Kids in Suits

This summer I have a Proper Job; I go to meetings, shake hands with people and attempt to sound serious and knowledgeable on the phone. But it always strikes me as comic when I put my sensible blouse and skirt on in the morning and head out to shuffle along with all the other commuters: I’m barely more than a kid in a suit! Has anyone noticed that I’m not really a bona fide adult yet?

However, I’ve asked around and apparently this feeling doesn’t really go away. It also seems to be fairly well-founded, because lots of adults really don’t know what they’re doing and really do behave like confused or petulant children. In fact, one of the alarming aspects of getting older is realising that Grown Ups aren’t really all that Grown Up at all. They don’t have all the answers that I hoped came with adulthood. Nobody turned up on my 18th birthday and explained the secrets of the world to me.

There must be experts out there, right? You know, people who really know how the world works, people who approach life with self-certainty. And even those who feel like frauds in the adult world can surely get things right (I hope), even if by sheer luck. But there does seem to be a strong contingent of people who really are kids in suits, or, worse, who think they’re grown ups while actually not having the faintest clue what they’re doing.

This shocking revelation somewhat explains why things keep going belly-up. The economic crisis? Well, it turns out that economists are just kids in suits, messing around with spreadsheets, pointing at charts and making self-assured guesses. And then their bluff was called, spectacularly, and we went into financial meltdown. They’re still floundering in the dark, even now. Take the euro: two hundred German economists recently signed an appeal against a euro banking union, and two hundred signed in its support, while eleven economists… signed both. Brilliant.

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Politics represents the classic case of kids in suits. Just watch them all at PMQ’s, jeering and cheering and stamping their feet, even if they don’t have the faintest idea what it is they’re lambasting. And look at the Cabinet, blithering this way and that, making U-turns and playing tit-for-tat. The Thick of It, soon to return to our screens, could almost be a documentary. All the while our Prime Minister is honing his skills on Angry Birds, the iPad game enjoyed by millions….of eight year olds.

And at the risk of indulging in banker-bashing, the financial sector does seem to offer some good examples. In 1995 Nick Leeson single-handedly destroyed Barings Bank by losing £827 million, but rogue trading continues to thrive; last year, Kweku Adoboli lost UBS around £1.3 million. The funny thing is that their bosses didn’t spot it, nor did most of the financial bigwigs spot the subprime mortgage crisis heading their way, nor did they know anything about Libor fixing (so they say). It seems that boardrooms across the world might really be staffed by toddlers in suits, doing a bit of business before naptime.

Higher education may broaden the mind and sharpen the intellect, but the top universities are also really good at training their students to argue powerfully and sound persuasive, even if their position is shaky. Once students leave the confines of their university and start to make their way in the world, this skill helps the amateurs to disguise themselves amongst the professionals, cloaked in an air of seeming to know what they’re talking about. Oxford says: “Here’s a half-useful reading list, here’s all the books ever published, in a week you’ll have to defend your essay against the world expert in your subject: GO.” You can’t possibly become an authority on the topic in a week, but by learning the fine art of blagging, you might just get away with it every now and then. It’s a life skill in the making.

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It is telling therefore that rump of the Establishment are products of the Oxbridge system. They won at the game of Pretending To Know What You’re Talking About, thereby qualifying them for the upper echelons of life.

And so the Kids in Suits Brigade muddle along. Look carefully and you can see them running the world (and making a mess of it – for more info, see: History), acting the part of lawyers and teachers and salesmen (without really knowing what they’re doing), and populating offices across the nation, presenting PowerPoint slides with impossibly complicated diagrams to other people who’ll nod knowingly but remain completely clueless, hoping nobody will notice.

It’s a scary thought that the world is so full of people who have no idea what they’re doing. But there are some straws to clutch at for comfort:

a)      The world has always been full of clueless people doing clueless things, from the Lords who ordered the Charge of the Light Brigade, to Rupert Murdoch buying Myspace. And yet we’ve managed to get this far.

b)      If you feel like a kid in a suit, you’re not alone – and at least you know it. This self-awareness should stop you doing anything breathtakingly stupid.

However, this does not detract from the fact that I’m not really an adult, and so you should probably dismiss this article entirely: I’m just pretending to know what I’m talking about.