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‘Ah-ha!’ No, it’s not Alan Partridge but lives changing at TEDxYouth@Bath

Teenagers take an eyeopening look at a future beyond the jobless statistics

Steven Morris-, Thursday 17 November 2011 18.39 GMT – Original article


Over a buffet lunch a huddle of teenagers is trying to work out if any have yet had their "ah-ha" moment – the instant when an inspiring, perhaps life-changing thought hits.

Across the room at the TEDxYouthDay event in Bath other young people are discussing the meaning of happiness with a bright-eyed adventurer who gave up his nine-to-five job to skateboard across Australia. More than 100 teenagers are crammed into a theatre in the Georgian city to hear talks from artists, entrepreneurs, travellers of all sorts who, organisers hope, will help them shape their lives.

"We’re learning more today than we would at a normal day at school. It’s opened our eyes," says Indra, 16. "Usually when you go to talks it’s about being a doctor or accountant or something. Here we’re talking about jobs you’ve never even heard of and thinking about concepts that aren’t tangible – that you feel but haven’t got a name for."

The TED (Technology Entertainment Design) concept appears unstoppable after beginning as a four-day conference in California 25 years ago. It became an annual event to which the world’s leading "thinkers and doers" are invited. They speak for no more than 18 minutes and the best "TEDtalks" are posted on the TED website. Bill Gates and Al Gore have contributed.

Under the TEDx label, people organise their own TED-like events. There are strict rules – such as the 18-minute restriction and the number of people allowed to attend – but after that it is up to the organisers.

TEDxYouthDay moves the project forward again. Scheduled to coincide with the UN’s Universal Children’s Day, more than 100 TEDx youth events are taking place in 45 countries over four days.

Charlotte Calkin, a designer and entrepreneur, decided to organise the event in Bath after attending a TED conference. Its coincidence with the announcement of depressing youth unemployment figures had not escaped her.

"It’s a pretty bleak time for a lot of young people," she said. "We hope this sort of event will help motivate, help inspire. Maybe this can be an antidote to those figures."

Adventurer Dave Cornthwaite is the first speaker at the conference, streamed live into at least six schools. He describes how he gave up a job he hated and found joy by skateboarding from John O’Groats to Land’s End, then used the same mode of transport to cross Australia.

Cornthwaite found that he loved going on adventures and telling stories about them. The point, he says, is that everyone has a talent, you just have to find out what it is and keep testing yourself.

Other speakers include Jemma Jewkes, a pioneering prison officer, Laïla Diallo, a dancer and choreographer, and Jamie Fielden, who runs a project near Bath in which children from disadvantaged backgrounds get a taste of country life. They come at it from different angles but seem to be saying the same thing – find something you really want to do.

The young audience is clearly impressed. There are no questions – that isn’t the TED format – so the young people have to seek out the speakers at lunchtime.

Eden, 16, is enjoying hearing from people who don’t have "regular" jobs. "We get pressurised at school to think of our career path. We’re not all here to be famous lawyers."

Rachel, 17, adds: "It’s really good to see people who haven’t done the expected route, done A-levels, done a degree, got a job. They’ve followed different routes and ended up in a place where they are happy."

Midge Ure, the rock star and co-organiser of Live Aid who is another speaker, says such events are all the more crucial at a time of austerity. "An 18-minute talk is not much time out of my life. If someone walks out of the room at the end of the day thinking ‘Well, if he can do it, I can’, that’s not a bad thing to pass on. It’s the antithesis of what I used to get at school. They used to tell me, ‘You’ll never amount to anything, boy.’ "

Tom, 16, leaves full of dreams. He has been encouraged to go and make a "bucket list" – an inventory of things to do in his life. "I want to try to understand what makes me happy and to try to follow that."

His list will include trying to cross an ocean or a continent. He would like to skydive and "experience the world outside the one I know".

The conference may lead to a few awkward discussions between teenagers and worried parents who might quite like their offspring to be top lawyers.

Cornthwaite the adventurer has little time for such thoughts. "Parents worry. It’s what they do, no matter if you work in an office or go on an adventure. You may as well do what you really want to."