Across the western world, intergenerational tension is rising between the Baby Boomers and younger generations, as economic, environmental and social justice frays.
Adelaide’s young people are living under the heel of a hegemony, imposed by uninterested politicians and comfortable members of the post-war generation.
This story is about why young people must drive political change in the City of Churches, before they are crushed.
Let us briefly look at social change in Adelaide in the last 60 years.
In 1950s, Adelaide women wore hats and gloves to go shopping. There was lunch at the Balfours Tea Rooms in Rundle Street. Woodroofe’s Lemonade and Southwark beer were the drinks of choice. That’s the good news.
People stayed within strict, implicit norms. The Reds were under the bed and the Protestants and Catholics were at each other’s throats. A polio epidemic raged and workplace safety standards were almost non-existent. The fear of nuclear annihilation was ever present.
Rape in marriage wasn’t a crime. Homosexuality was illegal and Indigenous people weren’t recognised as Australians in the constitution until 1967.
There was virtually no contraception and backyard abortions were commonplace. Single women who had babies, often had them removed and adopted out. People with disabilities were institutionalised.
In a quest for authenticity and personal identity, the post-war generation sought to overthrow these stale and male regressive norms.
By 1969, Adelaide’s young people were demonstrating for civil rights, women’s liberation and an end to the Vietnam War.
This ‘revolution’ provoked a search for new political ideologies, the drive for equality and consciousness raising. It focused on communalism, libertarianism and most of all, the power of love.
For South Australians, a progressive political change came with the abolition of the gerrymander by Premier Steele Hall (Liberal and Country League) in 1969. The gerrymander had kept Tom Playford’s government in power from 1938 to 1965. Don Dunstan’s government was elected on May 30, 1970.
“South Australia will become the technological, the design, the social reform, and the artistic centre of Australia,” Don Dunstan said. “We’ll set a standard of social advancement that the whole of Australia will envy.”
In Dunstan’s first term, the government passed the Age of Majority (Reduction) Act, the Corporal Punishment Abolition Act, the Listening Devices Act and an Act to establish the South Australian Theatre Company. The voting age dropped from 21 to 18 and homosexuality – sex acts between consenting men over 21 years old – was decriminalised in 1975.
A new era in South Australian democracy dawned – for a while.
From 1965-1978, Adelaide produced nationally famous bands such as the Twilights, The Masters Apprentices, The Zoot, Cold Chisel and the Angels. There were big local bands such as Fraternity, Red Angel Panic and Mickey Finn. Alternative bands played the bijou concerts at the Crafers Hall and the Marryatville Hotel.
But this era of change didn’t last.
By the late 1970s, that old parochialism came creeping back. Around 1978, the first major exodus of young people moved to Melbourne and Sydney. Unfortunately, many large corporate headquarters followed them.
While some of the post-war generation were progressive, many resisted change. Even today, it’s difficult to discuss youth unemployment, when some older folk invoke the Hindu concept of karma and say, ‘young people get what they deserve’.
That’s rich coming from the Boomers who rode the ‘prosperity escalator’ for 40 years. Many did no more than hold on to the handrails.
Adelaide’s young people have watched as the Boomers were showered with senior payments, indexed against average male earnings, tax exemptions on the family home and superannuation tax breaks.
Today, less than half of 25-34-year-olds own their own home, compared with 61 per cent back in 1981, according to the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.
Work for the Dole, the casualisation of the workforce and mounting HECS and VET Student loans, are all burdens young people face today, which older generations didn’t.
There’s no more telling example of intergenerational intransigence than the failure to produce a cohesive energy and carbon emissions policy.
In a classic case of generational inequity, as the Boomers retire, they will demand more and better healthcare, to be funded off a shrinking tax base. Future governments will need to raise taxes and it will be young people who will pay them.
There is no political will in either of the two major parties to tackle intergenerational economic disparities. In fact, to recognise these disparities, is to acknowledge that many young South Australians will never attain the standard of living of their parents or grandparents. If they do through inheritances, they will be in their 60s or 70s.
The changes that swept through western societies in the 1960s, had their roots in the sheer size of the new teenager demographic, rising affluence and a reaction against the appalling mediocrity of the status quo. But that was long ago.
The key driver of change for Adelaide’s young people today must be parliamentary representation. This requires organisation outside of the old two-party system.
Social media already provides the interconnectivity but it will be face-to-face meetings in bars, homes and flats, where new ideas for a new future, will be hammered out.
Here’s a policy they could consider now.
The time has come to reintroduce an inheritance tax on estates above $1.5 million. The Henry Tax Review gave in principle support for such a tax.
Inherited wealth is unearned income. It’s not gained through thrift or hard work. It’s an ethically sound tax which could be used to house the homeless, create jobs for young people and down pay HECS and VET Student loans.
Unless young South Australians want to accept their decline and that of their state, strident political action is required. Not later. Now.
Malcolm King is a professional writer who splits his time between Canberra and Adelaide. He is a regular InDaily columnist.
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