Once upon a time in a universe far, far away it was all about Generation X, named after Douglas Coupland's book, ”Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture”, which was published in 1991. X represented us – people in their teens and twenties during the Tech Boom of the Nineties and early years of the new millennium, people who were tech savvy and keen to embrace progress. This is what progress used to look like:

However, a few years ago Gen X dropped off the radar of the zeitgeist hunters. Look at today's websites and you'll find endless references to the Millennials or Generation Y or better still, “Digital Natives”. For the past decade, marketing folk have given up on X and turned instead to this new cohort. In parallel, a new set of concerns has arisen, including “increasing agency”, “eliminating privilege”, and “co-working”. I’ve deliberately put those in quotation marks, as they’re worthy objectives but described in buzz phrases worthy of David Brent.

The company at the lead of the charge is WeWork. Just as in the days of the late 90’s Tech Boom which Gen X lived through, but the Millennials are too young to remember, it’s an American tech startup which became big and influential very quickly. WeWork's business model involves leasing office buildings, then sub-leasing space to startups and freelancers from the digital native generation. Their modus operandi involves equipping offices with fast wifi and the kind of whimsical interior design which Californians specialise in, focussed on well-being, mindfulness and biophilia.

Yet as the World Wide Web reached its 25th birthday, I heard the term "digital natives" once too often and my toes curled. I went to primary school during the 1980's and from the start we had BBC Micros in the classroom, one of which was equipped with a robotic pen plotter which crawled across a sheet of paper, drawing lines we'd programmed using Basic commands.  At home, many of us had Sinclair ZX series computers, which were built in Dundee and ran computer games such as Manic Miner which loaded painfully slowly from a C90 tape.  I've never known a world without digital computers.

In fact, Dundee has thrived on electronics since the War, when Burndept moved its operations here after its factory at Erith in Kent was bombed. The skill base built up during the 1940’s attracted other companies, some like Ferranti which were already electronics firms, and others like NCR which became so. Long before I was born, folk from my parents’ generation were assembling electronics for radios, televisions, computers and lasers.

Down in Yorkshire, the ballistic missile radar at Fylingdales watched over our childhoods like a weather god, promising a three minute warning and vengeance to follow during tense periods of the Cold War. The radar ran on Elliot 803 mainframes – the sort of computers you see in Dr Strangelove, ranks of cabinets with 1-inch tape drives spinning which now seem hopelessly anachronistic.  Back in the day, BBC, Sinclair and Elliot machines were all built in the UK. All were natively digital.

When I went up to the academy, the computer studies room already had PC's with 286 chips which ran MS-DOS and used Winchester hard disks to store data on.  Technology was evolving rapidly, and by then the future mainly came from America. When I went into O-Grade Art, I became aware of a machine which could create sophisticated graphics and set type like a professional printer would – although we weren’t allowed to use it.  The Apple Macintosh had arrived.

I started using Macs immediately I arrived in architecture school, and the Quadra 700 was unlike anything else I'd come across.  It was a fraction the size of a PC but much, much faster.  The graphics were sharp and vivid, rendered in 16 bit colour.  The Quadra ran software like Photoshop, Quark Xpress, Freehand and StudioPro; much of my university work was created on machines like this, but the Quadra 700 cost around $6000 new, £4000 in Scots pounds, so it was anything but a home computer.

The architecture department at Duncan of Jordanstone also invested in an example of the first Apple digital camera, and these are some of the actual photos I took in 1995 of a sketch model.  After 2000, the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad transformed Apple into a completely different type of firm, and eventually it became the world's largest corporation. It's no longer the niche company of the Eighties and Nineties which created cool computers that made design work so much easier.

I could go on, but you can see where this is heading.  I've been a digital native from the start, and it seems strange to be told that, somehow, I’m not.

Does it matter?  This is where WeWork’s central conceit comes in: it claimed to have reinvented workspace design for millennial workers, as if they were a fresh species of human.  But if we decide to design workspace in a different way, predicated on millennials working differently to everyone else, we need concrete evidence for that, rather than fuzzy buzzwords such as “Digital nomads”.

An article in Nature 547, 380 (27 July 2017) quoted research suggesting that the digital native is a myth: as they put it, “a yeti with a smartphone”.  So we need to interrogate the reasons why so many have seized on the WeWork as the future of workspace design.

Today's tech disruptors aren't just the “FAANG” corporations ie, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, but also the so-called Fintech and Proptech companies, such as WeWork.  WeWork felt they'd found a formula which would work across North America and Europe, and their disruptive business model quickly drew in billions in venture capital funding … for something which is markedly old school.

To give them credit, they learned from a previous grand speculation, the Tech Boom of the late 1990’s, which predictably ended in a Tech Crash. When the going is good, it’s easy to create a prospectus which claims that you’ll harness a wonderful new creative energy to do something new. You aim to make money from it while the going is good, and it's no surprise that California's tech grifters decided to have a shot.

However, the received wisdom of the tech disruptors quickly collided with an opposing view, the so-called first mover advantage.  Just as Tesla discovered how difficult it is to build electric cars in large volumes, the Jaguar Land Rovers, Daimler-Benzes and Volkswagens of this world waited until Tesla helped to create a demand for electric cars, then came in with a better product which was backed up with decades of experience building cars, and crucially in building the infrastructure required to build those cars.

The same is true of WeWork. It has vast amounts of competitors – many of whom already own the buildings and are better capitalised, hence have no need for debt financing or rights issues to raise money, the things which are a drag on WeWork’s profitability.  That's why tech disruptors speak so much about “growing market share and turnover”, rather than actually earning money to pay back borrowed capital and distribute a dividend to their shareholders. Established property firms, on the other hand, are simply just *profitable*.

Perhaps you think it's easy for a cynical member of “Generation X” to write off WeWork as a giant marketing ruse. Last year, WeWork’s valuation reached $47 billion, before it had to be rescued by SoftBank, and its value has continued to fall, down to around $3bn today. That looks very much like a speculative bubble which has burst, and WeWork’s business could suffer even more, now that Covid-19 has made co-working a risky activity. Now that we’ve grown used to the idea of working at home, many firms will reconsider the need for office space altogether.

Ignoring the pandemic, WeWork almost failed not because it was a bad business – but investors saw through the claims made for its “unique” business model.  Renting office buildings and tailoring office space to a particular age group isn't a world-shattering insight. We’ve been creating open plan offices with workstations, chairs, break out areas and so forth since Frank Lloyd Wright invented the type at the Larkin Building in New York. Strangely, they’re suitable for people of all ages.

And as for digital natives? Don't believe the hype. After all, have you ever seen a Yeti with a smartphone?

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