A long-running study detailing the lives of two generations of Australians shows Gen Y are more educated and ethical than previous generations, far removed from their narcissistic, selfie-obsessed stereotype.
The University of Melbourne’s Life Patterns study, which has been running since 1991, reveals this is a generation that faces more barriers to security than ever before. Navigating these challenges takes focus, and can be a considerable source of anxiety and stress.
The study has generated one of the most significant archives of everyday Australian life over the course of the past 25 years. The first cohort are now in their forties and have been participants for more than half their lives – around 300 remain. The second cohort, which now numbers around 600, left secondary school in 2006.
Its latest findings show an increasingly precarious labour market, lack of affordable housing and the challenges of striking a balance between work and life are all leading to what chief investigator Johanna Wyn calls “the new adulthood”.
“New adulthood is about keeping options open, engaging with education over a long period of time and building a sense of purpose without having a single career,” she says.
The period we used to think of as youth is disappearing, with adulthood encroaching earlier than ever according to Professor Wyn, who is based in the Youth Research Centre in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.
“In previous generations, when you were young you might be combining study with part-time work and lots of jobs. These things, which used to look like ‘youth’, are now starting earlier – often in adolescence - and washing into adulthood,” she explains.
“People do gradually gain more stability, but it’s hard work.”
Young people must navigate low paying jobs, employment insecurity (short or fixed term contracts) and working time insecurity (where workers have unpredictable hours). Finding a secure, meaningful job can take up to a decade after leaving secondary school.
This has a significant impact on their relationships and mental health.
“The biggest implication of irregular hours is the way it diminishes people’s lives because they can’t schedule to be with important others at times when it matters,” says Professor Wyn.
“So they can’t always meet up with friends or family, and what ultimately happens is the fabric of social support is stressed.”
The hard work required to maintain relationships seems to affect women the most, and is seen particularly in the years immediately after secondary school, when young people are still developing the skills needed to juggle multiple priorities.
“Women find it harder, I think, because they are doing quite well in education – more so than men. But then the reality of the workplace hits, and things almost become too hard,” explains Professor Wyn.
Australian workplaces are not very women-friendly, particularly once you have kids.
And this is not the only challenge when it comes to balancing work and family. Researchers found it is harder than ever to create the conditions to have a committed stable relationship and start a family. Gen Y were less likely to think they will be married, a parent or in a well-paid job in the next five years compared with Gen X at the same age.
“We might be seeing a further drop in the fertility rate for this group, who are putting off having kids until they have stability,” says Professor Wyn.
Another work/life challenge discovered by the research team was how hard men find it to make time for their children.
“In our study we have men who have said “I would love to spend more time with my children”,” says Professor Wyn.
“But in many workplaces, it can’t be discussed. Some people paint this as men having the favourable position. But they’re locked in as much as the women are. And it’s bad for everyone – the men, the women and the children. So that’s a considerable downside of the insecurity this generation faces.”
However, the study also found there may be some backlash against just how dominant work is in our lives. Family remains important to this generation, just as it did for the previous generation. But there are signs Gen Y are not as attracted to the lure of money and status as those before them.
Researchers found that while Gen Ys’ top goals for life remain similar to those of Gen X – to have an intimate relationship, financial security and a family – they place more value on living an ethical life and are less interested in making a lot of money and achieving a position of influence.
“Gen Y get a lot of bad press about being greedy and narcissistic. It’s not true – there’s no evidence to support that,” says Professor Wyn.
“It’s a very ethical generation, who care a lot about the environment. And they’re putting more effort than any generation before them on investing in learning.
These things don’t speak to a negative generation who are just obsessed with themselves.
Professor Wyn believes the stereotype of the self-obsessed Gen Y may come from the intense concentration that finding purpose now requires.
“If you can just rely on your job, then great. That’s what you are – life rolls along. But if you can’t rely on that you do need to invest quite a lot of thought into how you’re going to live your life, what kind of person you’re going to be and how you’re going to hold it together.”
And this focus happens young – the notion that a carefree period of youth is being extended is not the case, according to Professor Wyn.
“Quite young people, even at secondary school, are trying to work out how to hold it together, between a job, study and a lack of clarity about what careers might be available in the future. They’ve got to be very aware and very purposeful and that’s a big ask.”
Life Patterns has just received $1.2m Australian Research Council funding to run until at least 2020, and is continuing to build an important picture of Australian life over a period of incredible change.
Professor Wyn believes part of its significance is in countering the stereotypes often encountered by young people.
“The research we’re doing shows how important it is to listen to what young people are doing and not rush in with stereotypes,” she says. “And that means we also have to acknowledge the enormous effort they’re putting in to manage complex lives.
“To dismiss it as just a stage of youth is actually wrong. It’s dismissing them and it’s failing to understand what’s impacting on all of us.”
Banner image: University Life 67 by Francisco Osorio via Flickr