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Uncertainties in the global economy caused by, among other factors, the 2007/2008 economic recession, technological progress and climate change have had an impact on the nature of industrial relations due to their effects on employer and employee relationships (Pew Research Center, 2017). Traditionally both parties have interacted with each other based on a standard framework of engagement characterised by long-standing laws, policies and systems that propagate the separation of powers between the two. However, this relationship is unsustainable because of changing attitudes regarding how businesses engage with their employees. Particularly, there are significant differences in the manner older and younger workers adapt to instability in the workplace because they are affected disproportionately by global market uncertainties. Notably, instability and uncertainty affect young employees more than older colleagues because they are mostly employed in low-wage job groups, have shorter running employment contracts, and are more inexperienced in managing labour disputes (Kalleberg, 2009). Based on these negative exposures to workplace dynamics, it is unclear how young people would adapt to these changes in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable global economy.
Relative to the above concern, Berry and McDaniel (2020, p. 3) argue “… young people’s experience of the ‘new normal’ of precarious labour market conditions has been internalized and thus normalized within their attitudes to a significant degree.” The insights presented in this paper support this statement by arguing that young employees have adopted a new career approach, which is characterised by resilience, flexibility, individual responsibility and social awareness, which they have internalised and normalised within their attitudes. This statement means that employer-employee relationships may change in a new precarious labour environment as younger employees adapt to uncertainties and instability that characterise the global economy.
Increased Resilience among Young Employees
The impact that instability and uncertainty have had on young employees draws attention to the precarity of the labour market. Before the 2007/2008 global economic recession, the labour sector was already experiencing changes emanating from rapid technological change, multiculturalism among other factors (Kalleberg, 2009). Besides the instability and uncertainty of markets, businesses are also facing new challenges impacting the workplace, such as the search for a competitive advantage over rivals, the pressure to create models of excellence and a decline in trade union activity – all of which have affected how managers relate with their employees (Guest, 1987). These issues have been explained within the broader HRM context, from which industrial relations activities should be based on (Guest, 1987). This statement draws attention to the capacity of young workers to handle the pressing challenges of employment in today’s uncertain economic times and their willingness to challenge contemporary beliefs about job security and the role of employers in protecting them from market adversities.
A combination of these factors and their effects on employee relations have forced young employees to realise that they are facing a myriad of challenges in their careers. Consequently, they have been forced to become more resilient in managing them more than any other demographic in the labour market. This adaptation to adversity means that they have internalized the ability to adapt well to changes in the labour market, such that few incidences of instability and uncertainty affect them. Relative to this statement, Deloitte (2020) acknowledges that millennials and generation Y workers have developed more resilience to economic uncertainties than any other group of workers in the labour market. This statement implies that they have internalised a new attitude of managing the problems that affect labour relations by adapting to life-changing circumstances and situations influencing career progress and productivity. Therefore, this statement suggests that young people’s experience of the “new normal” has forced them to internalise challenges affecting the sector by developing a new attitude of resilience, which enables them to “bounce back” in case of adversity.
More Flexibility Witnessed in Employer-Employee Relationships
Young people have adapted to the “new normal” by adopting flexible policies governing employer-employee relationships. To understand how this group of workers have internalised this attitude, it is integral to examine policy responses to the 2007/2008 global economic recession and the recent COVID-19 pandemic as the two biggest disruptors of industrial relations recorded recently. For example, these events have forced stakeholders to rethink the importance of following standard systems of labour dispute resolutions that offer managers and employees little flexibility in managing challenges affecting their relationship (Van Gramberg et al., 2020; Lamare and Lipsky, 2019). Such concerns have been discussed within the realm of options available to employers and employees in managing behaviour, safety and quality issues in the workplace. According to Baldwin (2020), these uncertainties have caused distress among young employees who are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the constraining nature of the workplace and its limited options in offering fair compensation for work done. To address some of these challenges, the International Labour Organisation indicated that there was a need to adopt flexible policy guidelines that would help managers and employees to better address labour market adversities; failure to which nearly half of the global labour force risk losing their livelihoods (ILO, 2020). This push explains why flexibility is increasingly being embraced as a business philosophy affecting government labour relations.
The lack of flexible policy guidelines to govern employer-employee relationships in the workplace has exacerbated feelings of uncertainties about the future of labour relations in the workplace. The problem is profound among young people who do not understand how standard operating policies and procedures for engaging superiors, such as collective bargaining agreements, help them navigate some of the challenges described above. Consequently, they advocate for the adoption of flexible work policies – a phenomenon, which has birthed the introduction of flexibility as a new business philosophy in managing employer-employee relationships (Tomlinson et al., 2018; Fuller and Hirsh, 2019; Pecinovsky, 2019; Markey and McIvor, 2019). In many countries, authorities are internalising this business philosophy, buoyed by a greater push among young people to demand greater flexibility and accountability in the management of employee affairs (Chung, 2019; Chung and van der Horst, 2018). For instance, in Australia, the Fair Work Commission (FWC), which regulates industrial relations in the country, has introduced more flexible policy guidelines to give businesses more tools to manage the effects of market uncertainties on their businesses (Baldwin, 2020). Based on this development, Berry and McDaniel (2020) state that the flexibility young people demand from managers and regulatory authorities is part of a larger corporate movement addressing the “excesses” of capitalism.
This movement has forced regulatory bodies to introduce flexibility as a business philosophy that should accord managers the leeway needed to influence systems and processes that govern employer-employee relationships. Edwards (2009) also investigated the same phenomenon by highlighting the power of the state in determining the nature of employment relationships through the formulation of flexible and innovative labour policy guidelines that would improve the relationship between businesses and their workers. Young people have internalised this philosophy in their attitudes as a tool to help them overcome instability and uncertainty in the market.
Employers have also embraced the same philosophy and integrated it into the nature and design of their employment and recruitment contracts. For example, companies are increasingly changing their recruitment policies to favour hiring workers on short-term as opposed to long-term basis (Bassanini and Cingano, 2019; Wang et al., 2019). The short-term contracts help managers to respond better to market uncertainties because they can renew them based on an assessment of prevailing market conditions. Offering young employees short-term employment contracts also spares employers the burden of taking care of their welfare, such as through the payment of retirement benefits (Menon, 2019). This change in contractual terms highlights the flexibility that is increasingly defining employer-employee contracts. It also means that there has been a paradigm shift in the recruitment policies of most companies. Overall, the flexibility witnessed in employer-employee relationships is an adaptation to the vulgarities of the market and it means that both parties will enjoy more space in managing instabilities and uncertainties that affect their relationship.
Increased Individual Responsibility and Social Sensitivity
The precarity of the labour market has heralded a “new normal” in industrial relations where instability and uncertainty have been interwoven into the operational dynamics of business enterprises. Uncertainties in the labour market have also created an increased sense of individual responsibility among younger workers compared to their older counterparts because they are becoming preoccupied with understanding how their jobs complement their personal growth as opposed to accomplishing organisational goals. Increased individual responsibility among young employees partly stems from their heightened comprehension of stakeholder needs. In other words, they understand that different parties are affected by labour market dynamics and they have to take responsibility for their role in improving the system from a personal level.
Inspired by the negative effects of market uncertainties on labour relations, younger employees are motivated to champion the next phase of industrial growth by focusing on improving individual competencies within the greater realm of social relationships that impact organisational performance. This attitude departs from the traditional model of interaction governing employer-employee relationships, which has been primarily focused on profit-maximisation with little emphasis on the social wellbeing of workers. The paradigm shift partly stems from an increased realisation of labour market changes that have taken place in the last few years. Notably, more young people are starting to believe that they need to adapt to the new environment as opposed to change it. Consequently, there has been a paradigm shift in how they relate with their employers and perceive the role of their work in their lives. Particularly, they are becoming more interested in the learning opportunities that come with employment as opposed to its extrinsic benefits. A survey conducted in the UK affirmed the existence of this attitude among young people, particularly among employees who are under the age of 30 (New Castle University, 2019). The same findings suggested that people who have been fired from their work harbour the strongest feelings.
Overall, borrowing from the experiences of the 2007/2008 global economic crisis, young people have learnt that the world can heal from calamities in a short time and resourceful organisations can tackle such problems if they work together. From these lessons, they have internalised an attitude premised on promoting self-growth, which has manifested in a greater sense of individual autonomy for the decisions they make. From the common understanding of what is required of them in an uncertain market, they have realizsed that the labour sector is part of a wider global ecosystem fuelled by the pursuit of profit. Consequently, there is a renewed sense of commitment among young people to make businesses and governments accountable for their actions. This way, they get the protection that has been traditionally offered through unionisation. Therefore, young people have remained committed to taking individual responsibility for their actions and are demanding the same level of accountability from their employers and the government. This reprioritisation of goals means that profit-maximisation and efficiency optimisation objectives have been relegated down the list of priorities of young employees. These insights affirm the view that young people have internalised new attitudes about work from their experiences of precarious labour conditions.
The insights highlighted in this study support the statement made by Berry and McDaniel (2020, p. 3) which states, “… young people’s experience of the ‘new normal’ of precarious labour market conditions has been internalized and thus normalized within their attitudes to a significant degree.” The pieces of evidence provided in this study to support the statement have been presented on three grounds. The first one is that younger employees have become more resilient in the wake of precarious labour conditions compared to their older counterparts. The second one is that employers, regulatory authorities and employees have embraced flexibility as a core business philosophy to manage instability and uncertainties of the labour market. Additionally, young people have demonstrated a greater sense of individual responsibility and social sensitivity for their actions. In turn, they demand the same level of responsibility from their employers. Collectively, these new attitudes have made it easier for them to adapt to the changing nature of the workplace. Additionally, these new attitudes have been normalised, but they may evolve further as the labour market responds to newer sources of instability, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
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