19/10/2017 - 13:38

New order not to everyone’s taste

19/10/2017 - 13:38


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OPINION: It has been three decades since I lost my first job, almost before I had started it, as the implications of the Black Monday stock market crash became clear to my employer.

The changed economic environment presents a paucity of options for many in the workforce, compared with the good times they have come to expect. Photos: Attila Csaszar

It has been three decades since I lost my first job, almost before I had started it, as the implications of the Black Monday stock market crash became clear to my employer.

Of course that day was actually a Tuesday in Perth, and I recall one of my bosses watching in horror as a trading screen in a small finance house-cum-brokerage in West Perth delivered ever-more bad news.

My job, and a bright future in financial services, evaporated a day or so later as those paper losses became real and the business restructured its workforce in a way that did not include me.

This was a defining moment and I have never regretted the decisions I made at that time.

I was still studying and my experience turned my attention away from commerce to journalism, a vocational shift not so evident in other students because they had not yet committed to careers as I had done, well before I graduated.

As I later explored the careers of business people in Western Australia, I regularly encountered others for whom the crash had profound implications. Many were slightly older than I was and their formative years in the workforce, in the midst of a sustained boom, created a view of the world that was different from mine. Others had joined the workforce in the late 1980s, when either the stock market crash or a wider economic crash two years later affected them in a very different way.

Just a few years of maturity set apart the optimists, for whom entrepreneurialism mixed with excess was an expectation, from a more cautious and pessimistic cohort.

I am asking myself what this means for WA in the aftermath of another crash, a very localised one that has again created a schism between most of the millennials and the tail end of that cohort as it merges into the younger generation Z, born in this century and the internet age.

Most of us who employed millennials during the boom will have war stories of their demands and needs despite already receiving generous salaries, unbelievable workplace perks and an enormous focus on their wellbeing.

In the downturn, many older employers have openly stated they looked forward to these people getting a good hard dose of reality. It is true that many have lost their jobs and plenty will have sacrificed remuneration, conditions and unbounded career opportunities in order to retain some form of income.

But I suspect a big proportion, like those late baby boomers, will refuse to adjust. They will change their career pathways, relocate geographically or pool their resources to form startups, rather than conform to the new order in WA.

This is really the nature versus nurture argument; that those brought up in eras of excess will view that as normal and seek to replicate that wherever possible. Similarly, those whose career direction, work habits and lifestyle choices were influenced in more constrained economic times, will display more conservative characteristics.

It isn’t black and white, but I see it as evident.

WA has returned to a time when those entering the workforce have limited choices. I hear more and more about graduates or those with a few years of work under their belts heading east to pick up jobs of substance. The brain drain of the young has re-emerged, as it was in my day when my parents expressed surprise that I packed in a perfectly good job to go to London and develop my career.

Universities are struggling to cope with this change. Graduates five years ago walked into six-figure salaries, glamorous jobs and workplaces that were designed to meet their every need.

These days they might have casual shifts at a cafe and look enviously at how their Facebook friends have scored a real job in Melbourne. That makes a degree and a HECS debt a less desirable choice.

It will be interesting to watch how this emerging cohort copes with conditions on the ground here and how their likely conservatism affects the state in the decades ahead, as those who stay, and the many who will return in years to come, take on leadership positions in business, the community and politics.


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