At the start of 2016, the Coalition appeared set to plough on with its standard MO (now with Innovation™) with nary a whimper come the federal election. Instead, there’s now a material possibility that this will be the first single-term government since Jim Scullin’s doomed 1929–1932 run. If that comes to pass, political scientists are likely to drill down and find the seeds of Turnbull’s destruction were actually planted in 1980 or so.
Drench every poll in salt, but the generational divide they paint is stark. At the start of May, Roy Morgan placed the ALP on a two-party preferred lead of 63 per cent to 37 per cent among 18–24 year olds, and 64.5 to 35.5 per cent among 25–34 year olds. Flash forward to Gen X (35–49 year olds) and the balance flips to 51.5–48.5 in favour of the Coalition (three years ago, those born 1965–1980 still comfortably sprung for Labor or the Greens).
It’s hard not to see this split through the prism of the housing market, noted dinner-party conversation topic of bores. The ALP has ushered out modest proposals for negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts; the government have proudly thrown their lot in opposing it. The major parties are in ideological lock-step on everything from concentration camps to free-trade agreements, sure – but in this one facet, voters are presented with a choice.
It’s likely that any ALP surge will then be framed as a flexing of millennial muscle by the commentariat, the moment of arrival where put-upon 20-somethings looked up from their phones and made transactional politics work for them. Millennials (or Gen Y, or keen Twitter accessers, or whatever we’re called now) will be well advised not to assume their enduring solidarity.
Housing crisis to-dos in the press are representative insofar as the people profiled can’t buy a house, but that’s as far as it goes. The tipping point stories we’re getting now tend to depict the tribulations of young commercial lawyers or existing homeowners struggling to upscale, as if to say ‘we’ve really gone too far this time!’ The people who have always been entitled to buy a property or properties – educated professionals with existing liquid or illiquid assets – suddenly can’t.
In this climate, the outcomes for those never went to uni or TAFE, who had families young, who are subject to capricious low-paid shift work, barely register. They’re not getting their mugs in stories about tough auctions in gentrifying suburbs, and first-person accounts of slum-standard private rentals or the 173,000 Australians on public housing waiting lists are thin on the ground.
The Grattan Institute estimates the impact of gearing and tax reforms will be an overall drop in house prices of around 2 per cent. That might be enough to get rookie oncologists into their homes of choice and restore the Natural Order of Things. It’s likely to also be the point where we start talking about intra-generational inequality again.
But intergenerational inequality is getting all the play at the moment, and persuasively so. As Richard Cooke (not the first on the subject, but one of the most eloquent) put it in The Monthly, those born in the 80s and early 90s have come up in an often-unforgiving architecture that had its final touches put on by those born in the late 40s and 50s. That architecture – extortionately high education costs, fewer labour protections, less welfare – will ensure that a significant number of Generation Y will be less wealthy than their parents.
However, like a cathedral of old, constructing a precarious and speculative society with few safety nets took successive guildsmen. The rolling out and rolling up of the ‘governmental red carpet’ Cooke describes can sometimes feel like a de novo act of boomer cruelty. In fact, the rollback commenced under the watch of the Reagans, the Thatchers, the Rothbards and the Friedmans – people born in the 1910s and 1920s. Most boomers were raised in the relative grace of state that their elders began dismantling, enjoying a higher standard of living than any that came before them; an anointed few, in some cases literally inheriting the mantle, became the mega-rich and mega-powerful of today.
For all that, the boomers initially came in for all the opprobrium Gen Y does now. Nixon warned that for the first time, society was seeing a generation ‘opting out of the process by which a civilisation maintains his continuity: the passing on of values from one generation to the next’. An ailing John Steinbeck, no high Tory himself, decried their unprecedented ‘fall-out, drop-out, cop-out insurgency … the mistrust and revolt against all authority, political, religious or military’ and longed for an America in which ‘the rules were understood and accepted by everyone’.
Elsewhere, like Gen Y, they got flattered by more temperate pundits – Time chose boomers as its wildcard Person of the Year in 1966, hailing them as ‘well-educated, affluent, rebellious, responsible, pragmatic, idealistic, brave and hopeful’. This push and pull in the court of parental opinion (which repeats itself today) forged a seductive and complacent sense of shared interest, even when it was used to further self-interest from the 1980s onwards.
Today’s awfully successful boomers continue to eulogise themselves in awful ways, often claiming to speak with authority for their entire cohort. Think the Clintons insisting that their peers recall the balmy nostalgia of the 1990s and its (ill-distributed) prosperity, or Turnbull framing inaction on housing as a gesture of solidarity to ‘mum and dad investors’ who have worked hard all their lives.
This is a generation’s history (and its policy whims) as written by its victors, and it erases the losers: older workers left eating into meager savings, unemployable through ageism after the assembly line jobs went overseas; solo mothers looking after their disabled adult children on a pittance; new Australians fleeing from persecution with their families, finding their feet without the established networks of other men and women their age (lest we forget, the boomer thing has always been screamingly Anglo – you literally had to be there, geographically-speaking, for the 60s).
If people in these plights have a perception of Gen Y as demanding and pampered and lazy, I’m basically fine with it, given that they face a long and uncertain future without the circumstantial advantages of youth. It’s better than a snake oil piece about how we’re natural disruptive entrepreneurs, better to be the subject of real emotion than to be marketed at.
A decade should be enough – some tax reform here, a bit of intensification there, probably a lot of inheriting – to take the squeeze out of housing, at least for the sort of people who should have been able to buy property without flinching in 2005 or so. It will take some of the heat out of renting, which will be good for those operating in the feudal system.
The sort of cheery ruefulness of being in the same boat – the kind that made 27-year-olds with vastly divergent life chances through education, family wealth, and health see themselves as kith and kin for a while – will fade. It’s a pity that housing’s just one of a bundle of existential risks to those who reached adulthood in the twenty-first century.
Every generation is complex and heterogeneous, but anticipating the voice of its ascending elites is pretty easy. Stuck at a thing on start-ups the other night, I looked at my phone, the middle distance – anywhere to keep my composure, really – as a young entrepreneur waxed lyrical about the end of job security. ‘People are their own bosses in this economy. You don’t have to be tied down to one career anymore. You could change what you want to do every two years, and succeed at it. Everyone’s going to work two jobs, everyone’s going to be more than just one thing.’
If this makes you uneasy, tough – in the years to come, it’s likely to become your De Facto Millennial Voice, lubed up as it is for the existing mechanics of power and their triple threat to casualise, automate and aggregate. If it’s any consolation, the DFMV will probably consistently ask for more bike lanes as well.
Make no mistake, intergenerational inequality – our slump to last century’s bump – exists. But a hyper-credulous attitude that our generation has unshakeable bonds, that our struggle is materially different from those before or after us, will perpetuate that inequality before it addresses it.