The real problem with Gen Y

Gen Y's are doin' it for themselves!

Gen Y's are doin' it for themselves! Photo: Getty images

If you’ve been paying attention to Australia’s tycoons, rent seekers and bubble class executives lately you may be starting to feel a rising sense of panic. 

Australia’s workplaces are being flooded with a new generation of unproductive workers. 

Max Yasuda knows it. He had to sack 350 of them in April. So does Ahmed Fahour. Gina Rinehart has seen them drinking and smoking themselves penniless and cheating hard working heiresses out of a quid. 

The AFR isn’t afraid to speak where others dare only dog whistle: 


Generation Y workers have tickets on themselves, according to 300 Australian finance bosses surveyed by recruiter Robert Half. They say staff under 30 have an inflated and often delusionary perception of the value they add to an organisation. 

From hairdressers, shop floor apprentices, bankers, welders, forklift operators, cricket players, ballet dancers, journalists – Australia’s workplaces are being invaded by brats. They’re disloyal, grabby, venal. The shadow they cast across the world of work is that of the great endarkening, a reverse enlightenment, where mutual respect, fraternity, hard work and curiosity are extinguished. Left behind is a generation that struggles to cogitate the shades of difference between fisting and the black power salute. 

Gen Y are a nightmare in the workplace – they never seem to do what you want, always have one foot out the door, are scheming and ambitious rather than the white collar company stalwarts that make Western economies  - and more frequently now - Eastern economies, tick. 

All of these points are, let’s stare into the abyss for a second, functionally correct. That is how Gen Y behave. But what seems misunderstood is why they behave that way. 

The fundamental error here is to mistake the adaptive behaviours of a new generation for the cause behind labour market changes. 

Over the last few decades, young workers have started to ‘keep their options open’ not from choice but out of necessity – no one will offer them a real job. Yes, 18-month internships, casual, contract, temporary and back fill positions are freely available. But a real job with real benefits? Grow up. 

‘Keeping your options open’ applies here just as it does in a failed relationship advertised to the world as rescinded by mutual consent but realistically ended at the brutal strike of an owner, a master, a boss. It’s a sweet generational lullaby, a group delusion mocked up to look like free will. 

The casualisation rate across the Australian workforce currently runs at around 25 per cent, a fair leap from 18.9 per cent in 1988. Actually, 40 per cent of the work force is termed ‘non permanent’ by the ABS, including contractors and freelancers, many of which if they aren’t called ‘casuals’ might as well be. For a long period of time in the mid noughties, the only Western country with more casuals than Australia was Spain. 

So why are so many Gen Yers forced to ‘keep their options open’? 

The reason is ‘productivity’. Every year, those hoping to live off passive investments and never work a day in their lives demand better returns from their share portfolios and pensions. The message is passed from fund manager to CEO to Gen Y employee – despite the boomers not being prepared to pay taxes that would spur R&D investment, despite cuts to universities, we still need growth, and that growth means young workers need to deliver more for less. 

Take a close look at recent ABS numbers for an industry like rental, hiring and real estate services. You’ll find 97.2 per cent of full timers choose their holidays compared to only 69.7 for casuals. 18.9 per cent of casuals get flexible time off (55.8 per cent for full timers). 

The drive for productivity through casualisation has created employment conditions that stress young people out, give them breakdowns, make it impossible to start families, eviscerate social cohesiveness, and essentially make a mockery of the idea of community.

So if young people are the lion’s share of casuals, and their job conditions carve them out as a virtual underclass, what realistically do you expect them to do? 

James C. Scott’s classic survey of peasant resistance – Weapons of the Weak – describes in detail the long-term strategies of subversion that oppressed groups use against those ‘who seek to extract labor, food, taxes, rents and interest from them.’ 

These weapons of the weak stop short of ‘outright collective defiance’ but include ‘foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so on.’ 

‘They require little or no coordination or planning; they make use of implicit understandings and informal networks; they often represent a form of individual self-help; they typically avoid any direct, symbolic confrontation with authority.’ 

These acts in the end ‘make an utter shambles of the policies dreamed up by their would-be superiors.’ 

The plan of Australia’s leisured class is to get productivity for nothing – by destabilising a generation of workers, offering them casual contracts with uncertain pay packets, irregular working hours, high levels of job insecurity and turnover. 47 per cent of casual employees have earnings that vary from pay to pay, compared with 16 per cent of other employees. Casuals are over twice as likely as other employees to work in a job where the hours vary from week to week. 

But Gen Y is trying, slowly and quietly, to dismantle this nightmare economy. 

Gen Y dreams of working in an agile startup, where the unstable, uncertain conditions of employment they suffer at most traditional companies are actually rewarded with bonuses, equity, promotions, opportunity. 

They dream of ‘disintermediating’ (yes the word is ugly, so is the meaning) traditional companies that have screwed them over. Jilted junior lecturers go and work for MOOCs providers (40 per cent of university staff are now casuals). Shop floor sales assistants join online retailers. Gen Y are fast destroying the share market – creating private wealth in startup companies and then cashing in with IPOs that rob wealth from pension fund holders. Facebook anyone?

The reason Gen Y might seem disloyal, why they keep trying to find shortcuts and ways ahead, is because increasingly there are few paths to prosperity that don’t require some sort of gamble.

The economy created for them is rigged, and they could care less about people who think of them as widgets powering their passive investments. 

Blaming Gen Y for the current lack of loyalty in the jobs marketplace – for employing all the strategies at their disposal to find a way to survive – is like blaming the Viet Cong for fighting in tunnels, or impoverished Cornish gold miners of the 19th century for spiriting away a few nuggets in their secret orifices.

It’s to mistake the weapons of the weak for generational immaturity.

Daniel Stacey is Editor of Radio National Online.



  • Everyone in the family knows my 19 year old niece is demanding and a drama queen. I will give her some credit though. She is studying for a double degree.

    Oh Well
    Date and time
    July 01, 2013, 10:48AM
    • She's not a demanding drama queen because she belongs to Gen Y. She's a demanding drama queen because she's 19 years old! And that double degree you are giving her credit for? She doesn't want your credit, she wants a steady job like the generations before her set her up to aspire to and expect.

      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 12:58PM
    • I remember when these articles were about Gen-X.

      They're just young people with the attitudes of young people.

      Baby Boomers weren't' always the conservative group of people they think they are these days.... they were 'free spirits' who didn't commit themselves to work... Sound familiar?

      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 2:12PM
    • To Say that Corporates owe their employee a living by paying them a pension and benefits is a wild statement. I have been working for 32 years over several companies and none of them have given me a free lunch. You have to pay your own way in this world rather than expecting a hand out.
      First and foremost a company needs to make money to pay it's employees . To do that rely upon good people working hard for specific goals. Those Goals are rewarded, if the empolyer is smart, which in turn motivates staff to achieve even better results. I agree that the previous generations have caused Gen Y to be how they are but thats becuase they have had everything handed to them on a silver plate . They still live at home being fed and waited on, are driven everywear, think a bus is for work class plebs and are so unmotivated they would rather sit at home on the Xbox and Facebook rather then look for a job unless it pays $50.00 a hour.

      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 2:31PM
    • helicopter parenting and an education system that rewards mediocrity gives this generation an inflated sense of their own worth and importance to an organisation.

      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 2:42PM
    • The trouble with Left wing analysis is thinking the battle is between bosses and workers, when in fact it's now between Australian Company vs Foreign Competitor Company.

      Another example of fighting so hard for a bigger slice of the pie that the pie is destroyed.

      Gen Y can undermine Aussie companies all they like, but it's their own future they're desecrating.

      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 2:50PM
    • Goatygun,
      If Gen Y had everything handed to them on a silver platter...
      1) Blame their parents

      2) If affordable housing had been given to them on a silver platter, they wouldn't be staying at home longer than generations before them, because they wouldn't need to save until well into their 30's to get a deposit together.

      3) Do you drive your Gen Y's everywhere? If you don't, good. If you do, why? If you don't actually have any empirical evidence other than what you "think" Gen Y represents, why comment?

      The arguments that Gen Y are lazy is tired and disproven. Lazy by what standard? Computers were designed to do things for us so that we could have more leisure time, and now that Gen Y embraces this, you complain? Not staying back at the office unpaid until 8pm is not lazy, its inefficient and unethical.

      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 3:53PM
    • Gatsby

      Nah, the issue is about most companies in the developed world, and in the developing world, having the morality and ethics of a stick insect.

      If businesses can't pay employees a living wage with humanitarian conditions, they don't deserve to be in business. That goes for whatever country they're in. That's the message that needs to be shouted around the globe. The fact that there are so many businesses around the world that get away with treating other human beings like sh*t. The problem is with right-wing politics: capitalism at its heart is cruel. History demonstrates that capitalism on its own fails the majority of the population. The only reason it sometimes works is because it's tempered by varying degrees of human rights and social democratic ideals.

      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 4:18PM
    • Goatygun

      Err, no. The generation that had everything handed to them on a plate was yours: baby boomers who benefited from free tertiary education, amongst other things.

      Gen Y are at home because they know they'll be burdened with tertiary education debts and unaffordable housing. Maybe they also have parents who love them. What kind of society have we become when we disparage families helping each other?

      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 4:24PM
    • HighlyDubious - really? See, I don't remember ever reading articles about Gen X. Gen X are completely invisible to the media - it's only ever about Gen Y and Boomers. There's nobody worth mentioning in between, apparently.

      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 4:53PM

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