Monday, April 14, 2014

Living in an age of insecurity

I have avoided commenting on some of the discussion about the parameters of Treasurer Hockey’s forthcoming budget because of a feeling that I don’t have a great deal of value to add at this point to the constant media chatter. Better to wait until we see the budget and therefore have something to analyse. However, I am drawn to comment on what I see as the growing disconnect in the discussion and analysis between the concepts used and the human realities of current Australian life.

In assessing events, we all draw from our own experiences. In my case, I am coming towards the end of my formal working life, although I expect (hope?) to continue for some time yet. By contrast, my daughters and their friends are in their twenties. Between these two points, I observe a spectrum that varies in age and position.

I suppose that it’s a function of my age, but I have seen a fair number of people retire over recent years. Some, those on old fashioned super schemes, have retired at 65 or 60 or even 55. They have done so in part because that maximised their financial position, in part because they just got sick of working in the current organisational environment. Why bother? In other cases, you have people retiring well past normal retirement age, able to keep working because their employers have abolished the old mandatory retirement age. 

During that same period, I have also seen people effectively drop out of the workforce because of the difficulty of getting a job. Some weeks ago, I helped interview for a contract position. Some of the well qualified applicants prepared to drop down levels to get work, any work, had been unemployed for over six months.

At the other end of the spectrum among my daughters’ age groups, the job search can be relentless and difficult. With degrees a dime a dozen, just having a degree doesn’t guarantee any form of work. Employers pick and choose in a flooded market. Those who lose out tend to be those who are less focused or have fewer qualifications. The jobs that were once filled by school leavers expect graduates; the entry level positions in retailing or hospitality or even banking that once provided a path are increasingly dominated by part time workers needing to fund their education.

While ageism is alive and well in the private sector, many organisations are actually aging as older workers hang on or return. You see it in government, on the buses and now even in check-out operators. As older workers are employed or retain employment, opportunities open to the young diminish, at least for the present. We have seen this already in Europe where population aging is more advanced, where unemployment among the young exceeds the levels seen during the great depression.

I say for the present, for in places where forty or fifty is the new young, many organisations face a demographic time bomb because of the need to plan for almost total replacement of their workface within decades.

In Australia, the participation rate has been been falling as discouraged workers drop out. This is important, for how do you increase output when you have fewer people to do it with? How do you bring people back into the workforce when the jobs aren’t there, as skills atrophy through lack of use among those who were employed? What do you do with the increasing proportion of the population who haven’t had a chance to acquire real skills?

Australia does need economic reform. But in thinking of this, we shouldn’t underestimate the extent of real fear and insecurity in the workplace. Talking to a work friend this morning, she commented that those aged over fifty who lost their jobs would find it almost impossible to get work. Statistically, she is only partly right, but the fear is there.

When Treasurer Hockey says that all must bear the pain, when he puts everything on the table for review, he should remember the effects of the insecurity created in peoples’ minds. If you can’t count on your employer, if you can’t count on Government at the most basic level, if you can’t plan because everything changes, you take what you can, when you can. You protect yourself as best you can.

Perhaps the most erosive effect is the loss of basic loyalty, of faith in the system. We demand greater performance, but destroy the motivation necessary if that is to be achieved. It becomes just all too hard.  People cease to care. They drop out.

I think that’s a problem. I think that we need to find new approaches. But how? There’s the rub! Still, I would argue that policy is too important to be left to slogans or simple mechanical equations or performance measures, especially when so few of the equations or performance measures seem to work. Politics is about people and persuasion.

Take changes to GST as an example. GST could be changed. It would make sense. It could be sold. But it won’t be, at least for the present. In the meantime, we get promises that become mandates that become fixed in stone. Except, you see, no one believes that anything is fixed in stone. Nothing is fixed. Everything is changeable. Its only a matter of time and timing.

Household budgets are made, but are then thrown out. How can you budget when nothing is certain, when everything changes? It doesn’t work. Perhaps time to pause there. I have made my point.      


Anonymous said...

Used the Blogger search function for your mentions of 'insecurity' in past posts. There are many.

Perhaps the one I liked best was
- which is fairly wide-ranging, but also noteable for the fact that it is almost precisely 3 years ago.

Anyway, this present post of yours is as always thought-provoking. Thanks Jim


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. Interesting test, for I have indeed had a focus on this one. Looking back at that post, I see our continuing exchanges! It also reminds me of the need to check back on themes.

Evan said...

Hi Jim, I guess you know of (and may even know Race Matthews).

He is very keen on co-op's and hence Mondragon.

He is on Facebook and very willing to be friended.

Jim Belshaw said...

I have met Race, Evan, although he would not remember; it was just in passing. Will look at his FB page.