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‘Keeping your options open’ applies here just as it does in a failed relationship advertised to the world as rescinded by mutual consent but realistically ended at the brutal strike of an owner, a master, a boss.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.