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It works for me

Flexible ... from left, Keshvar Mirzarazi found law dull; Leigh Freeman
is committed to teaching, for now; and Anthony Marshall has big
plans for his trade skills.
Photo: Lisa Wiltse

February 18, 2006

The revolution is here. Australia's young workers have shed the "slacker" label
and turned workplace standards on their head. Ben Cubby and Brigid Delaney
DERIDED, mocked, labelled and dismissed as slackers - the new generations just
beginning their first full-time jobs have not had a promising start to working life. But
the truth is different, shocking researchers and ushering in a quiet revolution that will
change the way we all work.

Shifting demographics mean baby boomers will have to adapt to a new work
ideology, where lifestyle ranks higher than money, the business or building a career.

Flexibility - that term beloved of chief executives but which strikes fear into many an
established employee - has been re-interpreted by younger workers who have grown
up in an insecure but relatively job-rich work environment.

"They are turning flexibility on its head," says Professor Johanna Wynn, a labour
market specialist from Melbourne University. "Young people themselves have taken
the idea of flexibility on board. They're now living in a way that causes problems for
employers. But it's so-called flexible work practices that have helped to cause that. I
think that's quite a nice twist."

Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald.

It works for me
February 18, 2006

Today's school and university leavers are the most educated generation in history -
but also the most restless. They will have, on average, 29 jobs and five main career
changes in their lifetimes.

A typical young graduate starting work in one of Sydney's gleaming office towers this
week might be about 22, having just finished a marketing degree. She lives at home,
but has her own car and is saving for a deposit on an investment unit. She is starting
on $41,000.

Or he could be 19, and just taking up an apprenticeship after a year juggling TAFE
and a job as a waiter. He has moved into a share house in an inner suburb, but is still
trying to save for a second-hand car. He sees his apprenticeship as a great way to
get a job - something to fall back on - but doesn't expect to be working in the same
industry in 10 years. If he is, he will be running his own business.

Or maybe the young arts graduate is 23, moving into the family business for a while,
but maintaining a side job in a clothing shop, and planning to go overseas again at
the end of the year. She is a bit older than some of her fellow graduates but that's
because she took a gap year part of the way through her degree to spend some time
in Sri Lanka helping tsunami victims.

No stereotype fits and the scenarios vary, but the same themes emerge: aspirations
to self-reliance, a relatively high level of education and training, usually some travel,
and the ability to experiment with new kinds of work.

More than 34,000 people were offered university places in NSW this year; more than
65,000 had just finished high school. In a strong economy with almost full
employment, they are entering a workforce that is welcoming their skills.

But these new workers come armed with vastly different expectations from those of
their parents, and with demographics and the economy tilted in their favour.

Wynn, co-author of Youth, Education and Risk: Facing the Future, began to study the
career progression of people who left school in 1991 and was shocked by the shift in
attitudes to work. For the first time there was a crucial break from the baby-boomer
model of a job for life, towards the idea of a "job for now".

"In our initial study, 80 per cent of those that left school and went straight into a job
ended up back in education again at some point," says Wynn, who revisited the high-
school graduates every year for a decade to keep tabs on changes in their lives. She
has just started a study among the present crop of year 11 students.

"They go travelling, they go back to uni. It looks to the older generations as if they're
mucking around, wasting time, but they're not. The world has moved on, workplaces
have changed, and they are just showing a completely rational response."

Wynn found they have met the market's need for flexible workers - such as the
demand for casual and contract labour - by prizing flexible work conditions above job

But it's not only the freedom to change careers that appeals to the latest bunch of
graduates - flexibility within the job is also greatly sought.

Avril Henry, a Sydney-based social researcher, says: "Flexibility is constantly being

misinterpreted by baby-boomer managers. They think it's for part-time working mums

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Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald.
It works for me
February 18, 2006

- instead, it's all about trust. It's about working five hours one day and 15 hours the
next - as long as the work gets done."

Young workers are frequently more choosy than their more experienced colleagues
think they have a right to be, Henry says.

"They want to see what they are doing has value; there's no point doing it just for the
sake of it ... But, contrary to popular belief, they will trade off boring work for being
part of a successful team. They hate doing process work, unless they can see how it
fits into the big picture."

But, while the workforce is more fragmented and career choices more varied than
ever, there has been a dramatic rise in vocational training in schools, fuelled, in part,
by student pressure for an education more relevant to the workplace.

In NSW, slightly more than two out of every five public school students take part in
vocational education and training programs as part of their weekly study.

A research project commissioned by the NSW Department of Education and Training

was conducted last May by Melbourne University researchers.

Interviewers spoke to two groups of school leavers, each group containing 3180
students. All the students in one of the groups had completed vocational training at
school. None of the students in the other group had done so.

Of those who had not done vocational courses at school, about 35 per cent were
expecting to go to university, compared with 23.6 per cent of vocational students.

Just 11.3 per cent of non-trained students were in full-time work six months after
leaving school, and the trained student quota was only slightly higher, at 12.2 per

Rates of casual employment were slightly higher for non-vocational students. About
17 per cent of those surveyed were in a casual job, and not studying.

Despite a Federal Government push to increase the number of trade apprentices, the
number of people taking them up had dropped slightly as at June 30 last year,
according to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, a publicly
funded organisation that reports to federal and state education ministers.

There were 391,200 apprentices in Australia at June 30, a drop of 2 per cent on the
2004 figure, suggesting a growing unwillingness to commit to a long period of training
with relatively low pay.

The award wage for apprentice builders is $231 a week before tax for the first year,
rising to $426 in the third year. Indentured apprentice electricians earn $209 a week
in their first year, and $470 in their fourth. By contrast, the average incomes of first-
year graduates rose by 1 per cent to $43,000 this year, or $827 a week.

Marijke Wright, a career counsellor at the University of Technology, Sydney, says:

"One of the issues I come across is that students know they have options and often
it's difficult for them to decide between the options. They are wanting to find ways of
expressing their talents in a number of ways - so they will change careers."

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Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald.
It works for me
February 18, 2006

Louis Couttoupes, 22, has just graduated from Sydney University with an honours
degree in international relations, which included a year studying in France, and is
embarking on a master's degree in law. He says his fellow students would rush
straight from study to full-time work only if a great opportunity came up. "Most of
them aren't interested in starting long-term career progressions right now. They have
just done uni courses and I think they're trying to retain some flexibility while they
work out what they want to do for the next five years."

Ross Jackson, managing partner of Maddocks lawyers, based in Sydney and

Melbourne, says the shift has had implications for traditional workplace structures. "I
started here as a first-year lawyer 21 years ago. People my age were the last ones
that viewed their career as a linear projection."

For Jackson, that has meant staying at the same firm, building expertise and
becoming a partner. Now "there's nothing linear about career progression", so
succession has become an issue at his firm, as has retaining staff so recruitment
costs don't blow out. "And they are much more sophisticated in what they expect of
leadership. They expect to be rightly considered as adults, not as automatons with
blind obedience," he says.

The demands of the new generation of workers have forced Jackson and the firm's
other partners to change the way they manage staff. The firm now has mentoring
programs and offers the option of leave without pay to lawyers who want to work
overseas or travel.

The oldest of the baby boomers turn 60 this year, and this raises the problem of
succession: who will run the business if younger workers are switching careers every
five years?

Anne Miller was raised on a sheep farm near the NSW-Queensland border, and her
parents are nearing retirement. There is no one to take over the farm. Miller, 27, has
just started her first permanent full-time job, with the Nature Conservation Council of

"I've recently been talking about it with my brother, and maybe the only way we could
do it is to pay someone to manage the farm, but I don't think that's realistic," she

After completing high school, Miller spent a year in Ecuador learning Spanish, then
three at Griffith University studying environmental science.

But the opportunity to travel while working as a temp in banking administration

proved too tempting, and she spent three years supporting herself in Europe, before
returning to Sydney last year.

"I probably have had about 40 jobs altogether, I suppose, counting tomato crushing
and being a jillaroo and everything," Miller says.

"I would really like to settle down and build up a career in environmental science.
Except I will probably go travelling again - my partner is Scottish and I want to go
there for a few years. I'll see."

Wright says employers are getting used to resumes boasting of bizarre excursions
into theatre or fitness coaching or teaching English in Peru.

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Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald.
It works for me
February 18, 2006

"The word 'variety' is a word I hear over and over again," she says. "It's popular to
take a year off before they start their jobs. Employers don't mind that - they are not
expecting students to go straight into a job. [Younger workers] have seen a bit of the
world, know what they want, and have a focus."

The result is those entering the workforce are more likely to be older than their baby-
boomer parents were when they started work - and more worldly.

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Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald.