Voices of a Generation
By Anneke Vo
I’m reaching that daunting point in life where I have to start planning a career path in order to be taken seriously as a young adult. Despite my personal view that careers are an artificial construct of economic conscription, rather than an inspiring signifier of moral prosperity, I’m anxiously adapting to a cutthroat culture of meritocratic musical chairs in a highly convincing game of class conscious monopoly. I wish my words were enough to seal that next paycheck, to keep a roof over my head, to prove I’m worthy and human enough to earn a humble living among the towering chess pieces of industrial civilisation. Instead I find myself playing dead on desks with my Bachelor of Adulthood; stuttering clumsily through interviews and panicking at performance reviews. My dreams are carefully nested within a usufruct matrix of violent financial roulette, among the mere paper shuffling of entire empires, vulnerable communities and ecosystems. I am a second generation survivor of history’s war-torn Vietnamese arms race, a potential future climate refugee, a disposable human resource sheltering from the blow of imminent collapse; one of the lucky ones like you, at least for now.
I don’t claim to speak on behalf of my generation, but one rarely disputed truth millennials have in common is we will likely end up inheriting a world which is far more geopolitically volatile, ecocidal and impoverished than our predecessors might have dared to imagine. Evidence shows that young people are hit hardest during a recession, and a survey of my millennial peers reveals that, despite our differing positions on the political compass, I’m not alone in feeling the overwhelming crunch of an insecure, uncertain future.1
Chelsea*, 25, believes young people today have been sold lies and raised on platitudes about the world being their oyster – that they can accomplish anything they want if they simply work hard enough and follow their dreams: “While unemployed for 2 years, I have $150,000 in student loan debt after receiving a first rate post graduate education with the promise of a brighter future.” Ryan*, 22, a public relations student at Swinburne University, is also worried about rising costs of living and making ends meet while trapped in an inevitable debt spiral: “The concern that even after I finish my degree, the ability to find a job worthwhile enough to be able to support me and pay off my debts is becoming more and more alarming. Instead of being able to save for my future or even for a car, I am having to live pay check by pay check, and, when not working, I have to deal with surviving on the bare minimum. As a university student, the growing economic problems facing me relate to my inability to both study and hold a part-time job sufficient enough to allow me to live outside of home. The need for independence is what everyone in their early twenties wants, but because of the rise in basic utilities, transport, groceries and rent, it’s becoming harder and harder to reach.”
According to the 2013 Pedestrian Youth Research Report, which surveyed over 2000 respondents aged 18-29, 64.7% of young Australians are anxious about lack of financial security, while feeling the strain of being poor in a wealthy country. 98.8% of us want to pursue work we’re passionate about, but 64.4% are concerned that the number of job seekers will continue to outnumber meaningful employment opportunities.2 With the youth unemployment rate reaching crisis levels of up to 20% in some parts of the country3, Sarah*, 21, who is studying pharmacy at Sydney University thinks we have a right to be concerned: “In terms of job prospects after uni, I’m not holding out on too much hope. I know it’s fierce competition, and most likely the best of the best will be on top (with a dash of very good luck). But, after all, there are still people getting work that aren’t that great too, so I just need to work from the bottom and keep climbing.” Unsurprisingly, university students face three times the stress levels of the general population, with a fifth developing serious mental illness, according to a 2010 report.3 The pressure to become financially independent without clear, definite transition pathways between study and stable employment is especially alienating to young people who lack social support and experience when they graduate, “It’s difficult to try and make new connections that can help in the future with job recommendations and advice, so right now I know it’s going to be a tough ride.”
Amir*, 28, works in the community services industry and stresses that, with limited support, young people face the difficulty of needing to either settle or hustle in pursuit of social mobility and strangled ambition: “Employers can be ruthless when profitably incentivised to downsize job security and avoid paying new recruits appropriate wages. In my experience working with youth at the PCYC, young people do not have the skills or tools to proactively seek work and opportunities. Nowadays youth have to use their initiative and be a little bit creative.” Competing in an unstable job market means many twenty-somethings have to work an average of seven jobs before securing an established career. It means fewer entry-level positions, while more advanced training and education is required to adapt to an information-based economy. Psychologists have even coined a new developmental phase, “emerging adulthood” to characterise the reinvention, or delaying, of traditional milestones driven by cultural and economic pressures, such as graduating, moving out, gaining financial independence, marriage, and starting a family.4
Australia’s inflating property bubble has estranged a generation of prospective homebuyers into lifelong renters, with 68.2% believing they will never be able to afford a mortgage while independently supporting themselves. Danielle*, 26, a graphic designer working from home, has dealt with difficult tenancy arrangements while struggling to maintain a consistent income that pays the bills and suits her temperament: “I’ve witnessed some people rent out their living rooms or keep several people to one room, just to pay property costs. My roommate was so concerned about paying the rent she let a random guy stay in our empty room without much background checking. Right now, I get most concerned about the instability of a weekly income. Since moving out of home I’ve found it difficult to get hold of a stable income, relying upon transient contracts and some savings to pay bills.” To get an idea of how disproportionate Australia’s salary-to-property ratio is, the average Aussie earned $28,000 per year in 1990 with a $71,000 mortgage. While middle class families today earn $44,000 more per year, Australian property prices have risen to be among the world’s highest, with houses and apartments in Sydney averaging between $475,300-$656,400 (Source: Cosmopolitan magazine August 2013, “So You Want to Buy A House?”). Progressive thinking twenty-somethings are inevitably prompted to question the dominant live-to-work mentality of owning a bigger house, car, baby stroller, etc. at 4.9% interest, quitting the cult of status anxiety and affluenza in favour of simpler, more meaningful lives.
The students I spoke to emphasised the need for practical quick-fix solutions to alleviate immediate economic pressures before feeling hopeful enough to propose potential systemic changes. The fact that debt, unemployment, cost of living, and inequality are such central concerns to young people reflects the brutal reality that our right to survival is coercively conditional. A subsidised universal basics discount card could complement government Newstart, Youth allowance and rent assistance packages, suggests Andreas*, 27. Most students reject the entitled Gen Y stereotype, and abide by the assumption that if they want a highly comfortable, luxurious lifestyle, they’re going to have to work for it. “Convention has it that you have to work 9-5, Monday to Friday, to afford the bills and some extras on the side. However, if you’re averse to that lifestyle, paying the bills doesn’t come easy.” Young people aren’t pushing for more generous cash handouts so they can spend recklessly on anything they want. Rather, they’re requesting sponsored discounts from the big guys who can afford it on a range of basic necessities, such as food, electricity, internet, textbooks, and potentially free access to public transport to help them transition toward greater independence.
We know that being poor adversely affects health and lifestyle choices, while the fast food and liquor industries continue to target their marketing predominantly at young people. “Encouraging supermarkets to endorse generous student discounts may incentivise young people to start cooking for themselves, which works out to be much cheaper and healthier than blowing $150 a week on takeaway,” says 24 year old nutrition student, Kelsey*. Alleviating the stress of mundane financial burdens will enable young people to save up and plan for their futures more holistically, freeing up time to devote to things that really matter to them, such as travel, health and fitness, personal growth, and relationships. “It can initially be tricky to balance being financially independent and having free time – it’s one or the other for most people, but I think it’s possible, in time, to have both.”
In order for millennials to feel more confident about their future, perhaps governments need to reassess their priorities, and start valuing Gross National Wellbeing (GNW) as an indicator of economic prosperity above GDP alone. If we’ve learned anything from past student protest movements – the London student riots being a prime example – it’s that elected leaders aren’t very good at empathising with the needs of young people. We should be able to vote directly on issues affecting us, such as education cuts and climate change, which 82.2% of surveyed respondents believe demands stronger action. Policymakers can only help young people succeed if they recognise the complexity of emerging adulthood as an integral life stage; filled not just with financial challenges, but ethical dilemmas, identity exploration, existential wanderlust, and an opportunistic sense of being “in between” liminal possibilities.
*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of interviewees in this article.