Meet Dr David Farrugia, ARC Future Fellow

REDI welcomes new member, Dr David Farrugia, a sociologist whose work addresses issues of unemployment, labour and labour force formation from the perspective of identity. His work demonstrates how young people’s identities contribute to the creation of economic value, and how the formation of labour forces emerges from young people’s identity practices.

He has come to Deakin with a wealth of research experience having already completed work on a Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA), led a recently completed ARC Discovery Project, and now embarking on an ARC Future Fellowship: Young Workers and the Future of Service Employment.

Here he talks about his research interests and how COVID has created a unique employment market for young people that has the potential to transform the service economy.

What has been your career path up until now?

At high school I planned to be a psychologist. I had always been interested in people and what made them tick and I thought that psychology would be the way to explore that interest. After my first year of BPsych at ANU I realised that it wasn’t for me, so I changed to a double degree — BPsych BA majoring in sociology. I was particularly interested in issues relating to inequality and people who were struggling in life. I wanted to understand the systems that put people in disadvantaged positions.

My PhD focused on youth homelessness in Melbourne and how homelessness was connected to other issues like labour market and housing inequalities. After my PhD I undertook postdoctoral work looking at rural young people, how their social connections contributed to the futures they were able to imagine for themselves and how that was connected to inequalities in education and job opportunities. My Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) project expanded on this theme, looking at young people, identity formation and work, particularly the way that the capacity to be productive at work is formed as part of a young person’s identity and sense of self.

You were recently awarded an ARC Future Fellowship. Can you tell us about that project?

The Future Fellowship, Young Workers and the Future of Service Employment, is about the everyday politics of the workplace from the perspective of young people. It looks at youth citizenship from the perspective of precarious work and explores the role that young workers can play in public life.

Industries such as hospitality prefer to hire young people partly because they are seen as a ‘flexible’ workforce in a poorly paid industry but also because they are part of their customer base, and their identities allow them to interact with customers in a particular way. Their identities ‘outside’ of work are drawn into the value they create for employers.

Labour in this sector makes complex demands on young workers but is widely regarded as unskilled. Young workers are popularly imagined as a politically disempowered group — they are usually not members of unions and their wages are low.

COVID has created a shift in the power dynamic in service jobs due to the shortage of workers in these industries. In the current job market service workers have more power to control their interaction with customers, choose their shifts and leave jobs they don’t like.

In this context, it’s important to look at how workers are managing their working conditions in industries like hospitality, retail, and call centres. I am interested in how young workers’ modes of personal identity are mobilised at work, and how this relates to commodity exchange in the service economy. For me, this can amount to a new form of youth citizenship, in which political identities and forms of political participation are created at work.

The issues that I’m looking at are common to any advanced service economies, but Australia is in a unique moment in relation to labour shortages in service industries. These issues are significant and publicly visible. It is essential to grow the evidence base that will inform ongoing public debate and policymaking in this area.

What does this research mean for the community?

My work helps people think in new ways about specific problems. For example, some people think that young people just need more skills to find jobs, but what does it really mean to have a skill? Jobs in retail and hospitality are seen as unskilled because they have traditionally been done by women and now young people. When a job is seen as skilled, the people who do that job experience better working conditions so it’s important to think critically about what work is and what it means to be skilled, because it affects how people are treated in the workplace.

The DECRA project uncovered important issues in the service economy such as the prevalence of sexual harassment, and the experiences of queer and gender diverse young workers.

The Future Fellowship has the potential to start a conversation about the status of precarious workers in society and how they can expect to be treated. The knowledge gained will inform current social and political debate about working conditions, wages and penalty rates in the service economy. This will benefit policymakers, employers and worker representatives aiming to engage and support this diverse labour force.

In a perfect world this research would lead to the re-evaluation of the place that young workers have in society and the contribution that they make in workplaces.

News 3 April 2023