pitt the Younger. It could be, however, that in the late 18th century it was simply easier to peak early.

The modern one whom everyone mentions is William Hague, but he doesn't count because he always appears to be on the verge of becoming a grandad. But I am looking for boys/men (25 or under) who are in charge of something and have influence on someone who is not a blood relative.

This takes me to a place called Panton House, just off Piccadilly. The idea is to create a hub of social entrepreneurship and to fill the building with progressive-type companies, think-tanks, coffee shops with sofas, etc. They are already some way to this goal. I walk up the stairs to the second floor. There is a T-junction. Whichever way I turn, I will find a boy wonder.

To the left is the Foreign Policy Centre, headed by 24-year-old Mark Leonard (below left). To the right are the open-plan offices of Demos. Its former director, Geoff Mulgan, is part of the No 10 policy unit. Now the Demos board has decided to skip a generation by choosing 25-year- old Tom Bentley (below right) as the new director.

Tom Bentley turns out to be 6ft 5in and rather quiet. Ian Hargreaves, who is chairman of the Demos board, says that he has a maturity of manner, and this is true. But, mature or not, he is not too keen on the age stuff. "Look, I really don't think Demos has skipped a generation. Geoff is not ancient. He's 37. I don't see it in those terms. So many of us here are in our twenties." He says that Demos has 15 staff and 10 or 11 of those are under 30. And he's in charge of it all. Not bad for a guy who, not that long ago, was the denim specialist at Gap on Regent Street.

"That was my alternative career path," he says. Hardly. Tom Bentley got 10 GCSEs, grade A, and three A-grade A-levels. He says that he was surprised by both achievements, as he has been by subsequent ones, including getting the Demos job. He doesn't like the idea that some people think they automatically deserve things. He grew up in the East End, where his mother was a schoolteacher and his father a vicar. He was middle class but most of his fellow pupils were not. His parents made sure he had lots of other interests, and this is crucial to the way he thinks now. He is fully aware that former classmates who were just as bright have ended up as housewives, bank clerks, or in prison.

He did not take a year out - "I wanted to get on with it" - and so, at 18, found himself at Oxford where he studied politics, philosophy and economics. He left with a 2.1. I say that lots of people spend their university years getting drunk and then just go on to make money. "Yes, and they become corporate lawyers. I'm not interested in that. I like this work. I love the ideas." He started to work (unpaid) at Demos and (paid) at Gap. He left retailing soon enough. Specialist areas include social exclusion, the future, work and education. He became a part-time adviser to the Education Secretary, David Blunkett. Tom Bentley believes that the conventional classroom is outdated and that we need to concentrate less on institutions per se and more on the links between schools and society. His book, Learning Beyond the Classroom, was published last year.

So what do his friends think of his new job? "They think it's strange ... But really it's just a development of the work, experience and ideas that I [had] at university. It's about the way that societies change." Has he always been this serious? "No! Well, I've always had a serious strand. When I went to university, I had this naive question, the way that 18-year-olds do, about wanting to understand how societies change and develop." And what are his goals? "To change the world, but if you quoted that it would sound really cheesy. And to have an interesting life."

I walk down the hall. The Foreign Policy Centre is so new that there is no furniture. It smells of new carpet. Mark Leonard breaks off talking on his mobile to give me a tour. He has dark, floppy hair and talks with his hands. I view the rooms but see only carpet (blue) and boxes (numerous). I mention boy wonder and he groans, hands on face. He wants to be known for his work and not for his age. I laugh at this, which is rude, and so listen when he says that he has been doing paid work since the age of 16. "I have seven years' experience doing a lot of things." This includes a gap year spent at Westminster as a researcher. He grew up partly in Brussels and speaks fluent French and German. He went to Cambridge and got a 2.2.

He applied for five jobs when he left university and all but one said yes. "Only the FT said no," he says. He worked as a trainee journalist at The Economist for two months but found it limiting. "I was working with people who were obsessed with politics. They spent their whole life writing about it, talking about it, gossiping about it. But they wouldn't dream of getting involved in running anything. My dream in life is to do work on policy areas that matter to me and hopefully be in a position where my ideas will seep through to the people who are in power."

This means that, in his early twenties, Mark Leonard was already pretty much living a dream. He went to Demos and became known as Mr Cool Britannia after writing a paper on rebranding Britain. He cringes when I say the name, hands on his face again. "That phrase appeared once, on page 13 or something." I doubt that this bothers him. It has done him no harm.

The Foreign Policy Centre is independent but is clearly going to be listened to by the Government. Its patron is Tony Blair, its president Robin Cook. Mark Leonard says that the centre is desperately needed because no one is thinking about foreign policy in a "joined-up" way. His staff will be organised not by geog- raphy but by ideas. He is applying tests normally applied to domestic policy, to foreign ones.

He is enthusiastic to the point of burbling, though it could be jet- lag. He has just been in Canada to observe a massive public consultation exercise on the United Nations.

As I leave, I cannot quite get over the fact that both of these boys/men grew up in the Seventies. "Actually, I don't remember the Seventies that well," says Mark Leonard. I note that their combined ages are 49. I try to remember my own age and my brow furrows. Boy wonders do that to you.