Lucy Neville-Rolfe of Tesco is one of a handful of bosses (including her own chief executive, Sir Terry Leahy, and Sir Stuart Rose of M&S) who seem to delight in denigrating young people, painting a picture of a generation that's not just lazy, but unemployable. Last week, she addressed the Institute of Grocery Distribution, moaning that some school leavers "seem to think the world owes them a living", adding that there was a "fair amount of evidence" exams were "getting easier and failing to stretch people..." and "I find that attitudes have changed."
I agree, young people do have a different attitude to work from my generation, the baby boomers – thank goodness. I'm not prepared to denigrate everyone under 30 because a large number of them believe there's more to life than clocking in at dawn or plucking chickens, probably because they grew up seeing their parents work ridiculous hours in boring jobs only to be chucked on the scrap heap in the recession.
No wonder that Generation Y, as sociologists call them, are repulsed by the notion of being called working class, and that a large number aren't that enamoured of work, full stop. The other week, Evan Davis presented a simplistic film on the BBC looking at why many employers in rural areas choose immigrant workers over locals. Needless to say, the young men filmed were completely hopeless at the tasks they agreed to try. So is Ms Neville-Rolfe right? Have we managed to breed a generation of work-shy illiterates?
A new study of three generations of workers, published in the Journal of Management, finds attitudes to work have changed radically since the 1960s. The baby boomers were born to parents who worked hard, saved, and instilled in us the notion that work was the centre of our lives. In the 1980s they embraced materialism, bought every gadget going and ruthlessly fought their way to the top. Boomer entrepreneurs such as Paul Smith and Richard Branson started their own successful businesses – and many are still working extremely long hours and refusing to retire. Boomers signed up to the mantra of putting our careers first, and many of us don't know any other way to live.
The next generation, born between 1965 and 1981, known as Generation X, embraced technology, were quick learners and were more informal. This study shows that Gen X workers started the process of rebalancing their life and work. The youngest group of workers are known as Generation Y or Gen Me; the Journal of Management research finds they are far more focused on finding interesting work than making money. They do not want to emulate their parents, many of whom spent less time at home and more time either at work or travelling. These younger workers expect their jobs to accommodate their families and personal lives – in other words, they've refocused the work-life balance to favour life.
It's too easy to slag off school leavers in Lucy Neville-Rolfe's high-handed way. Young people get ordered to take more and more tests and exams – and then the government body that monitors standards (Ofqual) secretly orders the examining boards to reduce the number of kids getting C to A* GCSE grades, as they don't want to be accused of making exams too easy.
We can sneer at the news that teenagers who spend two weeks working at McDonald's will be awarded a qualification which is the equivalent of a B at GCSE, but surely gaining practical skills is just as important as written papers, especially when it is in the catering, tourism and leisure sectors, where young workers are needed? With Ofsted announcing last week that 60 per cent of secondary schools are failing, how can we expect the young to be motivated and focused on their careers when the place in which they are spending hours of their time has been publicly condemned? We can complain that many lack ambition and a realistic grasp of what work entails, but if one in three faces unemployment, perhaps their lack of grit is no surprise.
We might find some of the attitudes of the young unrealistic and vague, but surely they have some positive values that our generation can learn from. Rather than moan about their illiteracy and incoherence, why not celebrate their ability to make friends, their creative skills and the pleasure they get from things that we have no time for?
Perry odd idea: Who wants to look like Amy, Fred's new icon?
Fashion works in mysterious ways, and many long-established British brands refresh their image by signing up just the right kind of celebrity. Burberry has been particularly clever: looking at their ads with gorgeous Emma Watson, we completely forget about those horrible old pictures of Danniella Westbrook in her naff Burberry wellies. Twiggy has managed to make M&S desirable to the over-forties. So when I heard that Fred Perry was launching a new collection in conjunction with a well-known female, I thought it might be Lily Allen, or Pixie Lott. Or perhaps that other Pixie, Ms Geldof. Astonishingly, Fred Perry has chosen Amy Winehouse. The marketing director claimed Amy "has been wearing Fred Perry for years... so we were aware she was a fan". Selecting a woman who has been photographed on a regular basis with bleeding feet, filthy clothes, dishevelled hair and ancient make-up, seems perverse. Let's call it tramp-chic. Who would buy a cardigan designed by Amy? Answers on a postcard to Fred Perry.
Food giants are cereal killers
The NHS spends millions on health education campaigns and websites urging us to take more exercise and eat a better diet. Sadly, joined-up thinking doesn't seem to be that popular in government, and another publicly funded watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, has just caved into pressure from the food industry and decided that traffic-light warnings on food that would show high levels of fats, salt and sugar will now be optional, not compulsory.
Campaigners have fought for clear, easy-to-understand labelling on food for more than a decade – and you'd think that the Government, faced with the mounting cost of obesity, would agree. Asda and M&S signed up to the traffic-light colour-coded system, but Tesco, Kellogg's, PepsiCo and Kraft refused, claiming their rival labelling based on recommended daily guidelines, was better.
The result means utter confusion for consumers. If the traffic-light scheme had been adopted, three-quarters of all breakfast cereals would have carried red warning labels. Do big food manufacturers ever have our interests at heart? Of course not.
A woman's place is on the board
Women were in the news last week: International Women's Day meant an opportunity for politicians to make some pompous pronouncements and garner headlines. Gordon Brown said it was "completely unacceptable" that some FTSE 100 companies have no women on their boards and none has a majority of female directors. With an election looming and female voters becoming highly desirable, this unpopular Prime Minister has suddenly noticed that only one in 10 FTSE 100 company directors are female – a shocking statistic, but hardly new.
If the PM really cared about equality, then perhaps he could encourage the Government to copy its Indian counterpart, which voted last week to reserve a third of all the seats in the upper and lower legislative assemblies for women. At the rate female MPs get elected here, it's going to take 60 years to achieve parity. In the meantime, our politicians are keen to use their (unelected) wives as marketing tools to target female voters though magazines and daytime TV shows. Not very progressive.