IT IS EITHER the best of times or the worst of times to be a young worker in Australia. For the lucky ones with skills to sell and the confidence and experience to negotiate a high price for their labour, there are rich pickings in the Australian job market. For the under-educated and underemployed, for those who don't know their rights or need a job too much to assert them, these are frightening times.
Each of these groups has provided poster children in the campaigns for and against the Howard Government's WorkChoices Bill. With 688 pages of legislation already in action, the stage is set for the next phase of the debate. The government will defend itself against the siege of public opinion, and the union movement will reclaim some of its lost momentum by turning that opinion into action. But behind the struggle over the rights of workers lies a more subtle contest for the right to define what a worker is. The outcome of this contest could determine the future of our working lives.
On the eve of his tenth anniversary in power, Prime Minister John Howard was asked by ABC's Radio National to comment on his popularity among younger voters (41 per cent voted for him in the last election, only a third voted for Mark Latham)."I've found over the last ten years that the approaches of the government that has most appealed to the young are those that involve change and those that involve a greater emphasis on individual choice ... I call them the great options society ... Take something like industrial relations. I find talking to young people that there's quite strong support for the notion of choice in the workplace."
Defending WorkChoices in a speech to the Sydney Institute last year, he spoke of a "new breed" of workers who wanted the "independence and flexibility of working for themselves ... There is no more important economic development in Australia in the last two decades than the rise of the 'enterprise worker'."
Enterprise. Worker. The simple act of taking those two words and splicing them together may go down as one of Howard's greatest linguistic sleights of hand. The term bundles complex web of changes together in the one attractive package – and gives us the credit for creating it. Australian Workplace Agreements, labour hire, contracting, freelancing, outsourcing, downsizing, the fall of the unions, the rise of the temp agency – the enterprise worker is responsible for it all.
Conflict of interest between the enterprise and the worker? Nonsense! You are not working for a business – you are a business. All's fair in love and free enterprise.
Prime ministers no longer have the luxury of voicing untested opinions. If Howard talks about enterprise workers, then the chances are that somehow, somewhere, numbers have been crunched to demonstrate that this notion will appeal to voters.
At last year's Fair Go conference in New South Wales, Helen Trinca, editor of Boss magazine, said: "The Prime Minister's comments invite Australians to construct a new identity for themselves. They are encouraged to see themselves as having a level of personal power that they could never have imagined when they operated in the command and control organisation."
Howard's invitation to construct an "independent" identity not only appeals to those who already work for themselves or think of themselves as "entrepreneurs". It may also appeal to workers who survived the traumatic restructuring of the 1980s – reluctant to latch their sense of self to such an unreliable mast as the modern corporation. And it probably resonates with anyone young enough to have grown up expecting an uncertain future – particularly if they are one of the lucky ones with parents or education to fall back on if something goes wrong.
It may even attract those who oppose WorkChoices, Prime Minister Howard and everything he stands for.
SARAH-JANE WHOULAHAN has just finished making a video clip for a Living End song called Long Live the Weekend.
"It's about working for the man. We did this video with a graph measuring happiness versus productivity, and scenes with punks smashing up office equipment."
At twenty-eight, Whoulahan has never worked in an office. "I haven't even seen many offices in my life. They're just these fictional things that exist in sitcoms. I imagine there are cubicles. And water coolers." But after seven years of running a small film production company with business partner Sean Gilligan, Whoulahan has finally heard the call of the water cooler. The paint is drying on the walls of a new office for Squareyed Films in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley. It's the first time she and Gilligan have had a space to work in outside their respective homes.
Before starting Squareyed, Whoulahan taught teenagers at the Australian Acting Academy, while Gilligan marked time at Movieworld. "We were both completely over it," she says. The pair decided to quit their jobs, go on the dole and start making music videos. "We wanted to be creative, to make our own movies all the time, and be given the funds to do that. Making music videos was the only avenue we could see that wasn't advertising or corporate videos."
The big attraction, she says, was autonomy. "I wanted to be able to control my day, say when and where I'd work, and to be my own boss. I actually have a huge problem with earning an hourly wage – [it's like] saying that, to give up being me, my value is this much per hour. That really disgusts me."
As a part-time activist who is about to spend a month working without pay on ABC TV's The Chaser's War on Everything, Whoulahan finds her own attitudes to work confusing. "The ideal for me is individuals interacting and negotiating. That sounds like John Howard, doesn't it?"
EVER SINCE MARSHALL McLuhan declared in 1971 that "jobs are finished", a steady stream of cultural commentators have breathlessly predicted the end of the workplace as we know it.
If you believe the current crop of Generation Y experts, the latest assault on traditional employment is being led by people like Whoulahan. Big corporations and unions are watching helplessly as young people flee from office towers to employ themselves and buy back their souls. No longer will workers slave for their wages in silent obscurity – instead, a new group of "enterprise workers" are opting for "independent contracts" and "portfolio careers".
Like all exercises in generational stereotyping, Gen Y is the invention of marketers, consultants and other cultural astrologers. Its boundaries tend to shift so the available statistics can prove the point being made. Members of this generation therefore have the good fortune to have been born after 1977, or 1980, or 1982 – depending on who is describing them. This may account for some of the openness to change that is often ascribed to their collective personality.
Self-described "Gen Y expert" Peter Sheahan says the move toward flexible contracting in the workplace has been driven by both employers and employees. "Fifteen years ago it was only being driven by employers, but now we're seeing the flip side." Younger workers are now asking why they should be loyal to companies that aren't going to be loyal to them. "They're seeking the same flexibility that employers have."
The result, says Sheahan, is that young people will choose "portfolio careers", refusing to work full-time for one employer and mixing part-time work with other activities. "You're going to be customising your career the same way Gloria Jean customises your latte."
JOSH LIBBERT WANTS a job for life. Twenty-three-year-olds are supposed to be fickle, footloose and on an endless quest to satisfy their attention deficit disorders, but in Libbert's experience it's the employers who are suffering from short attention spans. No matter how many times he tells his bosses that he is willing to devote his life to their company, until now he has been offered nothing but short-term contracts.
Libbert needs a stable income more than most people his age. Zack, his fourteen-month-old son, is asleep on a battered couch in their small North Bondi flat. Zack's mother Skye stays at home to look after him, and is expecting another child. At his last workplace, the need to keep food on the table led Libbert to sign an Australian Workplace Agreement which required that he work shifts of up to twelve hours without getting paid overtime.
"I think that there's a lot of people in my situation with young families who are thinking: 'What happens if I lose this job?' so they'll just take anything that comes to them," he says. Libbert has mostly worked for temping agencies, as a hired hand for any commitment-phobic business with a short-term gap to fill. "I was looking for proper work, but it was all agencies. You go for the job, and there is no job. They put the company logo on the ad, but the address is at an agency."
"There's a lot of people who want to temp," he says, "but they don't want to work for any less than seventeen dollars an hour – even if it's $16.95 they won't take it." But those who can afford to pick and choose are mostly young people with no responsibilities who still live with their parents.
Because poorly paid, short-term jobs are often thought of as a phase that young people go through on their way to settling down and getting a "real job", the treatment of young workers is often not taken seriously. But the image of a "typical" young person, who works part-time in retail or hospitality while completing university, is out of step with reality. One in five school students doesn't finish Year 12, and of those who do, less than two in five go straight into higher education. For the rest, their first job may be as "real" as it gets.
DESPITE THEIR DECLARATIONS of love for "ordinary working Australians", politicians on both sides have spent much of the last few decades dismantling middle Australia. Thanks to the deregulation of the labour market, a "standard" working week, an "average" wage and "normal" working hours are all things of the past.
Thirty years ago, most people were in full-time jobs. Now nearly 40 per cent of the workforce work less than thirty-five hours a week, yet almost a fifth work more than forty-nine hours. At the same time, the wealth gap is widening. Nearly half of Australia's wealth is owned by the top 10 per cent, while the bottom half own just 10 per cent of the wealth.
Inequality between and within generations is also on the rise. According to Peter Sheahan: "There's a whole underclass within this generation – the polarity is more extreme than in other generations. It happens over time as wealth generates in a country – but it's not just about money, it's about opportunity. We have third generation of unemployed people now, and huge levels of youth unemployment. While every employer I speak to is looking for good young people, there are young people out there but they're just not good."
The playing field is not an even one. Unsurprisingly, the amount of time young people spend working – and how well they are paid for it – is strongly affected by their education levels. Those who drop out in Year 10 are twice as likely to end up unemployed as those who don't. In 2004 only 59 per cent of students from low socio-economic backgrounds completed Year 12, compared with 79 per cent of those from wealthier backgrounds. Young people from the country are also at a disadvantage – just over half the students from remote areas finished high school compared with nearly three-quarters of students in the cities.
Many of the changes affecting the workforce overall have had a more noticeable impact on young people. While a quarter of the general workforce is casual, that goes up to 78 per cent of workers under twenty-five.
Professor David Peetz, author of Brave New Workplace – How Individual Contracts are Changing our Jobs(Allen & Unwin, 2006), says that while casualisation is still increasing, the rate of growth has slowed down. "Employers have realised the problems with relying on casual part time workers, because of the lack of commitment to the organisation that it implies – and that's partly because of the organisation's lack of commitment to the employee."
Bridget McDermott, twenty-seven, has been a part-time casual administrator in the community sector for several years. All her colleagues in her current workplace are casuals – apart from the boss. "It's easier for them to have casuals, but the staff aren't happy and no one feels like they've got job security. People would just walk out into another job with job security, even if the money was slightly lower," she says.
The higher rate of pay for casuals is insignificant compared with the lack of sick leave, public holidays and security of income. Under New South Wales laws, casuals are only required to be given one hour's notice before being sacked.
"It's really full-on. When you've been in a job for a long time that just seems outrageous, because you've put so much of your soul into the job. It stops people from putting their whole heart into things," McDermott says.
Along with the increase in casual work, some less pervasive but equally significant changes are taking place. Labour hire – the practice of "renting" workers from a labour hire company instead of employing them directly – still only represents 4 per cent of the workforce, but it's on the rise.
As with many of the new, more "flexible" forms of employment, people like Josh Libbert will take labour hire positions because they have no choice, but those in a strong position whose skills are in short supply will sometimes do it as way of getting control over their working hours.
By mid-2006 less than 6 per cent of the workforce had signed Australian Workplace Agreements. AWAs haven't been very attractive to employers until now, says Peetz, because of the "no disadvantage test", which meant that workers have had to be compensated for any lost entitlements. Now that WorkChoices is in effect, that is no longer the case. "You can lose every condition of employment in your award and not get a single extra cent an hour in your salary."
Hardest hit will be workers covered by awards in industries where labour is the biggest cost. This includes hospitality and call centres – big employers of young people.
IN HIS NEW book Independence and the Death of Employment (Voltan, 2005) Ken Phillips heralds the rise of the contract worker. While he's not expecting everyone to laugh at the funeral of their old nine-to-five jobs, he doesn't think we should be mourning either. Phillips is head of the Work Reform Unit at the Institute for Public Affairs, a free-market think-tank. He says that self-employed people are happier at work because they have greater independence and control over their own work environment: "We decide when we want to work, and how we want to work. People value that process as much as they do the money."
On his recent individual contract (AWA), Josh Libbert had the opposite experience: "They can tell you when to work, when not to work, when to have your break. They can call you up in the middle of the night telling you to come in, and if you go 'Aw, it's the middle of the night' they can say 'Come in or get sacked'."
Far from having more control over his working life, he found that he had even less. "If the car broke down and you had to take it to a mechanic, you had to put it in the database. If your kids were sick, you had to take your kids to the doctor and get a doctor's note for your kid – for yourself."
While he is keen to distinguish so-called "independent contracts" from AWAs, Phillips sees both as crucial in eliminating the last remnants of "class warfare" – the idea that workers need to be protected from exploitation by their bosses.
Writing about John Howard's "enterprise worker" speech in The Age last year, Phillips supported Howard's view that people "no longer see themselves as employees or employers, workers or bosses but rather as businesses". He said that a shift in the law was needed to reflect this, "by first moving the emphasis of employment law, to focus on individual relations between an employee and employer. Second ... protect the rights of independent contractors as small businesses."
WorkChoices has already fulfilled the first item on his wish-list, and the Independent Contractors Act, due to be tabled in Parliament this year, will do the second.
Interestingly, nothing currently prevents people from independently deciding to contract out their services as a sole trader. The main thrust of the new Act is to allow employers to bypass state laws that prevent them from defining their staff as independent contractors in order to avoid the obligation to pay for superannuation, workers' compensation or income tax.
Professor Peetz says that replacing employment relationships with commercial contracts would mean that "all power rests with the corporation basically, which is what it's all about. Can you imagine a part-time waitress in a restaurant being an independent contractor, paying for her own workers' compensation? It's a joke to think that it would be in the interests of so many employees. And in reality for many employers it would be a nightmare – it's actually economically efficient to have employment relationships. The bid to force everybody to become an individual contractor is really driven by ideology rather than efficiency."
He argues that, in this new work environment: "Negotiation skills [are] going to be at least as important as being good at the job. It [will be a system that] rewards self-promotion and arrogance more than your ability as a worker."
Ken Phillips mostly agrees. "If you want to talk brave new world, it's a whole new world where we're all salespeople. This has been one of the hardest lessons for me in my working life – how do you sell yourself? Instead of saying 'I need something' – whether it's I need work or whatever it is – the fact is that when you're selling something people don't care about you, they care about what you can do for them. And the most difficult thing in selling is to learn how to make people want you, it's complete reverse psychology stuff, and boy that's hard to learn!"
AT THE HEIGHT of the dot com era, magazines like Fast Company provided space for the champions of the new, flexible business model to road-test new ideas, in articles with Orwellian headings like "Work is life", and "Business is personal". In 1997, consultant-slash-guru Tom Peters weighed into the hype with a piece titled the "Brand Called You". "You're branded, branded," he wrote. "We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called you."
With the demise of unions and standardised contracts, self-promotion is about to become an even more important skill.
Peter Sheahan is Australia's self-branding guru, and he seems accustomed to meeting with a degree of scepticism about the idea. "The biggest thing that holds people back in this country is the fact that they don't promote themselves," he says. To convince the unbelievers, he has come up with a visual representation of the power of personal branding. Imagine a graph, he says, with "competence" on the X axis and "recognition" on the Y axis.
"This is intellectual property by the way," he reminds me. "You have to acknowledge me if you use this ... In the bottom left-hand corner is what I call a "Bland" – people with low competence and low recognition. The top left corner are celebrities – people with high recognition but low competence. The bottom right-hand corner is where most people are. And the people in the top right-hand corner are "Brands" – people with high recognition and high competence. Who's making the money? The people in the top right-hand corner.
"We all know that in most places it's not necessarily the best people who get the jobs but the people who are best at promoting themselves. Now some people might say that's not fair or that's not very egalitarian – well, build a bridge and get over it. People say, don't promote yourself because you'll be a brown nose, a tall poppy. I say don't promote yourself and you'll watch someone else get the opportunity you deserve."
Self-promotion is nothing new, of course. As Sheahan says, "high performance cultures are full of that anyway ... The key to self-promotion is authenticity. Self-promotion that is outside of the authentic style of the individual (doesn't work)."
This does not leave much hope for those whose "authentic style" involves genuine modesty, or who just don't like big-noting themselves, although the DIY guide to self-branding available on Sheahan's website does contain the helpful reminder: "Don't sound like a wanker". It's also difficult to see where people who like to share the credit around fit in this scenario, or whether Sheahan's two-dimensional chart has room for a third axis marked "integrity".
JOHN HOWARD HAS been Prime Minister since before I could vote. I'm starting to find it hard to imagine Australia without him and his acrobatic approach to language. Wasn't "freedom" born in the stock exchange? Aren't "families" just groups of individuals who share a mortgage? Isn't "choice" about deciding which private school to send your kids to by working a seventy-hour week? And aren't we happy about the prospect of earning less for each one of those seventy hours because living without job security is part of "the Australian way of life"?
He may have the sex appeal of horn-rimmed glasses, but Howard's ideas are seductive. Who doesn't want to be relaxed and comfortable? Neo-liberal economics is like a soothing bedtime story – don't worry, be happy, the invisible hand of the market is rocking the cradle.
Despite the hype, there is usually truth behind most stereotypes, and Gen Y is no exception. Young people tend to trust their employers more than their parents did, and they don't have the same class-consciousness as previous generations.
Unions New South Wales secretary John Robertson says: "What we're finding from the research we're doing is that young people don't necessarily see CEOs' big salaries as a bad thing. I think there is a notion that you can be anything you want to be in Australia, and a lot of young people actually aspire to getting to the point where they're one of those people. So, rather than attack the CEO, we need to talk about what the CEO is doing to get those sorts of outcomes."
At the Fair Go Conference last year Helen Trinca warned that without unions as a countervailing force: "It is going to be easier and easier for companies to sell their story around work." The unions are now planning some storytelling of their own. Robertson says: "It's about saying that if things keep changing the way they are, then in twenty years' time we're not going to have 27 per cent casual workers, we're going to have 35 per cent. It won't simply be while you're at university, there's every chance that when you get out of university you'll be working a casual job which means that there's no guarantee of what your salary will be for a week or a month; you won't be able to budget."
We may not resent CEO pay, but it's pretty certain that we're not too keen on unpaid overtime, getting sacked for turning eighteen, working public holidays without penalty rates, or unpaid "trials". We're probably not so keen on earning $12.75 an hour for the rest of our lives, either.
"Young people are impacted by individual contracts where they are told 'here's a job, take it or leave it, and by the way we're no longer paying penalty rates on Saturdays and Sundays'. Those sorts of things will motivate young people to get involved," says Robertson.
But no matter how cleverly they frame their messages, or how well they manage to reach out to a group of workers who regularly switch jobs and industries, unions aren't going to be able to tackle this one by themselves.
IN A PRESS conference given five minutes after the release of the first draft of WorkChoices last year, journalists asked John Howard the obvious question: why change? "Economic reform," he replied, "is like participating in a race towards an ever-receding finishing line. You have to keep going."
The push for a free market in labour will not end until it is stopped. Stopping it will require a fundamental rethink of our attitudes to work and wealth in an affluent age. It will need an alliance between the lucky and the unlucky – between those who are feeling the bite of the changes, and those who are unwilling to have every aspect of their lives defined by competition, self-promotion, and insecurity. It will mean a new agenda focused on choice, freedom and flexibility for all workers – not just those cushioned by a temporary sellers market. It will mean deciding whether we continue to let the invisible hand rock our cradle.