The last boomer PM

Tony Abbott will turn 56 in November, around the time parliament returns to sit. By the time he is voted out in late 2022 (unless he is removed by nervous Coalition backbenchers earlier that year), he will be almost 65 – a few years shy of retirement age, but close enough. Abbott will be Australia’s last boomer Prime Minister. His replacement – whether Liberal, Labor, Green or someone from the Pirate Party – will be a person born in the late 1960s or the 70s.

The shape of political discourse in Australia since the late 1960s has followed the contours of the boomers’ demographic bulge, and under the surface the flows of economic and social power has mapped their trajectory through the world in other ways.

In the late 1960s, they were the restive mass of teenagers and twenty-somethings who brought us the anti-war movement in the USA and student-labour uprisings in Europe, who sparked the feminist revolution and who loaned numbers and loud voices to the anti-war movement and the fight for Aboriginal land rights in Australia.

In Australia in the early 1970s, they energised the Whitlam government, which gave us free tertiary education and universal health care, and put money into the arts – all reforms that young boomers had a stake in at that stage in their lives.

In the mid-1980s, when they had moved through the university system, and had decided to knuckle down and climb the career ladder, Australia, under the Hawke government, reached a consensus between labour and capital – the Accord – that was accompanied by a professionalisation of political activism, through the union movement (on the left), corporate-funded think-thanks (on the right) and big law firms (both sides).

With the boomers educated largely at the taxpayer’s expense (declaration: I got through most of mine without paying for it), and tertiary education seen as something most parents aspired to for their children, it was time to start making the user pay again, in a socialised way because we had a Labor government at the time, through HECS.

Hawke and Keating opened up Australia’s economy to the world, reflecting the increasingly cosmopolitan outlook of middle-class boomers, often at the expense of working-class people, who saw the traditional manufacturing industries where they worked – textiles and footwear, heavy manufacturing and motor vehicles – wither under what dry boomer economists called the ‘chill winds of competition’.

Boomers, especially the older ones, bought up inner-city housing when the working class fled to the suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, and have increased the value of their investments through Australia’s generous negative-gearing tax treatment of property.

As the boomers scaled the occupation and income ladder and had children, their concerns shifted to making sure those children got the educational chances they’d had when state schools were better resourced (by the standards of the time) and only rich Protestants, poor Catholics and ex-hippies sent their kids to non-state schools.

Now that all children were expected (and needed) to finish twelve years of school, whatever their social class and academic inclination, middle-class boomers corralled their kids into socially segregated and academically selective private schools that received increasing amounts of public money, at the expense of the public-school system. Less well-off people in the suburbs followed.

And as the boomers approach late middle age and the beginning of old age, healthcare and retirement income became big concerns – concerns that their demographic weight forces the rest of society to share.

Hawke and Keating’s government legislated compulsory superannuation to secure people’s retirement incomes. But rather than directing the money into some kind of state fund that could have provided billions of dollars for housing (see Singapore) or infrastructure projects, control of this vast quantity of capital looking for a return was vested in under-regulated private money markets and used to fund speculative financial activity.

Boomers with money to invest benefitted from this, and we can only hope their superannuation holdings have recovered from the hit they took during the GFC – otherwise the rest of us may have to pay through depleted returns on our own superannuation.

The Howard government committed us to spending billions on tax concessions for boomers’ superannuation contributions and private health insurance.

Australia’s system of middle-class welfare can be seen as partly a result of articulate, educated boomers continuing to demand a cut of the entitlement pie in voices just as powerful (but perhaps less shouty) than they were in 1970.

The debate that’s starting about Australia’s tax base reflects the boomers’ nervousness about who will pay for their old age. Once they’ve stopped paying tax, it is easy to imagine that they will be happy to see those who are still working start to pay more.

And the squabbles of the past three years have mirrored the shouty, intransigent and angry tone of the first time the boomers faced off politically, at university in the 1970s.

What else is ahead? As the boomers enter their superannuated retirement, we can expect a surge in occupations servicing their needs: health and aged care, obviously, but also hospitality, tourism, IT and entertainment. Never mind a university degree: make sure your teenagers are sharpening their barista skills.

What lies beyond the retirement of the last boomer PM in 2022 is hard to say, but we can no doubt expect some other mobilisation of social and financial capital aligned with the boomers’ needs for the rest of that decade – perhaps a diversion of all those superannuation dollars into health and aged-care.

After that, they’ll start to die in large numbers, and will no longer have the power to shape the social discourse that they have enjoyed for most of their lives.

Matt Holden

Matt Holden is a Melbourne journalist and editor.

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