I have this social dread when meeting new people. A nervousness that keeps me on edge during the early introductions and the vocal sparring that takes place after shaking hands and saying each other’s names. It’s not an aversion to interacting with strangers; I’m just on the lookout for someone to ask me the question that inevitably comes up. As new acquaintances seek to elicit information, the first question that comes to mind is “What do you do?”
It’s a reasonable enough way to find out a lot about somebody quickly. After all, people take a lot of pride in their work and some genuinely enjoy it. But what if you feel you’re totally over-educated for your current position? Maybe it’s just something you’re doing for money and you have no attachment to it? Maybe you’re in the job because you need as many shifts as you can get, and all the jobs you apply for that you really want don’t even acknowledge your application? You also know that if you mention you’ve worked in, say, manual labour, a whole series of prejudices and assumptions are going to begin barrelling through the mind of the person talking to you.
You also know that the absolute last thing you want to have a discussion about when you’re trying to enjoy yourself at a party is whether pay is meritocratic or if the unemployed could get a job if they just tried.
Commentators are happy to impugn the character of a generation for a lack of the work ethic that supposedly underpins the successes of previous generations. We’re not willing to work hard, they say; we can’t commit to a job; we aren’t willing to save. As if casualised workplaces, lack of career tracks and an inability to pay a gargantuan house deposit are the result of our failings.
I look at myself and my friends struggling, and it makes the generational battle that plays out online when discussing the housing market – the “coffee and avocado discussion” – all the more distasteful. A number of older commentators assert that we value different things, and this explains our inability to enter the housing market. Instead of saving for a mortgage, we are consuming avocado and coffee at a staggering rate. We also spend a lot on entertainment. This often leads to a discussion of how we enjoy working flexible hours and not being tied down to one career path. As if there is some desire to constantly move between jobs.
There is no evidence for any of this. As Jennifer Rayner points out in Generation Less (Redback, 2016), the job churn rate for those aged 20 to 34 is lower than the past. Older workers are actually changing jobs more frequently, and Australian Bureau of Statistics evidence suggests there is no difference in work ethic between generations. And yet the myth persists, despite our willingness to do unpaid work in the hope of finding a career.
So if there’s no evidence that shows we lack the willingness to work, it is the changing nature of work itself that is creating barriers for young people. Today’s employment market has changed, and continues to change at an accelerating rate. My generation is affected by the same changes as the disaffected Trump and Brexit voters: structural changes in the economy have primarily hit the lower end of the job market, the sectors where young workers predominate. Work is different today because of the globalised nature of the economy, the rapid pace of technological change – particularly automation – and the mass casualisation (or increased “flexibility”) of the workforce. In the developed world, these factors are increasing inequality by holding down wages and conditions at the bottom while raising them at the top.
Everyone has been affected by these economic changes, but Australians in their late teens and 20s have lost far more ground than others. The gap between young and old is widening in terms of unemployment and underemployment, wage growth and casualisation. Wage inequality is growing between demographic groups.
Some of the gaps between younger and older workers can’t be avoided. Young workers will always find it more difficult to find good jobs because we haven’t had time to develop the experience and skills to make us as employable. While underemployment has trended up for all age groups in the past few decades, there is a broadening gap in the percentage of young and older workers needing more work. At just 2% in the late 1970s, rising to 5% after the recession of the early 1990s, it continues to grow, reaching almost 10 points in 2014, the ABS says.
Like most young Australians, I’ve spent years struggling to transition to full-time work, followed by many more years falling in and out of it. Not being able to find full-time work means a life of near constant anxiety. An inability to settle into life. We are not being choosy. I would love to work in a field I’m passionate about, and while I’ll keep trying for those jobs, I’ve taken lots of shit jobs. They are almost as difficult to secure as the ones I want. After many hundreds of applications there is little rhyme or reason to the rare responses I receive, except perhaps the occasional email apologising for the delay in replying due to the sheer volume of applications that were received for the position.
Rise of insecure work
The lack of sufficient work hours is closely tied to the casualisation of the workforce, a phenomenon in Australia borne almost entirely by the under-30 and over-55 workforce. The rise of insecure work is the defining feature of contemporary employment for young Australians. Not all the people employed on this basis are unhappy – some freelance between lucrative contracts – but they are all insecure. Concerns about the rise of these insecure workplace arrangements are often dismissed as a result of young Australians making the choice to further their education. Beyond the chicken-and-egg question raised by such an explanation (for myself, I got a master’s in an effort to guarantee a good full-time job), an Australian Council of Trade Unions inquiry found more than half of all people working without entitlements were permanent casuals. Workers, that is, who could be made part-time or full-time, yet are kept casual to deprive them of benefits and allow businesses to be flexible with shifts. Casual shifts and contracts are often being picked up to compensate for underemployment.
The largest gap between workers of different ages is wages. Wage inequality is soaring between not just the rich and poor but between age groups. Weekly mean full-time earnings for under-25s grew by just 25% over the past 25 years, while increasing 59% for those in their early 50s. This wage gap is accentuated by policies such as capital gains tax exemptions and negative gearing that entrench wealth inequality.
Young Australians are doing whatever they can to find full-time work and start a career, which for many, including myself, means unpaid work. A study commissioned by the federal education department has found that 58% of those aged 18 to 29 have done unpaid work in the past five years. It is no longer enough to be enthusiastic and educated; many entry-level positions require three years’ experience in the industry. This experience is supposed to be acquired through unpaid work. In my career I have worked across a number of internships for more than a year in total, doing two days a week. I was never paid a cent for the work I did, nor can I say that having these internships on my CV has helped me to get a job in my field. I began a three-month internship in the role I had applied for and was told that I’d gain the required experience. Within a couple of weeks I was gradually shifted to a variety of increasingly pointless administrative tasks, until I was exclusively doing mundane tasks I was already trained in. Why did I stay when I was clearly being exploited as unpaid labour? Mostly because of the promise of paid work, if not there, then in a similar position.
They may be called “internships”, but for the most part that description is wholly misleading. There is often little training beyond admin work and they rarely provide a direct pathway to employment. That unpaid work is becoming a norm is troubling. A friend once told me of working three days a week as an unpaid intern for six months, only to have a manager scoff at her because she chose to stay living at home with her parents in her early 20s. He was seemingly unaware that unpaid internships are non-convertible as rental currency. It is absurd that one to three days a week unpaid work is allowed to continue past two months.
Many members of my generation are willing to do this presumably because they get to work in an area or field they love. Which brings me to my generation’s understanding of work. Rather than lacking a work ethic, they seem more likely to underestimate the value of their own labour. To restate the obvious, people are paid for their labour because if they weren’t paid they’d be doing something else. Work is only a hobby for the privileged. This unpaid work can create problems if you have ideological issues with not being paid for your labour. The idea that workers are doing something they love can be an excuse to pay them less, or not at all. The offer of exposure or experience can be very tempting. Not doing something you love seems increasingly like a tragedy, particularly when every new acquaintance at a social gathering asks the same question: “What do you do?”
Rise of the machines
Despite the avocado–coffee diatribe, this isn’t just a problem for well-educated kids who won’t settle for less. Jobs that for many years provided a good stable living for low-skilled workers are disappearing, as production disperses around the world and businesses replace workers with machines. Those workers have been forced into professions such as hospitality and retail, which provide little opportunity for productivity improvements and generally mean lower wages and poorer conditions. The same applies to care work, which is one of the few fields with strong job growth. These positions are less secure and offer fewer opportunities for skill development and career advancement. While opportunities appear rosy for those at higher pay scales, automation is beginning to infiltrate what were once seen as non-codifiable professions safe from automation, such as journalism and law, where algorithms are gaining rapid effectiveness at tasks such as research and writing.
For those worried about their job being taken by a machine, the research is frightening. The Future of Work, a 2013 report by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne from the Oxford Martin school at Oxford University, categorised 702 jobs in the US labour market according to their ability to be automated, finding about 47% of total US employment in the high-risk category. Their research suggests that this is not a long-term concern, but rather something they see happening in the next decade or two.
Responding to emails in a customer-service role, I witnessed the increased speed and productivity within an office as automation crept in. Rather than laboriously writing an individualised response to each customer, something that no doubt would have strained the veneer of civility required in the service industry, I could glance at an email to glean the gist of it then select from a list of templates and generate an automated, very polite, response. It’s not hard to see how soon it won’t be necessary for a human to parse customer queries and decide on the most appropriate rote reply.
These changes in the nature of work are eroding the ability of wage earners to demand a sustainable living. They lack collective bargaining power, risk being replaced by machines or having their jobs shifted offshore. Despite never having worked in manufacturing, I have experienced many of the same challenges. I have been laid off after my job was moved offshore. The high Australian dollar was a deciding factor in my leaving another job where my salary was set in a foreign currency. The company couldn’t afford to pay anywhere near the equivalent salary for the industry in Australian dollars.
In this new global, automated business environment, capital or profit’s proportion of national income is rising while the share going to labour in wages is declining. The myth that if you work hard you will succeed continues to pervade our culture. We must recognise the perniciousness of dividing workers into the deserving and undeserving. It is the reason we put onerous conditions on the recipients of unemployment benefits, blaming them for not being able to find jobs that don’t exist. The recent Centrelink debt scandal, which has seen the agency seek to reclaim money from its customers for vastly inflated or non-existent debts, is one of the uglier examples of this scapegoating. As is the attempt to deprive under-30s of unemployment benefits for extended periods, or reductions in payments for unemployed youth. People derive meaning from their work, but if jobs no longer exist we must liberate people from the necessity of work for survival.
Talking to Australians about unemployment benefits is enough to make you believe they’d be in favour of waterboarding the unemployed until they find a job. The young are being targeted in this area of welfare cuts. The Centrelink customer service system is already designed to be as challenging and confusing as possible. If you call Centrelink, you will wait for well over an hour to speak to someone – the record being set by a woman who waited 15 hours to get through. If you go to a Centrelink office instead, they will tell you to call to make an appointment, requiring another couple of hours on the phone. It is a demoralising system that actively takes a punitive approach to those struggling to find work.
Generational comprehension gap
I’d like to be bold and state that there is a brighter future amid the decline of stable employment and the automation of work, a future that is glimpsed in that most utopian of fantasies: Star Trek. The economy in the capitalist era has been defined by scarcity, however, and as we see with global hunger and food production, there is already a near surplus of many foodstuffs. Agriculture has advanced to the point where the globe is able to easily produce more than enough food to feed the world, but struggles to distribute this food to everyone. The issue is not production, but distribution. Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics (Pipertext, 2016) describes a world without scarcity, where a device called a “replicator” can produce anything, and thus creates perfect equality of goods. This frees society to engage in more rewarding pursuits, like exploring the galaxy and wearing silly outfits. It is a society that has embraced technology and automation to free itself from mundane work. We may not be capable of this in our present, but that future is rushing towards us fast and we should prepare.
Both of the main political parties in Australia frame a hardworking society as a moral one. Since we define ourselves by our work, automation and the freedom from mundane tasks is seen as an existential threat. It is not workers, but work that our society venerates. They believe that new jobs will be created in the future to replace those lost in the past, and workers need to prepare for that. We witnessed Malcolm Turnbull’s trials of VR headsets and visits to start-up incubators on the campaign trail of the last election. It’s believed that if those businesses are supported, the economy will thrive. For the Labor party, the focus is on training workers to take up those new jobs. This is a continuation of the same mindset that sees the individual as responsible for his own underemployment and unemployment.
Although there are new industries emerging today, they offer fewer employment opportunities than those in previous decades. Tech companies today are worth a lot, make lots of money and employ relatively minuscule numbers of workers. Information goods, alongside the automation of manufactured goods, mean fewer people are required for production.
One answer lies in a universal basic income (UBI), an idea that is being tested around the globe, and one that may become necessary in a world with fewer secure jobs. It is a payment to all individuals in society so that they no longer need to rely on the wage system to survive. Resistance to this idea is similar to the reasoning that imposes onerous conditions on the unemployed – because people still think you can find a job if you try hard enough.
A UBI could solve many of the issues we have today with work. It increases worker bargaining power, it offers a solution to women’s unpaid labour in child-rearing and domestic duties, and helps deal with rising inequality and the inability of work to effectively distribute income.
In the years since graduating from university, shifting between jobs, in and out of work, I have been the frequent recipient of career advice from those with experience of secure employment. Although much of the advice tends to follow similar patterns, there is a noticeable gap in the relevancy and usefulness of the help offered by members of my generation and those from older generations that betrays a misunderstanding of the contemporary nature of work. I see this repeated by our politicians as they fumble around these issues, telling young Australians how the fault lies with them.
Not being able to rely on regular full-time work to provide a steady wage is a stressful existence. The current system doesn’t work for me, nor for much of my generation. Young workers need to be heard and their experiences must not be dismissed. The problems of contemporary work can’t be solved with old answers, nor can they be adequately addressed if we continue to fear radical solutions.
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