How to (mostly) stop worrying about the future of work

By Liam Armstrong

A few facts of life are inescapable: we all age, we all have to eat, and we all need love.

Like it or not, most of us will have to work, too. If you’re a young Australian, chances are you'll be studying for, trying to crack into, or just starting out in the workforce. Unfortunately, you are also a member of the generation for whom the future of work has never been more uncertain. Now more than ever, we need to talk about how young people are going to cope with this stressful new reality.

Luckily, after a year spent in the trenches of World War Work, I can report that it’s not all bad. Sometimes the going gets a little tough, but figuring out an attitude and an approach that works for you will mean you’ll weather the storm. We aren’t just going to survive: the opportunities for young workers make me confident we’ll kill it.

2 boys hanging out and laughing with mobile

Are you feeling anxious about your future career?

First things first. If you’re feeling FML about your career prospects, you’re not alone. Recent research found that among 18 to 24-year-olds looking for work, 28 per cent reported they had experienced anxiety in the previous year and 40 per cent said they were affected by stress.

This anxiety is totally understandable when we think about our place in the rapidly transforming world of work. A recent report from the Foundation for Young Australians found that even though 60 per cent of 25-year-old Australians hold a post-school qualification, only 50 per cent of us are working full-time. This is because some of the biggest economic changes in recent years, such as automation, disadvantage our age group. Automation is where human workers are replaced by machines. By 2030, 70 per cent of entry-level jobs in Australia will be replaced or transformed by automation.

On average, it takes us 2.6 years to transition from leaving education to full-time work, compared to 1 year in 1986. Considering Australia is built on the promise of a fair go, it’s hard not to feel trolled. So, if your parents give you grief about your struggle to land a full-time gig, it can be helpful to gently remind them that our generation is having the roughest go since the Great Depression. Use it as a chance to have an open discussion about realistic expectations and to ask for their support.

The prolonged launch into working adulthood can cause insecurity and doubt. Struggling to land a fulfilling job can cause you to suffer personally, financially and socially. Thanks to this new reality, an estimated 75 per cent of young people now experience the dreaded ‘quarter-life crisis’. I should know, because I’ve just been through mine.

Things can get better over time

I finished university last year feeling excited about finally becoming a ‘real’ adult. I’d excelled at an amazing internship in my last semester and wanted to pursue a career in journalism. Wanting to throw myself into the deep end of post-uni life ASAP, I moved interstate and started job hunting. But my confidence disappeared pretty quickly. Despite a stacked CV, prestigious placements and a distinction average, I struggled to land a graduate job in media.

Thanks to a growing pile of bills, I had to find some kind of work while I continued trying to break into the industry. I lasted two months as a door-knocking chugger employed on a sham contract before I decided I couldn’t afford to regularly earn $0 a day for 10 hours of work. I managed to escape by securing a casual gig in a call centre my coworker nicknamed ‘quarter-life crisis central’. Sure, we were all paid minimum wage, but we also had to endure constant monitoring and bullying from supervisors. During the time I spent working there, I just missed out on a newspaper job I desperately wanted, I did a series of dead-end internships, and I wasn’t offered full-time work after a trial week at a small magazine company.

Yep, this quarter-life crisis was becoming especially bone-chilling. By the start of this year, I was seriously depressed and felt ashamed of my failure to launch. While struggling through each shift or lying in bed, the darkest voice inside my head kept saying that this was what the rest of my life was going to be like.

And I wasn’t alone in feeling this despair. Many of my friends are working full-time, but only by agreeing to casual contracts or by juggling multiple jobs. The rate of casualisation has doubled since 1992. The underutilisation rate – meaning people who are unemployed, underemployed or only marginally attached to the workforce – for 15- to 24-year-olds in the workforce has increased from 19 per cent to 30 per cent over the past decade.

The good news is that things got better for me over time, and they can for you, too. I eventually landed a fulfilling and enjoyable part-time job at a trade union. The financial security meant that I was able to write more, and I soon felt excited about my future again.

Two young people on a beach

Advice for thriving in our new working world

Even though the struggle was real, I learnt so much about myself during my period in the wilderness. I made incredible friends in those shitty jobs, became very resilient, and gained invaluable experiences that led me to a better place.

So, here’s my advice for thriving in our new working world.

Remember that today’s 15-year-olds will likely navigate 17 changes in employer across five different careers.

We should all see this as a positive: we might not love every one of the multiple jobs we’ll have, but we won’t be stuck in them. My mother once said that the job I end up doing might not have been invented yet. All these years later, it’s still a comforting thought.

Realise that you don’t need to land a graduate job instantly to be happy.

Instead, I decided to focus on being positive during each stage of my working life. Talking to friends who are going through similarly stressful situations, acknowledging my blessings, and working hard to improve my employability all helped. Other ways to avoid feeling crap while looking for a job include keeping yourself busy – try learning a new skill just for fun! – or allowing yourself to enjoy some downtime in between submitting job applications. Making sure that you get out of bed and keep busy, whatever that looks like, will help you to stay motivated during the job search.

Building up your resilience is another way of staying positive while unemployed.

Being resilient means having enough emotional awareness to regulate your emotions and control your impulses, and can help you to develop a more optimistic mindset. Embrace challenges as learning opportunities – for example, every job interview is great practice, as is writing cover letters – and don’t forget to celebrate your triumphs, even when it feels like you’re constantly failing.

Finding a fulfilling job is important, but it doesn’t have to be your purpose in life.

Remember that many of us work to live, rather than live to work. Research suggests that finding too much meaning in your work can result in exhaustion and burnout. Instead of feeling that you have to see your career as a calling, recognise that it’s only one piece of the happiness puzzle. It’s all about balance, so if you’re not feeling good about work, shift your focus towards everything you love outside of it, such as making art, exercising, or hanging with your friends. If you don’t have any hobbies, now’s the time to find some!

Find out about the amazing services and organisations that exist to support and advocate for young people, regardless of the stage of work or study you're at.

Head to Interns Australia for expert advice about equitable placements. Fair Work can provide information on how Australian workplaces operate. Joining your relevant union is a good way to protect your rights and fight for better job conditions. Head online or call up to find out which one covers you. If you’re a member of a community that faces additional barriers in gaining access to the workforce, check out some of the amazing associations that exist just for you. Career Trackers provides Indigenous students with pathways to employment, Out for Australia supports aspiring LGBTIQ professionals, and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency works to combat the discrimination women face in their careers. You don’t have to go through this alone.

Do your research, so you can make smart choices.

My struggle to get work wasn’t helped by my choice to study communications despite knowing that media jobs were melting faster than the polar ice caps. Know which paths have excellent employment outcomes, which industries are growing and which occupations have shortages right now. If you like the sound of them, go for it! If your desired career is more competitive, make sure to start earlier with getting relevant work experience and developing the skills best suited to the future of work.

Finally, remember that, as young people, the future of work isn't just something that will 'happen' to us; it’s also something we should have a say in, and something that we can help to create.

We're living in a time of huge changes and crisis, as well as one of opportunities. It's up to us to make sure we're having our say, whether it's about the policies that govern our working lives or the kinds of industries that should be supported to thrive, such as renewable energy or public services.

What can I do now?

  • Check out our collection of articles on future stress.

  • Take a quiz to figure out what kind of worker you are.

  • Learn how to stay motivated when you don't have a job.