Professor: Young People Are "Lost Generation" Who Can No Longer Fix Gadgets

Young people in Britain have become a lost generation who can no longer mend gadgets and appliances because they have grown up in a disposable world, the professor giving this year's Royal Institution Christmas lectures has warned. Danielle George, Professor of Radio Frequency Engineering, at the University of Manchester, claims that the under 40s expect everything to 'just work' and have no idea what to do when things go wrong. Unlike previous generations who would ‘make do and mend’ now young people will just chuck out their faulty appliances and buy new ones. But Prof George claims that many broken or outdated gadgets could be fixed or repurposed with only a brief knowledge of engineering and electronics.

I think there is an aspect to this that is being missed to some degree. Yes, it is true that repairing a device with surface mount components the size of dust by hand is a lost cause. It is true that manufacturers build their products in ways that makes opening them impossible or nearly so, and it is true that it is often cheaper to replace something than repair. None of that is going to change.

But off to the side, tons of people are making their own stuff with Arduino/Pi/etc.etc. People are learning about interfacing with the real world through sensors and adjusting it, or adjusting to it, with any number of methods. The barriers to these types of projects have dropped immensely recently and there are lots of people who take that broken toaster oven, and totally repurpose it as a soldering oven.

So, perhaps people _are_ less likely to try to fix things than they were decades ago -- instead, a great number are learning how to _design_ their own rather sophisticated stuff. Grandpa may have been able to repair his tractor, but his grandkid can automate it to minimize overlap when out tilling the fields saving diesel, time, topsoil, and mechanical wear/tear. The former skill is valuable, but the current skill is valuable in its own way.



  1. That was a time when you could actually easily fix something. Take cars, for example. Fixing a modern car aside from trivial cases is not easy.
    Hell, even exchanging a broken lightbulb can pose major problems.

    1. Yep. That Professor needs to check back, it's not the "young people", it's their parents' generation. The ones who've decided that repairable appliances reduces income for companies, that cheap materials are the way to go, that throwaway electronics pave the future. I'll be the first to agree that many changes have been for the better: you wouldn't be able to get cars as efficient as they are now without a lot of complex machinery and ICs everywhere.

      Many of our most beloved gadgets can only exist because of miniaturization and automation of production, at the cost of being able to repair them. It's just that when your washing machine's motor fails after a year, or you need to replace your convection oven's fan seven times before it stops making a buzzing sound, you realize that it's about as much about cost-cutting as it is about efficiency and actual, material gains.


  2. And the reason is ... because the stuff used to be BUILT by people. If a guy on the assembly line had to be able to get his hands onto a bolt to install it then someone replacing it would also be able to reach it.

    Once we switched to robots for manufacturing it became a lot more difficult. A robot can reach where a person cannot.

    Which means you save a lot of "wasted" space and materials ... but you have to take apart X, Y and Z to be able to read the headlight.

  3. This story is a dupe from my grandfather's generation, who cried about the same thing.

    1. That's because it has gotten worse. My grandparents used to fix everything and keep using it until it was thoroughly broken. I still have a bunch of my grandfather's tools some of which came from my great grandfather and predate WWI. My parents's generation started to get used to the idea of disposability that came with the Americans after WWII and I have experienced how disposability became the norm.

      It does not even seem to occur to most people these days that things can be fixed. I have seen people dispose of perfectly usable smartphones because of an easily fixable software issue and bin laptops that they could have gotten several more years of use out of by installing an SSD and some extra RAM for a fraction of what a new laptop wold have cost (and keep in mind that the most demanding work most of these laptops ever do is run MS Word).

      The list goes on, and on, and on,.... And don't even get me started on plastic packaging, it's absolutely revolting. I will never understand why every single one of the cookies in a bag of American cookies has to come in a plastic bag of it's own and I don't remember Bounty bars tasting any worse when they came wrapped in paper.

  4. It all comes down to economic efficiency. Manufacturing costs have plummeted while labor costs have skyrocketed, so it's not a productive use of one's time to repair. Time is expensive, stuff is cheap.

    Repair isn't the only skill that's suffered; we've forgotten how to farm, forgotten how to weave our own clothing, forgotten how to do many things that were required of a household a century or two ago. It's also why we get connected halfway around the world for customer service and don't get our fuel pumped and windshield washed by a whistling attendant.

    Whether this is ultimately good or bad depends on your point of view, but unless we run short of raw materials, drive up costs via pollution taxes, or see an economic meltdown in the west it's not likely to change course. Rising wages in China and other industrial companies will only do so much before factories switch to robot labor.


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