Despite being the most educated generation, fewer young Australians are finding full-time work and the proportion of underemployed and unemployed is increasing.
According to the Foundation for Young Australians , it now takes on average nearly five years for graduates to find a full-time job, and over one third of 21-year-olds are getting less hours of work than they would like.
These trends, which we have identified in our Life Patterns longitudinal study at the University of Melbourne, are seen as evidence of a mismatch between education and work, leading some commentators to blame education for failing to prepare young people sufficiently for the changing needs of labour markets.
While educational institutions can always do more to improve the quality of their offerings, a simplistic focus on education alone will do little to address the reality that the transition from education into full-time, meaningful work is increasingly protracted.
Emergence of insecure work for young adults
Our studyat the University ‘s Youth Research Centre reveals the lack of stable and meaningful work for young people is directly linked to the job market, and not a result of the limitations of education.
Life Patterns has tracked the lives of two cohorts of young Australians, since 1991 and 2005 respectively, through annual surveys and interviews. It shows insecure and precarious work has become entrenched for Generation Y (which left school in 2006), and is a source of considerable stress.
Our most recent report reveals that in 2015, (when participants are age 26-27) 82 per cent of the Gen Y group had completed a post-secondary qualification, 13 per cent gained two post-school educational credentials and another 26 per cent are undertaking a second tertiary degree.
Despite this investment in education, over half of Gen Y participants were working irregular hours (night or evening shifts and weekends), 63 per cent had two to five jobs in the previous five years, and three quarters expected to be in their current job for five years or less.
While some people tout “portfolio” work as a positive development, the Life Patterns study shows that being a “flexible” worker is undesirable, with significant mental health implications.
Changing jobs not the issue
It should be noted jobs are changing and people need different sets of skills than those required 25 years ago. But the changing nature of work does not explain the extent of underemployment and unemployment. We need to recognise that labour markets are increasingly failing to offer quality work that provides opportunity for advancement, uses employees’ skills and offers security.
The high-skill jobs of the future, it is predicted, will be in innovative technologies and digital work. No doubt employment opportunities will open up in these areas, but it is worth noting these predictions echo claims made in the 1990s that an emerging knowledge economy would provide jobs requiring advanced skills and knowledge for graduates.
Many studies, such as those by the International Labour Organisation, show the proportion of high-skill jobs generated in the knowledge economy was dwarfed by relatively low-skill jobs.
Value of education remains clear
However, over the longer term education does pay off, especially for males. Those who have higher degrees are most likely to have stable employment, but the time taken to move from short-term contracts to permanent work is extending even for the most educated, and the “flexible” use of labour by employers in many fields is creating precarious conditions for workers..
As increasingly precarious labour markets devalue young people’s educational investments, it is timely to focus on the nature and quality of work for young people.
Facing up to the challenge
The stakes of getting a good fit between education and the labour market are high, for both young people and for our economy.
The experience of two generations of young Australians (Gen X and Gen Y) reveals the paradox that as young people have invested in education in increasing numbers, the labour market has become increasingly precarious.
While education cannot guarantee people jobs in the future, it can enable young adults to navigate precarious conditions, equipping them to understand their worlds, be able decision-makers, good communicators, and to have the ability to learn new skills in a rapidly changing environment.
Much of the impetus for using the skills and knowledge of young people rests with employers who need to promote work that is meaningful, secure and builds capacity. Never before have employers had such well-educated young people to choose from, so investing in this incredible resource by offering quality work is sure to pay dividends.
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