Tuesday 28 January 2020

'My generation are the experts in dealing with change and insecurity'

A job for life and a pension are alien concepts for today's twenty- and thirty-somethings

Third space: Ciara O'Connor says many millennials can be spotted working on their MacBooks in cafes
Third space: Ciara O'Connor says many millennials can be spotted working on their MacBooks in cafes

Ciara O'Connor

The generation that came of age before the 1980s are angry about the bus strikes. That's because they can relate to the drivers' experience. Like the bus drivers, they probably had the same job (likely with the same company) for their entire working lives. Like the bus drivers, a pension and job security is a given. Like the bus drivers, they think they deserve more. They're upset because, unlike the bus drivers, they can't get it - and then the drivers have the gall to mess up their commute.

For my generation, it's different. The bus drivers and their plight are so far removed from our experience of the working world so as to seem quaint. The idea of a job for life or a pension is laughable - a relic. It seems like an argument happening on a different planet. Besides, they can't ruin our commute; a lot of us don't have one. Or we'll just work from home that day. The bus strike debate can tell us a lot about what making a living means to us today.

It's fair to say that much of our work is an unrecognisable proposition for the baby boomers.

Dee (27) says she's never had a "proper job". She runs an online business for eco-products: "I started my first business because I wanted money to go on holiday." While our parents aimed for homes and family, Dee is living the millennial dream. The goalposts have moved.

Our generation is perceived by our parents as a load of adult babies who refuse to grow up - when they were my age they had a car, a house, a family. Of course, this is a generation who had access to higher education, all the jobs they needed upon graduation and a housing market that they hadn't yet destroyed. If my generation are flighty and immature, it's because we don't have a choice. Between rent and the cost of living in a city, professionals in their early 30s still exist from pay day to pay day - the idea of home ownership is a pipe dream.

We're not complaining - this sense of uncertainty and the necessity of short-term thinking has fed back into the way we work and what we expect. Flexibility is central to this generation. We want a task and a deadline and the freedom to do it when and where we want to. Creative director Emma says: "Unless you're harvesting, nine to five seems pretty arbitrary."

All around me, my friends are dropping like flies from this kind of employment. In the last six months, four of my peers have quit their jobs in search of greater freedom. Lucia (28) recently left her job as an events logistics manager to go freelance. She's just sent off her first invoice; it was to her old company, for exactly the same work she was doing before - at double the rate. "As a full-time employee, I was expected to be available for clients whenever they needed me, regardless of the time or day. I was only ever paid for nine to five. Now I'm my own boss and I make the rules; overtime and weekends is extra."

Alice (27) left her job at a big youth charity in favour of short-term contracts; she's heading to Tanzania for two months now, then to Greece to manage a refugee camp on a rolling contract. She doesn't know what will happen afterwards. "I don't want this job in order to progress somewhere else. I want it for itself. The youth charity taught me a lot about child protection, about crisis management, about community engagement. And now it will mean something."

Lucia and Alice are typical of a generation willing to give up the relative security of a salary in pursuit of immediate financial gain and fulfilment. In the face of a future that is already uncertain, with pensions a non-starter and the prospect of working well into our 70s, leaving the nine-to-five for a while doesn't seem like too much of a stretch.

The research bears this out - most millennials have their foot out the door already; two-thirds of us don't expect to be employed in the same place in 2020 as we are today. Loyalty to companies seems almost non-existent.

We see our stints in various roles as an opportunity to gain more skills. We expect to reinvent ourselves and our jobs four or five times in our working lives; the bus drivers with their expectation of using their skill forever are a world away. We're not afraid of change; we see it as an opportunity. We are also aware that a generation is coming up through school now who will be fluent coders by the time they enter the job market. "We need to stay ahead of the curve in coding and technology or get management skills which are transferable to make us employable long term," says Rosie. Unlike the baby boomers, we accept this as a fact of the modern world, we won't howl at the moon and insist things be kept the same because it's 'not fair'.

We want to be prepared. While our parents finished with education when they graduated, our generation is aware of the necessity of learning for life.

From where I'm sitting in a cafe, my office for the day, I can see no fewer than six twenty- somethings on MacBooks. The cafe is generous with its Wi-Fi and one flat white buys you a good few hours. This is happening in every coffee shop with exposed brickwork and chai lattes all over the country. And developers are taking note - 'third spaces', part café, part 'home', part workplace, are popping up all around Europe - and they're packed. They are responding to a real demand from millennials who have turned their back on the traditional working week.

Perhaps we're beginning to see through the shiny tech start-ups with their beer fridges and space hoppers in the office, but not the wages and security we need. Instead we gorge ourselves at the open bar at work drinks so we're pissed enough to not need the dinner we can't really afford and so drunk we can forget for one night that we'll never be able to afford to have children.

Sure, the freedom to work in a groovy warehouse and have buttered toast served up to you is great, and the 'isn't it fine for them' attitude is understandable from a generation that could leave the office at 5pm and switch off. We're getting one kind of freedom out of necessity, but we've sacrificed the freedom that security brings, the kind our parents have. We may get to travel for a year when we're 30 if we want to, but we won't have second homes - or perhaps even a first one. This is a world in which my 27-year-old friends can't even think about marriage, children and mortgages yet. My thirty-something friends say they had a crisis when they turned 30, they wondered where all their money had gone and panicked that they had nothing to show for it; ultimately, they realised measuring themselves against 20-year-old goalposts was pointless. As Amy (31) said, "I didn't have a choice; I still don't."

Millennials might look like a generation of hipster commitment-phobes, but we graduated into a recession and understand the importance of moving with the times. We know the next generation is snapping at our heels, so we want to learn; we're willing to change. Perhaps our parents could learn a thing or two from us.

Sunday Independent

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