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The unique labour conditions of millennials

Sonia Nair |  27 November 2016


In an age as affluent, educated and enlightened as the one that we live in, it is unthinkable to many that millennials struggle to cope in the workforce in ways that weren't required of generations before them.

Millennials in the workplaceSocial commentator Jane Caro articulates the malaise that characterises being a millennial employee perfectly in her essay 'The Generation Games' in issue 25 of literary journal Kill Your Darlings. Commenting on how the jobs were there in the 1970s if the 'lucky tail-enders of the baby boom' such as herself needed them, Caro observes a rise in anxiety in younger generations that coincides with an upsurge in youth unemployment and underemployment.

'The sun had set on the postwar boom, the chill had set in and parental anxiety had begun to grow. Globalisation led to the realisation that our children were at risk of being "left behind",' she writes.

The fear of being left behind is a pervasive one. Belonging to a generation where I was constantly told I could do anything I set my mind to, I was carted off to every class imaginable as a young child — art class, violin class, music theory class, English literature tutoring and so forth.

But the advent of unparalleled choices that was constantly peddled to me did not coincide with an increase in the spaces that are available for young people to excel, or much less be employed, in the fields of their choice.

The Life Patterns: Ten Years Following Generation Y study released by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in late 2015 refers to 'precarious' employment as a combination of low pay, employment insecurity and working time insecurity, and it is a reality that confronts many millennials upon their entry into the workforce.

Youth unemployment rates rose to a new high of 14 per cent in January 2015 and at least seven out of the ten participants in the study were working some form of irregular hours in 2015 as a result of combining both work and study.

'In an environment where the nature of jobs is changing, it can be difficult to predict which jobs will be plentiful when a person graduates. The transition from education into a job is also made more difficult by the recent slowdown in the creation of full-time jobs and by a broader competitive pool of educated young people,' the study says.


"Goals such as 'to live up to ethical principles' have grown in importance when compared to goals such as 'to make a lot of money' and 'to achieve a position of influence' when surveyed among millennials."


The last few years have also seen an uptick in unpaid internships in the creative, not-for-profit, law and government sectors that have come to replace traditional entry-level positions. Privilege plays an immense role in determining who can afford to do an unpaid internship and who can't — further solidifying entrenched class disadvantage and impeding social mobility.

As American writer Dustin Guastella writes in Jacobin, the higher levels of educational attainment in nearly half of the millennial population have not coincided with more stable economic and financial circumstances. 'Theoretically there is no good reason to assume that education has an intrinsic relationship to class or social mobility under capitalism. Just because education provided a pathway to mobility in the past doesn't mean it always will.'

Compounding this disparity is the fact that millennials will be the first generation to earn less than their predecessors over the course of their working lives, when you adjust their pay packets for inflation. This generational pay penalty is coupled with an astronomical upsurge in the prices of buying property, an asset class that remains a key source of wealth generation for many Australians. A house in Sydney now costs 12 times the annual average salary, compared to four times the annual average salary in the mid-1970s.

That millennials are eschewing the traditional career trajectory of generations before them and choosing instead to invest their time in personal relationships and experiences could be then framed as a response to a dearth of choices. It's not that young people don't value full-time, secure work — it's that these jobs are becoming increasingly harder to secure.

But the common refrain that millennials are lazy, entitled and self-centred appears most displaced by their exemplar record in working for social justice causes they feel strongly about.

With an increasingly ravaged planet and rising social inequalities becoming harder to ignore, research released earlier this year by REST Industry Super revealed that nearly half of millennials would take a pay cut to work in a field they are passionate about, while the aforementioned Melbourne Graduate School of Education study revealed that goals such as 'to live up to ethical principles' have grown in importance when compared to goals such as 'to make a lot of money' and 'to achieve a position of influence' when surveyed among millennials.

If there's one silver lining to the changing working conditions, it'd have to be that.


Sonia NairSonia Nair is a freelance writer and critic who has been published in The Big Issue, the Australian Book Review and Books&Publishing. She tweets @son_nair and blogs about how she never follows her food intolerances at www.whateverfloatsyourbloat.com.

This is the latest article in our ongoing series on work.



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Submitted comments

This article made me think of "Oliver Twist". Maybe it should have made me think of Jamie Oliver, the cooking dynamo! Are there any parallels to their individual stories? My children have certainly benefitted from a broader education than I was able to access, but it is their liking for their careers and their passion for their life that is important. I understand only too well that choice isn't always readily available but we can find our way towards our dream.

Pam 29 November 2016

Would Maslow rearrange his hierarchy given the above data?

Paul Gubbels 29 November 2016

A useful article that deals with a rapidly changing society that is causing the changing nature of work. The key statistic is the disappearance of jobs due to technology which is changing a society where the aim of work is private profit from the labour. of workers. Work is now being done by the new technology. This means an end to the old society that enriched the few to one that enriches all. This is where the emphasis must be and how to achieve it. The alternative is increasing unemployment and poverty.

Reg Wilding 29 November 2016

An interesting expose of the link between education and employment that perhaps helps define the difference between education and job training. In Australia we have embraced the concept of the university as a job training institute rather than a pure educational one. When universities continue to run job training faculties according to intake rather than job availability on completion of a course, the "education" acquired by the student is quite useless without application. When universities provided education for monopoly occupations such as engineering, law or medicine they catered to a known and controllable workforce and could vary intake to meet demand. The mistake for current generations is perhaps the failure of universities to control intake in response to demand in pursuit of some false utopian right to a university education or more likely in the quest for public funding. We now see many jobs elevated to university level over a three year course, that could be completed before morning tea on a fine day. When the goal posts are shifted the game probably changes.

john frawley 29 November 2016

Perhaps people need to join a union no matter how old they are to increase their collective bargaining power? Wages then might keep pace with the economy. I am sick of hearing about generational differences with no solutions to problems. That is a glaringly obvious solution to one of the problems.

Gabrielle 29 November 2016

When I finished grade 12 in 1981, few went to University. Many went to Institutes of Technology, or Training Colleges. With the stroke of a pen John Dawkins had all the above turn into Universities, and everyone got a degree. Because everyone should if they really want, the gen Y way. The abasement of educational standards now comes home to roost, your qualification these days is scarcely worth the paper it is printed on.

Paul Triggs 29 November 2016

I see massive selfishness among my generation of semi-retired/retirees who have no idea of what it's like to live with, and in, such precarious and insecure circumstances ... housing, paid work, and individualistically-centred and dehumanising public policy drivers, in our technological age. "Demoralising" doesn't even cut its description. It is an age of uncertainty that demands total individual responsibility, one-way only accountability, and a societal ethic that outsources social responsibility from the common weal. The stakes get higher as one's vulnerability increases ... it's unsustainable ... hence the Trump phenomenon. In times past, war generated a focus, an income (if war-related), a mobilisation of energy for a purpose ... along with accompanying propaganda. How we restrain that particular reaction to our current predicament is pause for thought ... (and Paul, for me, Maslow's hierarchy is well and truly outdated).

Mary Tehan 29 November 2016

Thank you Sonia. And sorry :-( Well-said, Mary Tehan. There must be an attitudinal change among those who enjoyed free education, plentiful employment opportunity, relatively inexpensive housing, and early retirement. Yes, of course we all worked hard... but let's not pretend that - to cover the embarrassment of our good fortune in being born when we were - our children's generations are feckless, lazy, and 'entitled'.

Richard 30 November 2016

I am not sure what age group constitutes a millennial, but assuming it is people between the age of 18-30, there is a number of issues for them in obtaining a full time job. These issues are: 1. there is no government policy to connect education policies with employment policies; 2. people are competing with qualified people from other countries, such as India and China. Also, I have recently visited Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania where there are not enough jobs for qualified young people and they are emigrating to other parts of Europe. I have also heard similar stories for Egyptian young people; 3. Government policies to increase the retirement age and curtail the influence of trade unions has also had a detrimental effect on full time employment for young people; 4. young people need to change their individualistic and narcissistic attitudes and join a trade union and actively campaign for better socially beneficial employment policies; 5. The reduction in education standards over the past twenty years has also resulted in a deterioration of literacy and numeracy skills. Our poor education standards also do not teach the disciplines of philosophy, history and literature which means that young people do not have good skills for rational, logical and analytical thinking which affects their problem solving ability.

Mark Doyle 01 December 2016

A good article. From my observations, full time jobs are not as abundant as in previous years. Law graduates are competing again 1,000 other applicants for jobs. Nepotism is rife and big business are minimising the amount of full time positions. My daughter worked most of this year in an unpaid internship, which I am strongly against. The privileged students with professional parents and friends have the advantages, but where is the fairness in that kind of system? We need safeguards put in place around unpaid internships and the amount of casual positions big business can offer.

Cate 12 January 2017

A very insightful article, Sonia Nair. Most people with a purpose in life want jobs that bring sufficient income and, at the same time are meaningful. We are in an era where many workers can only find part time work for limited periods of time. This situation is going to force much rethinking on how we are going to provide useful employment for all. We are in this dilemma because the super wealthy and exploitative employers would not agree to a shorter working week I can remember in the 1970s and early 1980s when the AMWU (then the Amalgamated Metalworkers Union) pushed for a 35 hour week. The idea was that more could be employed and have more time to be with family and to be involved in meaningful activities. Sadly this did not happen to a large extent and now we have F/T workers often being overloaded with unpaid overtime and an increasing number without work at all. And then there is the issue of adequate payment for work so that workers can support their families. We need effective strategies to overcome these problems and the decisions must not be left to those with the money and the power.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock 12 January 2017

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