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Dr Michael Walker: Giving the next generation a fairer share

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How a generation, who by being born in an era of unprecedented prosperity, now clings to their wealth at the expense of their own children. Photo: 123rf
How a generation, who by being born in an era of unprecedented prosperity, now clings to their wealth at the expense of their own children. Photo: 123rf

Around the year 1819 Spanish painter Goya, traumatised by two recent near-death illnesses, started to paint bleak untitled images on the walls of his house. They depict dark and unsettling themes. One of them shows a deranged, oversized person devouring a child’s body: a depiction of the Greek legend of the Titan Cronos. Cronos was the king of the gods prior to Zeus. Life was great during his reign, a Golden Age, but he feared that his rule would eventually have to end and pass into the hands of his children. Out of this fear, he devoured five of them. His sixth child, Zeus, was hidden from him and, of course, eventually claimed his place as the new king of the gods.

The myth of Cronos, like all myths, strikes at a perennial human anxiety, in this case of our own old age and mortality. Our children are on the one hand our great hope for the future, and yet at another level their flourishing represents our own move closer to the grave.

The myth of Cronos illustrates what is going on with wealth in Australia and elsewhere. The Baby Boomer generation have enjoyed a historically unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. Growing up from the 1950s onwards, life (in the western world) has been mostly generous and tranquil. The Boomers entered the workforce when unionism was high and union-won entitlements were close to their high-water mark. Everyone got three and then four weeks of annual leave.

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Wages were so high, and houses so affordable, that it was easy for a household to get by on one income. It was easy to settle down and raise a family. It was both possible and realistic to retire early and enjoy a fully funded retirement, spending your days on holiday and leisure pursuits and living into your eighties or nineties—much longer than the generation before—thanks to improvements in healthcare.

Now let’s fast-forward to the present day and take stock of how dramatically this picture has changed. Today’s young people don’t go to work in high-paying, unionised jobs. They scrape together an income, often from multiple casual jobs that pay the legal minimum—if they’re lucky. They don’t get paid holidays or, if they do, they often can’t afford to take them. For most, there is no way in the world they can afford a house. If they can, it’s located in less desirable parts of the city, likely a long way from where they want to work, so they must spend the difference on transport in the form of car repayments, tolls and petrol. As for settling down and starting a family, forget it. If you want a roof over your head, both partners need to keep working. Having children is delayed as long as possible, until women are in their mid- to late-30s, if at all. There may, one day, be an inheritance from mum and dad but the current generation won’t see that until they are close to retirement age themselves.

What on earth has happened? There have been two major drivers of this deterioration: firstly, the steady replacement of decent, well-paying jobs with lousy, low-paying jobs, and secondly the increase in property values that have removed housing out of the reach of the current generation and kept it in the hands of retirees. (A third is transfer payments that, unbelievably, give public money to people who already have wealth, which is the subject for another article.)

On the housing issue, neither side of politics has been willing to upset owner-occupiers, roughly a third of the population. Instead, it’s renters and mortgage payers who have been left to feel all the pain. What have our Catholic leaders had to say about it? On the question of home ownership, the Australian Catholic Bishops said, back in 1995:

“As a nation we cannot allow so many of our fellow citizens to continue living in situations where the cost of a roof over one’s head and for one’s family is either beyond their reach altogether or only achieved at great cost financially or in terms of the ability to participate fully in the life of the community.”

The bishops revisited the question in 2017, noting that the situation had only deteriorated further. There seems very little prospect of a return to household valuations of decades past. Nonetheless, governments aren’t helpless and can do a lot more to invest in social and affordable housing. The way things are going, an increasingly large swathe of the population will meet the income test for affordable housing.

The bishops also issue a letter every year on the feast of St Joseph the Worker. In their 2022 message, the bishops said:

“We hope to see greater policy focus on decent work—work that is safe, secure, and fairly paid. Stable, secure jobs are needed to power a recovery that actually works for working people and their families.”

Young Australians need at least this much to get their start in life. On this aspect, I’m very pleased to hear that Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke is poised to bring about a meaningful change with the introduction of his third round of workplace relations laws into Parliament. These laws will close loopholes that have allowed employers to degrade working conditions: first and foremost, engaging a growing number of their workforce in casual employment.

Casual employment was introduced for the purpose of flexibility, yet a large number of casual workers, nearly a million people nationally, stay with the same employer and work stable hours from one week to the next. They are “permanently casuals.” This was not what casual employment was for; it is essentially being used as a way of transferring uncertainty away from firms and onto households. Who gets the benefit? Shareholders. And who are they, for the most part? Baby Boomers. Cronos strikes again.

Tony Burke’s new legislation is extremely praiseworthy in bringing secure employment to almost a million Australians stuck needlessly in precarious work, giving them a steadier foothold as they seek to build a livelihood.

The Catholic Church supports the right to private property but not as an absolute right. St John Paul II wrote in his 1981 encyclical Laborens Exercens, “the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” Earlier this year civil society in Sydney called on the parties in the State Election to legislate against no-fault evictions, to give renters more stability in their domestic lives. I was quoted in support of this possibility in The Catholic Weekly.

After it went to print, I received a long ranting text message from a reader opposed to this possibility, who wanted landlords to be able to evict anyone at will since it is “their property.” The sender, an  elderly woman, casually mentioned towards the end that she has a portfolio of six properties. What have we become? The generation who enjoyed unprecedented prosperity by accident of birth now clings fast to it even at the expense of their own children and grandchildren. The church teaches us to be a more caring community than this.

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