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Economic boom's new generation poor

  • 30 October 2006

As Australia gets richer, younger generations are failing to scale the ladder of opportunity.

A decade of economic growth has been good to many Australians. The property market has boomed. Wages have risen. Share markets continue to ride record highs. Ordinary Australians have grown rich. But others have missed out. In 2004, Paul Keating described a worrying trend in Australia, the emergence of what he termed the "new poor". “[They’re] a group who get along in the world without institutional loyalties,” he said, “without lifetime employment, who have to pay for education, who live life in nodules of employment, who are locked out of property, who are slated to rent often sub-standard accommodation, who are wary of marriage and financial obligation, who watched the wealthy get wealthier and … rely more or less on the camaraderie of mutual friends in similar circumstances.”

Two years on, the problem is deepening. A raft of statistics and reports indicate that home-ownership and job security, the twin pillars of the Australian dream, are no longer a reality for many 20 and 30-somethings. Amid a doubling and tripling of property prices, and the enculturation of casual, contract employment, an increasing segment of Generations X and Y have failed to share the gains of their asset-rich parents. They will likely never make up the lost ground. Much has been made of the rise in "grinding" poverty in Australia—an 18-month senate inquiry released in March concluded that over two million Australians are living on the poverty line. But another kind of poverty is eating at the foundation of Australia’s once impregnable middle class. “Australia isn’t doing as well as we think,” argues Mark Davis, whose book Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism first articulated the discontents of these young people. Davis calls them “slash kids”, a reference to a culture of entrenched casual employment and declining long-term career prospects. “Now they’re getting older, they can’t afford new priorities, and resentment is growing,” Davis explains. Australia’s commodities-driven economic boom has shadowed the growing intergenerational wealth divide. A 2005 Dusseldorp Skills Forum report showed that nearly one quarter of Australians aged 20-25 are not in full-time work or education—up 15 per cent from a decade ago. On current trends, not much will have changed when this group reach 35. By contrast, the media are touting a new upwardly mobile group of 25-39 year-olds, many university educated, with high