What millennials want…at work.

What millennials want…at work.

In a week’s time I will be part of a major conference on The Future of Work to be held in Melbourne, bringing together academics, policy makers, businesses and unions. The conference is focussed on  predicting what the future of work will look like, which  is extremely challenging, maybe even a mug’s game. Yet try we must if we are to act to shape it.

Young people in an obvious sense have a greater stake in the future of work than older workers. So what would young people like from a job? There is lots of talk about young people’s changing attitudes to work. Some are very positive about the potential of changing attitudes to the relationship between employees and employers. Myer chief executive Richard Umbers, addressing The Australian Financial Review Workforce and Productivity Summit late last year, said of ‘Millennials’:

“They really want to work in a way that suits their lifestyle and they think in terms of work-life balance and that isn’t something typically that’s enhanced by a restrictive regime.”

He believes that ‘Millennial’ workers ‘crave flexibility and in many ways their interests are aligned between employers and future employee’. Arguably a little too conveniently for Myer, he says they apparently find penalty rates ‘restrictive’.

Mr Umbers may be on great terms with his young employees, but his views clash in key respects with my research with young Australians. With colleagues including Johanna Wyn and Hernan Cuervo at the University of Melbourne, I have spent the past decade working on the Life Patterns study using questionnaires and interviews to follow almost 600 young Australians from their final year of secondary school through to the age of 27. The majority have worked in causal employment. Indeed many have worked in retail, for employers like Myer.

We have regularly asked these participants in interviews about the positive and negative aspects of their paid work and what they are looking for in a job over the longer term. ‘Flexibility’ can be beneficial to young workers and they do tell us this, but it is almost always with some ambivalence:

Working weekends is ok; as I get days off during the week to make up for it, which is nice sometimes as I can get things done without the rush of the weekend. [But] working some weekends or public holidays can be a pain if friends and family are doing fun things.

I have mixed feelings about being in a renewable contract position. On the downside, there is a constant stress that the company will have no work lined up when my contract ends and I will be out of work…. On the other hand, I’m very keen to travel and work at other visual effects houses overseas, and being in a contract position makes that much more accessible.

However, there is no evidence that that the ‘millennials’ in our study as a whole no longer value job security. In fact, every time we ask, ‘job security’ tops their list of what they are looking for in a job, coming well ahead of flexibility, or even high pay. At age 21, 86 per cent of participants ranked job security as of high or very high importance, six years later at age 27 this had increased to 95 per cent. Capturing a general mood, one of our female participants told us in 2015:

I guess I understand that I’m employed on a permanent basis and I can still be fired if I do something wrong.  But, you know, I’d probably have to have official warnings.  It’s just that security in employment, they’d have to let me know if they were making me redundant….  The good thing about permanent work is that it reduces your stress level knowing that you have a reasonably secure job….It’s not like when you’re a casual and they could let you go anytime that suited them.

Others have told us:

‘It is not ideal to be employed on a temporary basis as it influences future planning, [making it] difficult to control’


‘Sometimes I get no work or I can get a lot of work but it is unpredictable. I don’t like working weekends but I do get penalty rates….Weekend work impacts my social life but I can’t do much about it as the job market is slim’.

The world of work is changing, fast. As we try to shape its direction and respond to change, we need to recognise that generational differences will arise; young people will want to, and will no doubt have to, develop different careers to their parents. Yet we must not overstate this. Young people are not all of a kind, and have different needs from work and different resources to manage insecure employment and benefit from flexibility. And what they do share is a desire for many of the same things their parents would probably have wanted, and many did get. As the future of work in this country is debated and shaped by economic change and policy, we should be cautious in assuming that the wants of young workers and the senior executive of an employer like Myers will so neatly align.


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