Young people don’t know how good they’ve got it. They expect the best, they expect it now, and they don’t expect to work too hard to get it. At least, that’s what Treasurer Scott Morrison is worried about.
When we look at the world of work, we hear that young people have a radically different attitude to work than their parents. They either need to learn that not everyone can have the CEO’s job, or they crave “flexibility” above other conditions. Myer chief executive Richard Umbers claimed that young workers “really want to work in a way that suits their lifestyle and they think in terms of work-life balance, and that isn’t something that’s typically enhanced by restrictive regimes”.
In case you were unsure, given the confidence with which they speak for young Australians, Umbers and Morrisson are not themselves Millennials. Nor did either speech reference any significant attitudinal studies, or even polls, to back up their claims. But politicians and business leaders can make such statements because they resonate with popular stereotypes about “Gen Y” (born in the 1980s and 1990s).
The business leaders, politicians and general public who believe these stereotypes were often born in the post-war period 1945-1973. The governments of this time were committed to full employment and Keynesian macroeconomic policy, which meant jobs were relatively easy to come by. If someone didn’t have a job or wasn’t making enough to earn a living, it was reasonable to ask if they were lacking the appropriate education, dedication or motivation.
A generation or so later, the 1980s gave rise to a very different consensus. This modern political framework celebrated market mechanisms in labour market policy.
Firms were given greater freedom from government intervention, industrial relations were decentralised and deregulated and the needs of a newly globalised market determined employment opportunities. However, the dominance of market mechanisms in labour market policy has helped create unprecedented levels of inequality.
When this inequality is combined with the unique challenges of being a new entrant to the labour market, young people face a perfect storm, which increasingly puts their health and well-being at risk.
What do they want?
The Australian Life Patterns study followed a cohort of almost 600 young Australians from their final year of secondary school in 2006 through to the age of 27. These young people have been asked regularly what they are looking for in a job. Surprisingly, their attitudes towards work look much like the older cohort in the the same study (a “Gen X” group, who were followed through their 20s during the 1990s).
While flexibility is becoming more important to young people, they consistently rank it below work that is full time and, most importantly for the participants, work that provides job security. At age 20-21, 86% of participants ranked job security as being of high or very high importance. Six years later at age 26-27 this had increased to 95%. Much further down their list of priorities is a job that “pays well” or has “high status”.
It would seem that young people are adapting to the new world of work, but not because they love flexibility. Despite the popular perception, they share a desire for many of the same things their parents wanted: job security, permanent employment and pay that they can plan weekly expenses around. The big change has been that those things are increasingly out of Gen Y’s reach.
Underpaid, underemployed and over educated
Permanent work has proved particularly elusive: the number of young people in full-time work dropped by 35% in the past 30 years. In the same period, the time between finishing higher education and entering the workforce has nearly tripled to 2.7 years. Increasingly, young Australians are turning to “cash in hand” jobs to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, these harsh realities are not what we’re hearing from our political and business elites. Instead we hear claims based on little to no evidence that fit too conveniently with aims to reduce the welfare support we provide to young people, or to reduce their workplace conditions in the name of flexibility.
As the future of work in this country is debated, the government needs to create policy that isn’t reliant on baseless stereotypes, but on understanding the real challenges young people face.