Unmotivated cafe worker

Young workers turn up the heat on churn and burn jobs

The impact of an "earn your stripes" culture and call for accountability

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
4 minute read
Unmotivated cafe worker

With unemployment at record lows, more and more younger Australians are being drawn into the workplace to fill vacancies across any number of industries.

For many, their workplace entry will be accompanied by a dose of excitement, plenty of enthusiasm and a desire to carve out a successful career.

Regrettably for some, what seemed like a bright opportunity rapidly turned sour when their inexperience and a lack of understanding of their workplace rights led to exploitation by their bosses.

The exploitation of the younger generation has long been a workplace issue.

Younger workers enter the workplace and very quickly find themselves in situations where they do not receive the correct pay, superannuation, breaks and holiday entitlements – and where they have no job security and can be unfairly dismissed.

They can also be exposed to unsafe work practices, threats and intimidation as well as bullying and harassment.

The churn-and-burn approach

Now there is another form of exploitation that has crept into our workplaces – and it is one very few want to discuss.

Some unscrupulous employers are deliberately adopting a churn-and-burn approach towards young, entry-level workers.

This approach involves front-loading the workforce with younger, inexperienced workers who are given demanding tasks and long working hours but very few real opportunities for advancement or a career path.

Employers know that many of these workers will quit at some point because they feel they have hit a career ceiling or, most likely, they are burnt out.

Disaffected or exhausted workers are quickly replaced by a fresh batch of young talent who are also unlikely to advance their careers within the organisation, thereby perpetuating the cycle.

In other words, these exploitative employers are grinding younger workers down until they have nothing left to give before waving goodbye to them and replacing them with yet more young souls – and repeating the process over and over again.

The churn-and-burn approach is reflective of an “earn your stripes” type of culture in which young workers must put in the hard yards to be able to establish themselves, progress and achieve the oft-elusive work-life balance later in their careers.

Inexperience breeds acceptance

Exploitative employers have their reasons for adopting a churn-and-burn model.

Entry-level employees starting on the bottom of the career ladder do not have the same salary expectations as experienced employees so there is money to be saved. In that sense, young workers serve as a pool of inexpensive and underappreciated labour.

It is also true that younger workers have not acquired the experience to know what is okay and what is not and so are generally more accepting of what the boss says is normal.

The result is that young workers find themselves working long hours and having to deal with massive workloads and sometimes with the tasks that more senior staff managed to avoid.

Speaking up against dreadful conditions does not usually end well.

Those who harness the courage to advocate for better conditions are often viewed with disdain and accused of “not being able to cut it” or told they must “pay their dues” to get ahead and secure their future.

But only very few will end up staying with an exploitative employer for long enough to get to the point where they can rise through the ranks.

The exploitation of young workers can have dire consequences.

Not only do young people experience early career burnout but they can be left with feelings of inadequacy and failure.

The upshot of being taken advantage of is that it can harm young people’s careers before they have even begun and adversely impact the individual’s mental wellbeing.

There are significant downsides, too, for organisations that choose to persist with an opportunistic churn-and-burn model – and take advantage of impressionable young workers. They face a sea change that could finish off their “earn your stripes” business model.

Emergence of a work-life balance era

In the wake of the pandemic, there has been a surge in awareness of the significance of upholding a healthy work-life balance. Workplace discussions about stress, burnout and mental health are more widespread than ever before.

Like most workers, many younger employees are pushing for improved work conditions and proactively seeking them out.

Working oneself into the ground and having no time for a life beyond work does not align with the lifestyle values of the many young people entering the workplace for the first time.

Some have been burnt by unscrupulous employers and take to social media to “out” their former employers.

Within the currently tight employment market, young people who sense they are being exposed to a less-than-favourable work environment can remedy the situation by shopping around for a less opportunistic employer.

The upshot is that we should no longer turn a blind eye to organisations that deliberately set out to exploit the enthusiasm, passion and ambition of the younger generation.

The churn-and-burn model of employing young people, overworking them and knowing they will run themselves into the ground before quitting is truly broken – and needs fixing.