It’s accepted wisdom that trade unions are an anachronism soon to go the way of the milkman, and that young people are “individuals" without a sense of the collective - too sassy to get bogged down in retro notions such as social justice and workplace solidarity.
Having researched young people and their attitude to life, work and unions, we feel this accepted wisdom misses some important elements and does little justice to unions or, for that matter, young people.
There is no denying Generation Y - generally defined as young Australians born after 1981 - poses a special challenge for the union movement. It constitutes a volatile sector of the workforce. Many of them will spend their 20s boomeranging from parental hearth to rental accommodation, travelling, moving jobs, taking on further study, switching careers, or even down-shifting.
In the past the union movement’s core supporters have been full-time, continuous workers, well committed to an industry, or, even a company. Few new workers will fit this mould. If Generation Y’s life patterns pan out as predicted, it will be at least a decade or more before many of them commit to the obligations that keep people in work whether they like it or not - namely a mortgage and children.
For many, especially those who are well educated and confident, job insecurity doesn’t concern them greatly. If they’re unhappy with management or conditions, most won’t choose to join a union, mobilise other workers and fight for better conditions. They will turn on their heels and leave, maybe grumbling a little in their exit interview (if, in fact, they even do one). After all, who takes out insurance on a share house they’re renting?
But this isn’t the end of the story. Generation Y, both men and women, takes the work-life balance seriously. Generation Y’ers talk about working smarter, not harder. They talk about working from home, moving away from the daily nine-to-five grind and working to live rather than the other way around. They don’t want to be absent, work-obsessed fathers or harried working mothers. They don’t want to be company slaves.
This is also a generation that is deeply sceptical about the ethics of corporations and doesn’t pledge loyalty to an employer automatically. This is a natural reaction from a generation born in the 1980s, the first era of downsizing, deregulation and leaner, meaner corporations.
Generation Y’ers have seen their parents dismissed from their jobs after years of service, all for the sake of a profit margin. They have also seen their parents' physical and emotional lives suffer as a result of overwork.
This scepticism extends to other institutions and explains another of the barriers unions have faced. Young people have been bombarded with advertising all their lives and have learned to filter out the white noise. To these people, propaganda and class-consciousness are just so much white noise.
The unions young people are joining - and with "only 13 per cent" membership, unions still have more young people than other comparable organisations - are those which have recognised this and offer something tangible.
A range of unions representing teachers and nurses, electricians and builders, and actors and journalists is recruiting members straight out of the education system, often with innovative programs such as a year’s free or cheap membership to introduce young people to the notion of collective representation. When unions market themselves on the basis of the services they provide, the pitch invariably works.
Unions are also changing the way they campaign by engaging in savvy and engaging ways on issues of broad community concern such as the war in Iraq, refugees and, now, the attack on workers' rights. The current TV ads and on-the-ground campaigning around rights at work have shown mass action doesn’t have to be about angry building workers breaking down the barricades.