Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

The Working World: How big tech success stories are inspiring entrepreneurs in Australia

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Published on July 09, 2019

Illustration by Justin Tran

“The future of the economy is not going to come from digging things from ground... we have to shift towards a knowledge-based economy.”—Le Tran

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When you think of a bad day at work in Australia, your mind might wander to someone wrestling crocodiles in the outback or waiting for wombats to cross the road on their commute. But what is working life really like down under? And how can they have “no worries” when they deal with the same workday grind as everyone else?

In our series on “The Working World,” we’re looking at how different cultures cope with the challenges of modern work, and how countries are adapting to address the problems. In part one, we explored how work style reform laws are impacting workers in Japan. In part two, we discussed whether the El Khomri law was actually helping French workers “disconnect” after office hours. In part three, we learned why German workers feel pulled between perfection and productivity.

Here in part four, we’ll look at how Australian work culture is evolving as the mining boom ends and the housing market slows, while knowledge workers are poised to take 6 out of 7 jobs created in the next decade. 

To get some perspectives from Australia and learn how workers are preparing for the changes to come, we spoke with Le Tran, our Head of Communications for Asia Pacific & Japan, and Jennifer Norrie, our Campaigns and Content Lead for APAC, both from the Dropbox office in Sydney. 

"Australians generally make work fit into our lives versus making our lives fit into our work."

“We’re a lucky country”

Australians are famous for being laid back. And the “no worries, mate” approach to life goes way beyond beach culture. Economically, they’ve had a seemingly easy stretch of success with no recession for over 25 years. Le says that good fortune is largely due to two factors.

“We’re a resource-rich country. The mining boom created unprecedented growth for the economy,” she says. Geographically, we’re close to China, so we’ve been lucky to have China as an exporting partner, especially during the massive growth they’ve had over the past two decades.”

Le says job security and workers’ rights add to the sense of confidence and optimism. “We have a history of very strong union activism, which means there’s a lot of protection for Australian workers.”

Though they’re known for their strong work ethic, Australians manage to leave job stress at the office. “Maybe it’s our geographical isolation or our inconvenient timezone or our anti-competitive ‘fair go’ ethos, but Australians generally make work fit into our lives versus making our lives fit into our work,” says Le. “Obviously, I’m not speaking for everyone in Australia, but there is a sense of life/work harmony here."

Now some wonder whether “tall poppy syndrome” might be holding Australians back.

When “no worries” becomes a worry

“The flip side of ‘No worries, mate’ and ‘It’ll be right in the morning’ is complacency,” says Le. 

“There’s a pervasive mentality that says, ‘Nobody is better than me, and I am better than nobody,’ which is all very noble,” says Jennifer Norrie. “But the flip side of this is ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome.’ We put a name to it in Australia, but I think it’s something that’s present all over the world. It essentially means that it’s expected that you should maintain a degree of humility about your success. It’s important to be humble. If you grow ‘too tall,’ you’ll be cut down.”

Now some wonder whether “tall poppy syndrome” might be holding Australians back—right when entrepreneurial leadership is needed most. 

“The mining boom is over and demand from China is also slowing,” says Le. “We’ve realized the future of the economy is not going to come from the digging things from ground and selling them to China; we have to shift towards a knowledge-based economy.”

But unlike the intensity of Silicon Valley, and for all the reasons mentioned above, Australia has traditionally been a culture that’s less focused on constant innovation.

“This is where Australia and America differ. That individual drive to achieve the American dream— the idea that you can start from nothing and achieve so much all on your own, isn’t so ingrained in the Australian psyche. The Australian dream is to buy your own home and have a portfolio of investment properties so that you can have a comfortable retirement.”

The erosion of the Australian dream—or rather the unattainability of it—hit an all time high when Bernard Salt, a demographer, KPMG advisor, and columnist at The Australian, suggested that that "smashed avo" (avocado on toast) was the reason why millennials could not afford to buy their own homes. This sparked a national and generational debate and has become a meme to define an entire generation’s inability to realize the great Australian dream.

“There is recognition that as a nation, we need to have foresight and invest in innovation."

The rise of entrepreneurism

Longstanding cultural attitudes aren’t the only obstacle. When your country’s economy has been fueled by abundant resources for almost 200 years, adjusting to a new reality is a monumental change. But in recent years, Le says, there’s been a strong national narrative and urgency around transitioning from a resource-dependent economy to a knowledge economy.

What’s really put fire into the whole conversation around entrepreneurism is the rise of successful tech companies, the most well known being Atlassian. Atlassian has become symbolic of what an Australian knowledge-based or innovation-based company can be ” says Le. “Suddenly, we’ve realized that Australia can produce multi-billion dollar companies that are not mining or property related. In fact, this year’s RICH LIST includes more tech entrepreneurs than ever before.”

“There is recognition that as a nation, we need to have foresight and invest in innovation,” says Le. “For a long time Australia, like many other economies, looked towards Silicon Valley for inspiration. We wanted to bottle some of that energy and some of that risk taking and entrepreneurism and enrich Australia with that. But—here’s the catch: we also want to do it the Australian way.”

Leading the way or catching up?

Herein lies the emerging tension for the future of life and work in Australia. At the same time that there’s a push to move towards a dynamic, fast moving innovation economy, there’s also a pull to maintain the unique work culture that Australians have managed to create.

The question is: Should the world learn to relax, give things a ‘fair go’ and follow the Australian way or should Australia catch up with the rest of the world? 

Judging from what we’ve heard from our colleagues in Japan, France, and Germany, burnout has become pervasive enough to spark changes in work culture in different countries around the world. At a time when tech addiction feels like an unwelcome export, maybe importing a “no worries” work culture could bring back some balance.