Generational insights into new labour market landscapes for youth

by Hernán Cuervo, Jessica Crofts & Johanna Wyn

Excerpt from Research Report 42, Youth Research Centre, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. Read the full report here.

This research report analyses how young Australians are managing their transition from education to work. It is based on data from the Life Patterns project, a two-decade longitudinal research program of the Youth Research Centre at The University of Melbourne. This report focuses on the experiences of cohort two, the generation that left secondary school in 2006 (as also referred to as Generation Y) in order to map their integration to the labour market. The analysis explores what Furlong (2007: 102) describes as ‘the grey area between employment and unemployment’ to understand the nature and quality of young adults’ working conditions. We agree with Furlong that simplistic binaries constructed around the distinction between employed and unemployed no longer provide an accurate picture of the contemporary landscape of the labour market for youth. The report also draws on the experiences of cohort one, who left school in 1991 (corresponding to Generation X). We offer some inter-generational comparisons as a way of analysing issues of continuity and change in education and work in the last quarter of a century. We acknowledge that young people’s lives encompass more than just education and work. Elsewhere we have provided a critique of a concept of youth transitions that is based solely on the transition from school to work (see Cuervo & Wyn 2014, Wyn 2009) and have documented the significance of family and social relations, and health and wellbeing in the lives of both cohorts (see Andres & Wyn 2010, Cuervo & Wyn 2011, 2012, 2014, Wyn & Andres 2011). However, in this research report we concentrate almost exclusively on the spheres of work and education in a period of uncertainty that has come to be defining for young people. The analysis of the nature and conditions of work, and the structural forces that shape it, is critical for those concerned with the study of youth. As MacDonald (2009: 167) asserts:

‘In considering the topic of young adults and precarious work, therefore, we are able to focus on particular, youth-related questions about changing transitions as well as broader sociological ones about change (and continuity) in the sphere of work and employment in late modernity. Because of youth’s status as harbinger of the future, the nature of the younger’s engagement in ‘new’ forms of employment has relevance beyond the sphere of youth studies.’

The longitudinal character of the Life Patterns research program enables us to construct a dynamic view of young people’s lives. Longitudinal studies allow for the possibility of tracking developments over time and space, providing a unique opportunity to gain clarity about issues of continuity and change in people lives that are more difficult to apprehend in studies focused on a single point in time (Miranda 2010, Tyler, Cuervo & Wyn 2011). Longitudinal studies also make it possible to confirm or dispute predictions about youth transitions enabling a re-assessment of patterns of transition, particularly in times of rapid social change (Longo & Deleo 2012). As young people are investing in their education well into their twenties, their goals of achieving a secure, meaningful job can take up to a decade after leaving secondary school (see Andres & Wyn 2010). This means that meaningful analysis needs to have a view of their transitions over time.

Previously we have provided an in-depth analysis of changes in the Australian economic and labourstructure, including the deregulation of labour relations, the collapse of the youth full-time labour market and the impact of the financial recession in the early 1990s on young people’s options and opportunities (Cuervo & Wyn 2011, Wyn 2009). These economic and employment changes brought a closer alignment between education and youth and labour policies, reflecting a view of education a tool for the development of human capital to support the country’s productivity. These developments also resulted in increasing pressure on young people to continue with further and tertiary studies to remain competitive in increasingly insecure labour markets. Previous analysis of Life Patterns data also shows that participants in both cohorts placed a strong emphasis on gaining the educational credentials that they believed would enable them to successfully integrate into these labour markets.

National data however, shows that despite the high investment by young people in education the nexus between education and employment is becoming more complex, with precarious and insecure work also affecting those that have completed tertiary studies (ABS 2009a, Carroll & Tani 2011, FYA 2013). International studies reveal the tenuous relationship between education and work (Ball 2006, Chauvel 2010, Brown, Lauder & Ashton 2011).

This research report confirms that the world of work described by Beck (2000) and other social theorists in the last two decades has become a reality for many participants in both cohorts. Beyond historical disputes, a range of empirical studies show that the current Australian labour market is highly casualised – comprising at least 20% of the total workforce (e.g. ABS 2009a, Campbell 2013). The analysis of two cohorts of Life Patterns data reveals similar trends. The contemporary landscape of work has significant effects on young people, as traditional school to work transitions enjoyed by previous generations in the post-war era (mostly the generation known as Baby Boomers) have become relegated to history. Young people are now expected to participate in formal education well into their twenties. They confront significant uncertainty in their career paths, and must actively engage in managing their employment journey, including the possibility of having to gain a new set of skills to change career pathway later in life. Contemporary contexts of work for young people leaving school are dominated by increasing casual and precarious job and non-standardisation of the workday, with an expectation that achieving a secure job will take longer than it took their parents.

Contemporary work contexts, dominated by flexible and deregulated labour relations, increasing casual and precarious jobs and non-standardisation of the work-day have significant implications for some social groups. Research reveals that while not all members of society are subject to nonsecure, stable work, it is young people, women and those less educated that are more likely to be in part-time, casual and precarious and non-standard jobs (ABS 2009a, Campbell 2013, Chauvel 2010, Furlong & Kelly 2005, MacDonald 2009, OECD 2004, White & Wyn 2013). The evidence presented in this research report confirms young people’s significant exposure to precarious work, including the vulnerabilities experienced by young women in particular to greater vulnerability of job insecurity and disadvantage (see Cuervo, Crofts & Wyn 2012). Further, Wyn (2013: 4), in her critique of neoliberal policies that continue to link further education and secure, rewarding employment unproblematically argues that:

‘Until recently it seemed that only the ‘marginal’ and the ‘disadvantaged’ who failed to bridge education and work experienced ‘difficult transitions’ (the poor, those living in rural areas and Indigenous young people). These ‘exceptions’ have always proved the ‘rule’ – that is, that education works. It is assumed that if young people in these marginal groups would mimic the educational participation patterns of their more privileged peers, they would naturally find good, secure and worthwhile jobs.’

As argued by Wyn (2009, 2013) and by other data analysis from the Life Patterns research program (see Andres & Wyn 2010, Cuervo & Wyn 2011, 2012), this report provides evidence for the view that ‘difficult transitions’ have become a reality for a greater proportion of young people and not just for those historically labelled as disadvantaged. Nonetheless, this report confirms the broader pattern for young people with higher educational credentials to perform better than their non-educated peers in the labour market (see Cassells et al. 2012). In their mid-twenties, participants from both cohorts that have completed tertiary education were more likely than those still studying or without a tertiary education qualification to be in fulltime jobs. But as Figure 11 in this report shows, both generations know that career opportunities are scarce.

Casual and non-standard work is accepted as a reality for young people in cohort 2 with at least one fifth employed as casuals and three quarters working irregular hours. This non-standard pattern of work is not just a matter of ‘youth’ – or the need to work in ‘difficult’ jobs until demonstrating their employability. A quarter of participants in cohort 1 were also involved in part-time work, irregular hours of work and shift jobs by their mid-thirties (with women who were also parenting being the most affected). These heterogeneous and precarious types of work justify both cohorts’ ambitions and anxieties of gaining secure work as one of their top three priorities over the years, regardless of their educational qualifications or social background. The impact that work has on participants’ health and wellbeing is another critical aspect showed by our data (see Wyn, Cuervo & Landstedt 2014) and deserves further exploration in the future.

Overall our data reveals that there are many similarities in attitudes and life priorities between the two cohorts of Life Patterns participants. The main difference between them is that Generation Y anticipates a more unstable path through the job market and are cautious of planning their work or family lives too far into the future. While the Australian economy has retained its economic stability and avoided falling into recession with the Global Financial Crisis, the consequences for today’s youth is the alienation from the knowledge, memory and possibility of long-term stable employment. This is a generation socialised into a precarious work environment, where flexibility and adaptability are key individual assets and horizontal mobility more likely than vertical mobility. On the other hand, members of Generation X had to learn through a painful process that a job for life is not available and that securing a stable position in the labour market might take up to ten years after leaving school. Analysis of the next few years in the lives of Generation Y will be critical to find out if precarious work and its impact on individuals’ wellbeing and society at-large remains as strong as with Generation X.

The full report is available here.

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About tasayouth

Blog of the Australian Sociological Association's Youth Thematic Group
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