OPINION: I’m a Millennial and I feel for Baby Boomers

"The popular portrayal of older Australians as money-grubbing property investors ignores those older people who are just as vulnerable to growing inequality as the young," writes Alex McKinnon.

The New Work Reality, a new report from the Foundation for Young Australians, has painted a grim and familiar picture of the modern workforce. It found “full-time work is increasingly difficult and precarious to obtain” for young would-be workers.

More young Aussies are univerity-educated than ever before (and are carrying more debt as a result), but stable, long-term employment is becoming more and more elusive. Despite 60% of 25-year-olds holding a post-school qualification, only 50% work full-time. The rest are juggling multiple jobs or scraping by on part-time, casual or contract work, often without the security, entitlements or pay rates of their fully employed counterparts.

60% of 25-year-olds hold a post-school qualification. Only 50% work full-time.

There’s a tendency to frame news like this as yet more proof of the supposedly unending war between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Columnists and comments sections love a good generational tussle, and any new confirmation of Australia’s growing inequality – declining home ownership rates, skyrocketing rents, rising rates of homelessness – can be stoked into a heated argument about smashed avos and smartphones. Government policies seemingly designed to put the boot into young people, like lowering the HECS repayment threshold or dodgy internship programs, don’t help either.

It’s true that, generally speaking, rising barriers to workforce participation and property ownership tend to hit younger people harder than the broader population. Having been around for a lot longer, older people have had more time to accrue capital and property, insulating them from the harshest effects of economic ups and downs. But it’s simplistic to assume that Boomers are winning just because Millennials are losing. The same forces making it so difficult for young people to get a break are hurting many older Australians, too.

Insecure Work: The New Normal, a report from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, found Australians of all ages are struggling to cope in an increasingly insecure workforce. For the first time since the Australian Bureau of Statistics began collecting data, fewer than half of working Australians have a steady full-time job as of 2017. That’s manifesting in disturbing ways for older people trying to stay in the workforce, or get back into it.

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ABS data shows that older Australians are delaying retirement and working longer, often to save up enough money to support themselves or pay off rising mortgage debt. Almost 180,000 retirees over the age of 45 are looking to re-enter the workforce, almost half of them citing “financial need”. As an Australian Human Rights Commission report found in 2013, those who do try and find work often encounter blatant age discrimination, are stereotyped as being incapable of doing challenging work, and are first in line for redundancies.

While the rising rates of homelessness among the young are well known, homelessness has sharply risen among people over the age of 65 in recent years. Besides all the common complications that come with homelessness, rising medical costs, the lack of support services dedicated to homeless seniors, employment barriers, long waiting lists for priority public housing and elder abuse can compound the problem for older people.

When thinking about problems like inequality, splitting groups along age lines can be misleading. Pitting the old and the young against each other in a generational grudge match is a great way to ensure neither group looks past what divides them and sees the common struggles that bind them together.

Trust-fund kids blowing $25 on smashed avocado brunches every weekend don’t represent the vast number of young Australians facing very real financial hardship. By the same token, the popular portrayal of older Australians as money-grubbing property investors ignores those older people who are just as vulnerable to growing inequality as the young.

If we’re going to get out of this growing financial and political rut we’re all in, it might be time to start looking past the caricatures and building bridges. We may find we have more in common than we think.

Alex McKinnon is the Morning Editor of The Saturday Paper and a regular contributor to The Feed.