What I do think is true is that we have a political system that panders to older generations in terms of a lot of the tax breaks and public policy that's involved. And it does so, I think, at the expense of younger Australians.
Millions of Baby Boomers lucked out with affordable homes, free uni, jobs for life and a franking credit-fed retirement. Millennials and Gen Z are faring less… well, fairly. They’re stuck on a hamster wheel of insecure work, saddled with student loans and crammed into share houses paying off Boomers’ mortgages. How did we get here and how do we fix it? Comedian and I, Millennial: One Snowflake’s Screed Against Boomers, Billionaires and Everything Else author Tom Ballard, and economist and Gen F’d?: How Young Australians Can Reclaim Their Uncertain Futures author Alison Pennington plot the path ahead with economist Richard Holden (From Free to Fair Markets: Liberalism after COVID-19) and host Jessica Irvine.
This event was presented by the Sydney Writers' Festival and supported by UNSW Sydney.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast – a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. The talk you are about to hear, Ok Boomer, features UNSW Sydney's economist Richard Holden, author Tom Ballard, economist and author Alison Pennington, and journalist Jessica Irvine and was recorded live at the 2023 Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Jessica Irvine: Hello, everyone, happy Saturday. Welcome to the Sydney Writers’ Festival for 2023, live and in the flesh, back on stage after hiding in our homes for a couple of years. And it's wonderful to be here. My name is Jess Irvine, and I'm delighted to welcome you here for our session titled, Ok Boomer. First, I'd like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of this land, and pay my respects to the elders past and present, and to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are here with us today.
So the subtitle of our session, Ok Boomer is sort of informally: why millennials and Gen Z are getting such a raw deal, and what can we do about it. And I've been writing about these sorts of issues of intergenerational inequality and that sort of thing for about two decades and I'm excited because I reckon this morning, we can figure it out. We're going to just figure it out.
And I did also want to acknowledge that you all had the choice this morning to go to the wonderful Maggie Beer session next door in the main auditorium and learn about how to make fluffy scones. And instead, you've chosen to spend your Saturday morning fretting about the future of humanity. We are all kindred spirits here. And I commend you on your choices. And thank you for joining us.
I have got a plan. As I say, I've got a bold three-part plan, which I'm confident will get us some actions at the end. First, we're going to sort of fact-check this idea of whether millennials and Gen Z are really getting the raw deal, or you know, did boomers have it hard too? Then we're going, so we're going to fact-check. We're going to figure out who's to blame and why, is it boomers or maybe not? And then we're going to, we're going to quickly figure out how to fix all the various problems that younger people are facing today. And we've got, it's a big task, but we have got the perfect panel among us. We can do it.
I will just introduce, we have, joining me here is Tom Ballard, comedian and author of the recent, I, Millennial: One Snowflake's Screed Against Boomers, Billionaires, and Everything Else, which meant I think all the titles of everyone's books kind of give you a fairly good indication of where you're sitting on the philosophical and political scale.
Tom Ballard: I'm neutral. I’m neutral.
Jessica Irvine: I did notice the front of your book, it has a quote from Andrew Bolt, is it a real quote?
Tom Ballard: Yes, that was a real quote. Andrew Bolt called me a ‘true barbarian’ and I love that so much. I whacked it on the front, just near a quote from Nazeem Hussain, talking about how hilarious my book is, because I know how much Andrew likes to be close to the Muslim community. I enjoy that a lot. That's worth the book, the price alone…
Jessica Irvine: Endorsed by Andrew Bolt... well, and next I have Alison Pennington. She is an economist and author of, Generation F’d – I'm not going to do the long form of that, Generation F’d? How Young Australians Can Reclaim Their Uncertain Futures. So welcome.
Alison Pennington: Thank you.
Jessica Irvine: And on the end, we have Richard Holden, who is a Professor of Economics at the University of New South Wales, and co-author of the recent, From Free to Fair Markets: Liberalism after COVID-19, so we've got a good mix of ideas and we can, I'm sure, span the divide between us and come up with the solutions. We do have a noticeable absence of boomers on the panel, however, although there are a few in the room, I can see.
So I'm just going to kick things off. Just to give everyone the context, I'll ask Tom, Alison, and Richard in turn to reveal yourself. I want to know what year you were born in, so what generation you belong to, your current homeownership status, and your self-assessed level of hatred towards baby boomers on a scale of zero to 10.
Alison Pennington: So what’s zero?
Jessica Irvine: Zero is like, “It's cool that you know they're well-meaning, it's not their fault.” Ten is, “Look, they really could have done something better with their time at the apex”, but you may interpret that as you will with Tom, age, generation, homeownership.
Tom Ballard: Sure. I'm 73. Yeah, it's all marketing plot. No, I was born in 1989. So I'm squarely in the millennial demographic if millennial is defined as those born between 1981 and 1986. I believe it's a bit of a demographic bulge for Australian millennials. Most Australian millennials are sort of in their early 30s so I'm kind of right smack bang in the middle there. My brother and I did buy a three-bedroom apartment off-the-plan in 2018.
Jessica Irvine: Oh, you’re a dirty homeowner.
Tom Ballard: I'm a dirty homeowner with a goddamn mortgage. We did that with a six-figure donation from the bank of Mum and Dad. And it's near a river, so by the time we pay it off, it'll probably be underwater. And I also do live there, so it's okay. But also we do have a tenant, so I am a live-in landlord, and I won't be taking any questions about that. It really undermines the bolshie vibe I am going for.
Jessica Irvine: But how much do you hate boomers?
Tom Ballard: It really depends on the boomer, Jess. My parents who gave me a lot of money – I love. I think they're fantastic, and they should live a long, long life. Andrew Bolt and Pauline Hanson, you’re looking at about 11 there. No, I mean, I hope over the course of this discussion, I think Alison and I might, in our books, we try to thread this needle, explain where we're coming from, making a few good-hearted, good-natured joke about the boomer generation, they love landline telephones and resin jewellery. And, those jokes are fun and annoy the right people and I will continue to do them. But hopefully, the analysis in the book and across this conversation sort of reveals something a little bit more. And I think we'd like to replace intergenerational warfare with something closer to class warfare. And so, yes, it's not the boomers fault. If I was in the same position, I would have done exactly the same thing. The problem is a system that's brought us to where we are.
Alison: So I'm born in 1989. So I'm still in the '80s. That makes me 34. And also, conveniently within the bracket of youth in the book I've written about myself. Homeownership, so I was one of those young people who, when the pandemic hit, felt this enormous need to grab for some level of security and I was in a position to do that myself. So I started an exciting, committed relationship over the pandemic with my bank, and I will be committed to that relationship. It's not an equal one, I must say. There's a level of dependence. So the bank owns my 63-square-meter box in the sky. But it was a big step, and I think that experience was also really empowering and should belong to every young person, everyone who wants one as well, I'd say.
And as for the level of hatred for boomers, it does depend on the boomer, I would say. Broadly, a generation that was born after the Second World War into prosperity and enormous growth, not without its fights. So I respect boomers for their fights, the social movements of the late '60s and '70s. They fought against a lot of terrible things like patriarchy. So, I respect them for that. But I think they're less aware that they've been pulled into this public bankrolled gravy train of asset accumulation and so have an obligation to stand up and fight with younger people who have been denied basic opportunities. But I would close by saying five, because I think a lot of boomers get that and they have been waiting for people to step up and start the convo with them as well.
Jessica Irvine: And a lot of them wake up on Saturday morning and go to Writers’ Festival panels too to discuss the problem.
Tom Ballard: Thank you for not being in an auction to outbid the millennials and making the choice to be here today. You're the good ones, guys.
Jessica Irvine: Richard.
Richard Holden: I was born in December 1974, so I think that makes me like Gen X. But I'm so out of touch that I don't even know what gen I am.
Tom Ballard: That's very gen X, by the way. ‘Like whatever’.
Richard Holden: So I remember at some point, kind of doing the arithmetic and thinking, “Oh, I just, I could have been in like one of the different ones but no”. And that would be cool. Yes, I own a home and in terms of hatred, I don't really hate anyone. Well, that's not true. I do hate a few people. But I certainly don't hate a whole generation of people. So I'd be very low on that scale. I'd be like a zero or a one but what I do think is true is that we have a political system that panders to older generations in terms of a lot of the tax breaks and public policy that's involved. And it does so, I think, at the expense of younger Australians and so, you know, I blame the politicians, basically, not the boomers.
Jessica Irvine: Yeah, yeah, I should myself say, born in 1981. So I'm about to turn 42 and I think I just squeeze it in as an elder millennial, so I'm not the Gen X. I'm still, cool and hip, in my mind. Anyway.
Tom Ballard: Jess, correct me before I said geriatric millennial, you know.
Jessica Irvine: I said ’elder’, elder millennial. I did buy my house three years ago by myself. So, oh no, we're all dirty homeowners but, you know, aware of the privileged position that that puts me in. And I think my criticisms of boomers are in my writing, I did come out quite strong out of the gates a couple of decades ago and point out that boomers were having a pretty good time of it. I think it has receded as I've aged.
Tom Ballard: If you’re talking about generations you are, by definition, making generalisations and you know, people might have seen my comedy routine about boomers, in which I express a lot of anger at the idea of them. What we're really reacting against is, I think, against the boomers that do not get it and a level of boomer mindset that refuses to accept any notion that they lucked out in the historical lottery, or recognise exactly how rigged the system is towards elderly people.
Alison Pennington: Yeah, those, I think what happens is, there's also been a profiling of a specific type of really wealthy boomer, right, which the media have done for a long time and held them up and fuelled this divisive intergenerational warfare. So the trope has been boomer, but it's actually ‘hashtag’ not all boomers’. It had to be said.
Jessica Irvine: Yeah, there is sort of a funny point of the debate where people are still trying to figure out through the facts that, is it actually true, that it is harder for young people, that our houses are really more expensive because, you know, “Back in the day, my interest rate was 17%”, and etcetera.’
So, first section of my three-part plan, let's fact check it. Is it actually true that millennials are getting a raw deal? And Tom, could you do a condensed version of your comedic routine up against boomers? And just sort of like, what are the biggest gripes and afflictions of your generation or our generations? I just scrape it in there and also, do you happen to remember what does this ‘ok boomer’ expression mean? Or where did that come from? So what are the chief gripes?
Tom Ballard: Chief gripes? Okay, well I might start with, ‘ok boomer’ if that's okay because it actually feeds in I think, this reaction against the mindset. And I did look into this in my book, ‘ok boomer,’ was a phrase that was kicking around the internet for quite a while, really popped into the main discourse in November of 2019. I think it was a particular TikTok that went viral that features a particular older man complaining about younger people, how self-entitled and so flaky they are and a TikTok-er was just repeatedly saying, ‘ok boomer,’ and it is the call, the cry of a generation who just gives up and saying, ‘I can't, I can't even, I can't even with this shit. Ok, boomer, whatever’.
And it was beautifully articulated by Chloe Swarbrick, who's a Greens MP in New Zealand, who during a parliamentary debate, she's like 23 years old and got elected and was interjected during the debate, and she responded – a debate about climate change – she was pointing out how the average age of the parliament was substantially older than her and that her generation was going to cop the worst brunt of the climate crisis and said, "Okay, boomer" in Parliament, which was fucking sick. That was delightful. I think, okay, maybe it can be abused. I have quite a few millennial friends who are teachers, and they've told me that their year eight students have been asked to do something and then their year eight students will say, "Okay, boomer." My friends will go, “I’m 33!”.
Also in November 2019, they’ve responded or created one of the greatest tweets of all time, which came from conservative talkback host. Oh, God, I forget his name now, but he's in America. And we saw this ‘ok boomer’ stuff going on and said that ‘boomer’ is the n-word of ageism. And it's just like, nah, it’s not though, is it mate? So that’s good times.
The major gripes, very quickly, a brief disclaimer, of course, we do not live in the worst of all worlds. There are lots of reasons to be thankful to be Australian, to be a millennial today. There are lots of things, as Alison was pointing to – social progress, technological advancement, although the internet may kill us all. But it's, you know, memes are fun. That can be grateful for: lower crime rates in our parents' generation, cheaper, easier travel. We do not live in the worst of all worlds. But the millennial rage comes not from living in the worst of all worlds, but rather seeing how much better things could be and comparing our experience to our parents' generation who were born into the post-war era in which there was rising living standards and decreasing inequality.
For me, the six big gripes that I divide my book into six chapters, millennials are getting particularly screwed on work, flat wages, work insecurity, the union movement is a shadow of its former self. Housing – I don't think I need to explain too much just how cooked it is. Home ownership rates of young people crashing. One of the craziest facts I came across since 1980, house prices, global house prices have increased by 60%. Australian house prices have increased by 560%. Pretty insane.
Education, of course, we had these 15 years in this country of sweet free tertiary education that boomers and gen Xers benefit from. Now we are saddled with student debt for the crime of wanting to learn stuff – a much more robust TAFE system as well which has also been left to be run down in the neoliberal era. Privatisation, I think across the board, so many institutions have been sold off. The idea of the government or public ownership of these massive parts of our country have been completely handed over to the private sector, in many cases, that's been an absolute disaster, particularly in human services, in energy. It's a real fucking headache, a real issue and we’re heading into a climate crisis and that also plays into this sense of commodification of absolutely everything in human life that surrounds us. Wealth inequality, inequality was trending down during the post-war era, since neoliberalism came along, it's shot up – top one percent In this country own more than the bottom 70% combined. And we also have these massive corporate entities, I would argue capitalism has this tendency to move towards monopoly and that dominates the world now. Another crazy fact, of the top 100 biggest economies in the world today, 70 of them are corporations, not countries. In 2018, the Commonwealth Government of Australia raised less revenue than Walmart, which I think is embarrassing.
And finally, everything's on fire, the climate crisis is coming to kill us all. We have no power, we don't know how to fix it. Apart from that, everything's going great.
Jessica Irvine: Everything's fine. Okay, a lovely summation. Would you add anything Alison in there, to the ways in which we are f’d as a generation?
Alison Pennington: I think, such a good summary, only could layer I guess, that young people were born into a very different Australia, everything that Tom has summarised compounds into an experience of less of an economy that is investing in new government, that's investing in new opportunities being presented with, in correspondence with hard work, but actually an economy that's parasitic, on contribution, it's parasitic on people's lives. That's what it means to privatise public assets, or to turn the world of work increasingly into this sort of insecure slave driving, you know, suppressed environment. So generally, it's a less, it’s not an Australia that many other generations can relate to, especially in the case of housing, because what defines Australia as a colony, since it began was resolving its problems by giving people land and the opportunity to get a home.
So if you think back to – I'm really into convict history so I have to bring it out – but one of the things that you would aspire to as a convict to be freed, was to be given a patch of land to start your life. And so that's really baked into I think, the Australian consciousness and then after ownership or accessibility of housing starts to decline into the depression, we had landlords who owned all properties, we had working-class peoples like, condensed as in renting arrangements, we had a health crisis, diseases proliferating from the rental crisis, really. And then we resolved that by the post-war boom of giving people homes again, so at every point, housing has been at the heart of what it means to be Australian, and now, that and what it is to aspire for.
And I think that that key sense of contribution, identity, it's all crumbling in the history of since the colony began for young people now. And that's where I think, without, I don't want to open up the solutions discussion. But I think that experience is really different and opens up opportunities for public and social housing.
I'd say that what we have now, is actually this parasitic economic form, is more close to a feudal type class relation, which is ironically, the thing that people who came here in chains were trying to fight when they when they left, you know, the British Empire. I think what the combination of this economic slack slam down is for young people is less choices. And contrary to the claim that like, technological expansion, new consumer markets, new glittery technologies mean that your lives are better. Yeah, you might be able to get an iPhone and pay it off over a period of time or like get a cheap meal but the basics of life in, you know, incomes and a roof over your head are harder than ever to get and what that does is takes away your choices.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right to housing as fundamental to the right to make choices about your life. So what we have is young people entering their adult years, having less and less choices, they’re crammed into share houses, they can't make choices about things like family formation, I really don't want to speak too long. But I do want to say one more thing. Loss of tools, the tools of being able to fight back. That's so key one, like Tom mentioned the decline of the union movement but we, young people live in a really unique time of very socially atomising conditions. It's not just the kind of unions but it's social movements. It's representative politics, they're further and further away from being able to see themselves represented in mainstream politics. And they've been fed these lies about the, they've got individual power, and if they consume the right things, and they'll feel better, and I think all of the, you know, all of those things are combining to create, like a really profound sense of disempowerment, which is worse than previous generations. I think that's something that isn't always acknowledged as well.
Jessica Irvine: Thanks, and Richard, I don't want to pre-empt us into our sort of philosophical political reveal that we're going to do when we reveal if we're left wing or right wing or centrist, but if we're talking there about sort of parasitic capitalism, and I will give the spoiler alert that suggests sort of a little bit more of a believer in the market powers and the forces of, you know, individual choice to work for good as well…
Tom Ballard: Get him!
Richard Holden: I can’t believe you just outed me in public.
Jessica Irvine: But also, we're going to have this wonderful moment where I think we do all agree. What is your reading of whether it is actually true that younger people are getting the rawer deal?
Richard Holden: I think they're getting a rawer deal in two main areas. And I think some of the things that Tom and Alison said, I understand where it's coming from, but I think maybe it's a bit of an exaggeration. I certainly wouldn't use terms like feudalism, although it's a pretty cool thing to compare it to. So, I think we have had for a long time a housing crisis in Australia, and that is having just incredibly serious social and economic repercussions. And I really agree with that, you know, politicians have done kind of everything wrong, when it comes to housing. Now, you can't get away from the fact that a place like Sydney is a great place to live, it's a globally relevant city. You know, there is going to be a lot of demand to live in one of the great cities in the world you can't do anything about that. What we can avoid is just throwing kerosene on the fire.
So, first homeowner grant sounds like a great idea, it turns out 100 cents on the dollar of that goes to people selling the home not buying the home, right? That's the empirical fact on that. Okay, we've had home first homeowner grants going back to like, in a sense back in the 1920s, but in serious way back to the early 1950s, right? Telling people that they should be able to raid their super, to fund it and that's just the same thing, right? That’s just taking money from young people's retirement savings, giving it to people who are selling the homes, I don't blame the people selling the homes, but I do blame the Government for not understanding what I would consider to be a core part of understanding first year economics at university. Right?
If a student on one of my exams proposed these demand-side subsidies, they would fail. But apparently, it's fine for them to be elected to federal parliament. That disappoints me. And negative gearing is the other big one, and you know, I've got dog in this fight, I wrote a report for The McKell Institute in the middle of 2015, talking about different options for how to phase out the cancer of negative gearing and that became Labor Party policy at two elections, which they promptly lost. I like to think that was for other reasons, than my negative gearing ideas, and I'm sticking to that story. But you know, that's just another one that needs to be dealt with. And I think the second thing is, is climate, you know, it's hard to deny, you know, we've known for a really long time, like 50 plus years, that we have a major environmental problem in the world that's not been addressed. And again, not to pre-empt the solution things – people had ideas for how to solve that a long time ago and address it a long time ago, and we've lacked the political will to do anything meaningful about that, you know, there's some sort of recent action from the Biden administration and from the current Australian government. But you know, young people have been completely ripped off as a result of that.
I just had one more quick thing. So Tom, not to pick a fight with Tom because he's way funnier.
Jessica Irvine: Do it. Do it!
Richard Holden: But I get the point about wealth inequality, but I think it's worth injecting one other fact into the debate, which is income inequality, at least as measured by the Gini coefficient which is this sort of measure of dispersion of incomes, so the sort of most commonly accepted measure. The Gini coefficient before taxes and transfers in Australia has not increased in 20 years, okay.
Jessica Irvine: For income?
Richard Holden: For incomes. And post-tax and transfer, you know, we have a pretty good tax and transfer system in Australia. It's actually gone down. So I get that wealth inequality, super important, I think that's not completely but very much wrapped up in the housing phenomena. If you look at what is contributing the most to wealth inequality, it's a lot to do with housing. So, I'm not saying it's not an issue, but I think it's also worth remembering some of the things that Australia does well.
And in terms of income inequality, of course, we've got income inequality, okay. Part of that's just a consequence of a market-based system. But relative to many other advanced economies, we do reasonably well on that and I think it's worth remembering some of the things that we do well.
Tom Ballard: Well, yes, but Richard, with respect, that’s an economist answer. Bigger picture, you've got a country in which thre million people living below the poverty line and in the past five years, we've doubled the number of billionaires. I mean, that is a cooked society. Bigger picture-wise now, now yes, Gini coefficient is interesting ways to measure these facts. But I think also if you look at the big picture of the way our society functions is looking at things like that. Do you think this is fucking insane? People are living in poverty lines, Labor Government just couldn't increase welfare payments, and yet we've got these tasty tax cuts coming down the line. I mean, this is a deeply unequal society rigged for the rich.
Yes, sure better than some other countries. Certainly, some of the most unequal countries in this world are the ones have been most thoroughly neo liberalised. But I think still, when you look at somebody living on the street, and you see Gina Rinehart, you go, “Hang on, this does not make sense.”
Jessica Irvine: Richard, it’s one of the things where, maybe the income, young people are still getting the income, but they're having to cobble it together from a number of sources, and the idea of a full-time salary job is disappearing. So it's sort of just a bit more stressful to have to eke out that income from, I think multiple sources of…
Alison Pennington: I think the sources of the income does matter. I think there's a real risk and Australia's tax discussion is almost always focused on income and income inequality. And we focus on the fact we do have this great progressive tax system which should be defended, but the bigger problem is actually taking a step back and looking at wealth inequality in relation to income inequality. So, something like half of our whole tax base now is from earned income from workers, people on the job playing income taxes, right?
We're at a point now where, a dollar that's earned through work is 10 times more likely to be taxed than a dollar earned through a capital gain. When we focus on one system, wealth or on income, we actually miss the relationship between them, which is while we're having a little fight out about, you know, who earns $200,000 and who earns this much and who pays like – that's an important one, because having more equality between us is important. Like, that is important. But the bigger picture is untaxed wealth from people sitting on their asses and doing nothing. It's the, ‘not a finger has been lifted’, and there are billions of dollars of concessions and earned incomes just flowing to unproductive activities, and activities that actually take away resources from young people like in the case of housing, and, of course, big corporations who are ratcheting up prices and causing an inflation crisis, making obscene profits and are taking us for a ride.
Jessica Irvine: And tax is something we’re going to get to in part three of my solutions. I have a plan for this because we're going to have a good ding-dong fight about inheritance taxes. But so in this section of my two-part plan, which is going out the window, but who is to blame? And my thought, being that you know, from having read the books as to who you think is to blame is very much dependent on your worldview.
And that’s quite clear, in your book, Tom. You identify yourself as a Democratic Socialist and Richard, Democratic Liberal or Liberal Democratic, and I just wanted to add a small ‘L’, liberal. I just wonder why we add democratic in there, is that because nobody likes to out themselves as a socialist or a liberal? And are we democratic because it’s like, the nice way to say, “Yes, I’m a socialist but I also believe in democracy”. Why do we?
Richard Holden: Well, in my case, that's the term that Ros and I used in our book is to say, “Let's talk about something new-ish that we call democratic liberalism”, and it's about making liberalism more democratic. And that's got to do with actually, things like elections and campaign finance and gerrymandering, that's more of an issue in the United States than it is here, of course.
Jessica Irvine: So you’re a unionist, Richard.
Richard Holden: No I’m not…
Jessica Irvine: I didn’t expect that.
Richard Holden: I’m not anti-union. I like unions.
Jessica Irvine: They’re not important in democracy.
Richard Holden: We can come to that. I think, as a sideline, I would say that the union movement in Australia has played an incredibly important role in a whole range of ways. But it's also a little bit the dog that caught the car, which is, so much of what unions have fought for has been enshrined as part of the administrative state through things like the Fair Work Commission, and we can have discussions about whether that's inadequate or they don't do a good job or they do the wrong thing. But again, you know, I think the success of the union movement straight has led to the establishment of institutions like that, whereas, you know, you're looking at places like the United States. It’s pretty obvious why people are joining unions and trying to unionise Starbucks and other workplaces because of the disgraceful pay and conditions that people get. I'm not saying people couldn't do better in Australia, but we do have the highest minimum wage in the world. So, we're doing something right on that count.
So yeah, in my case, democratic liberalism, it’s kind of a philosophy. I think democratic socialism, you know, is in part at least… I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, more or less said this out loud is you know, that your socialism is kind of got a bit of a bad rap, so you got to rebrand.
Tom Ballard: Well, I my experience is generally people say their democratic socialism to define themselves as opposed to a revolutionary socialist, which are people who are, perhaps more radically inclined, who are much more interested in approximating not a violent revolution, but a spontaneous revolution that really brings about the change. Yeah, some of them might consider me and maybe Alison as ‘reformist cucks’, who are too incrementalists, I should say yes, I'm a critic of socialism. That's the analysis that I come to at the end of the book. But I think anyone alive today in the West would have to look at the current material and political conditions and sort of say, “Look, the best that you can hope for the immediate term is something approaching social democracy”, which is really just a return to form. I mean, it is extraordinary that the Australian Greens are constantly painted as the most ridiculous radical, you know, silly party with all their wacky policies across the overwhelmingly conservative media, when in fact, the Green Party policy is very reminiscent of 1970s Labor and it is so close to the kind of agenda and the, and in many ways has a lot of parallels to social democratic countries in across Scandinavia.
Richard Holden: 1970s Labor didn't work out too well, though.
Tom Ballard: It had a good run for a couple of years. They got some shit through.
Jessica Irvine: So who is to blame? So Richard, you've already said, politicians, you know, I guess but is it the capitalists as well? Are they out to get us?
Richard Holden: Well, I don't know exactly what you mean by that. There are some…
Jessica Irvine: Well, unequal market power.
Richard Holden: It’s a little bit like the FiveThirtyEight podcast, good use of polling and bad use of polling sort of good capitalist, bad capitalist, right. So, my favourite podcast is called, Capitalisn’t, from my friend and former colleague, Luigi Zingales and began many years ago, and Bethany McLean is a fantastic financial journalist, is his co-host. And I think, you know, there are plenty of examples of egregious abuses of market power, destruction of the natural environment, capture of politicians. And I'm against all of that, right. Hardcore against all of that. I also think there are people who've created enormous amounts of social and economic value and have done very well out of that. And you know, so I don't think Bill Gates is a bad guy, and I don't begrudge him his billions. And I think there are people who fall into both of those kinds of good capitalist or bad capitalist camps.
Jessica Irvine: Yeah. Shall we move on to solutions? I propose that we do because you know, we have some different opinions there. Because I'm so interested, having read your book, Tom and then Richard and Alison, there's a lot of commonality about the problems that we think that we need to solve being the insecure work, the housing affordability, the climate situations. And Richard, I want to start with, let's just solve insecure work because Richard, I was very interested to read in your book about the idea of a green jobs – a jobs guarantee, because I thought, well, that doesn't sound very liberal and also, I've sort of come into contact with a lot of modern monetary theorists who say we should have jobs guarantees, but can you explain what you mean by a green jobs guarantee? And how that would work?
Richard Holden: Sure, let me just quickly preface. I was saying, “Yeah,” a lot of people said, “Really? He's for that, like what?” So, different Richard Holden and I'm certainly colossally anti MMT [modern monetary theory]. But let's avoid that if we can.
So, at the time we wrote the book, we didn't have 3.5 or 3.7% unemployment, and I don't think we're going to, you know, stay where we are. The backdrop was, and I think we're coming back to this, is an era where automation is going to wipe out a lot of jobs. And sure, this always happened before and the jobs have always reappeared, and you can go back to the printing press and many other, you know, the invention of the automated plough and all sorts of things and jobs have shown up. I think there's real reason to believe that this time might be different, if it's not fine.
But if it is different, and we ended up with kind of wiping out a lot of jobs, then I think that we should resort to something like a jobs guarantee. It wouldn't have necessarily meant to be people staying in that forever, they may transition into other things. The way we talk about designing it is making sure that it doesn't interfere too much with private sector employment, but that it is making sure that people have a good job and something to do. And not just a pay check, but everything else that goes with it. And you know, Joe Biden's fond of quoting his father about saying, “Joey, jobs about more than a pay check”, and you know, talks about dignity and a sense of community. And I think those things are important. And an obvious way to deploy people is at least in the first instance, help with cleaning up and bolstering our natural environment. So we took a book about a bunch of options about how that would, would work. And I think if we wind up in a situation, 10 years from now, where we're looking at, you know, high single digits, or double-digit unemployment rates, because of, you know, doesn't have to be the robo-apocalypse, but whether it's AI and various other forms of automation of jobs, then we'll need something like that.
Jessica Irvine: But not a sort of universal basic income type idea. It's actually giving people – there will be work, it's working. It's a government-mandated job.
Richard Holden: It's an opportunity. Yes, it is. But, you know, we talk a lot in the book about why UBI [universal basic income] is bad. I think that one version is the, you know, Joe Biden's dad quote, the other view is that, by any way you do the arithmetic, it is a bankruptcy level event for the country, right. So, there's just not enough high-income earners to be able to find $400 billion a year extra in income tax in Australia. And if you're talking about, even a $20,000 a year UBI in Australia, that's the kind of numbers you're talking about. And 20,000, to be honest, sounds pretty inadequate, as discussions about the minimum wage and job seeker make very clear. And so yeah, I don't think the UBI is the answer.
Jessica Irvine: And Alison, yeah, the future of work for young people, how do you think we could make it better?
Alison Pennington: So I am first of all, very reluctant to acknowledge this idea of like automation taking jobs, and therefore, that's the basis for a public sector jobs program. I think the reason why we need a public sector jobs program is to compete with private sector work – different to Richard, I think, like there's public sector role jobs should be setting the benchmark. And that's why, you know, everyone who's working in public sector jobs should join the union and fight for higher wages because it makes everyone's jobs better. But there was an iteration of this kind of youth jobs program under the former government, Abbott had this green army concept and I just want to make very clear that, yeah, we want public jobs and young people deserve the capacity to turn their education, their skills immediately into something that they can tangibly apply themselves to earn incomes, but they should have the right to come together, unite, demonstrate their value with others, collectively through collective action, and by showing the public that they deserve to be paid more.
There's a version of the public jobs solution to a crisis. And I like to use the example of nurses because nurses weren't nurses as we know them today when they first started, that was women's work. That was just a job because women need work, right. And they realise that they can easily do that they've got the skills naturally to do that. And then over time, they've become this professional force and fought to have higher value recognised in their work and I think if we think that socially useful work, for instance, regeneration, green work, whatever you want to call it, if we think that socially useful, it should be well-paid and should be a job that gives people careers and some kind of – not just a stopgap for a crisis – that's why I guess what I'm trying to say and more broadly, like, there's been a breakdown in the labour market for the entry-level jobs for young people to get in and start building up those skills. And I think a big part of the insecure work crisis for young people has been the collapse of, or the abandonment of state and federal public services from giving young people jobs.
A lot of boomers got their start, as you know, the lowest rank in the public service. The ABC used to have a specific stream of work for people who didn't have the highest levels of education and who were younger because they knew that having edgy working-class people, young people coming into the institution was going to produce better stuff in the end. And I think that's what we've lost in all our institutions is those pathways and which is about the loss of union power, but it's also about the way government approaches its job in the economy.
Jessica Irvine: Tom, do you reckon young people will ever join unions again? Can the unionism spirit be revived?
Tom Ballard: Well, you should, you should hope so. I mean, certainly when you learn the history of what unions have won for us, and things that we like today, and probably take for granted because the history has been lost, not through any fault of young people, but just by the nature of the attacks, the relentless attacks by capital and conservative governments, and indeed Labour governments over the years on union power. A lot of that is lost. I think it's something like four or five percent of workers under the age of 25 are members of a union — really, really dismal low numbers. That needs to be turned around, that could be turned around by a Labor Government that, you know, says it's on the side of workers. They could do things like legislate the right to strike. It could legalise solidarity strikes. It could get rid of this insane, you know, no disadvantage test where non-union members have to be treated exactly the same as union members, so they get free rides. So, there's no actual incentive to join your union, for example. I mean, you would think that a Labor Government would be much more invested in making workers actually more powerful, not just submitting nice things to the Fair Work Commission, but actually empowering workers directly. I would like to see that more across the board.
And yes, look, unions also need to prove their worth to young people and workers and make that case. I know that's really hard in the environment we do in which our right to strike is incredibly restrained and which is an attack on our human rights in this country. But yeah, they absolutely need to make that case and stay relevant.
Jessica Irvine: Yes, okay. So maybe we've got like a jobs guarantee, it might help some pathways via public institutions, maybe joining a union. Did we fix insecure work? Because let's do housing. Because I really feel I'm not going to get through the list because we've also... I also want to fix the environment. It’s on my list, and expensive education. But I really think housing, and maybe we could actually get a unity ticket happening on winding back tax concessions on housing for investors would be a good idea. Do we all agree?
Richard Holden: I thought we were going to end on that one. So we could have...
Jessica Irvine: Oh no, okay, I’ve brought us all together before I rip us all apart, because this idea of we need to tax, so, I think we've broached, you know, and the Labor Party tried to broach taxing investors. What about taxing the wealth that has been built up in the family home? And whether that sort of by, putting the capital gains tax on the family home or another sort of way of doing that, is introducing an inheritance tax when that wealth is transferred to the next generation? Tom, do you think we should have an inheritance tax? Should we go Joh Bjelke-Petersen on this problem?
Tom Ballard: Well, Joh Bjelke-Petersen got rid of inheritance tax. So he went the other way, we should definitely not do what he did. I mean, on a range of areas. I mean, it's pretty extraordinary, inheritance taxes were very common in this country for a very long time. Joh Bjelke-Petersen gets rid of them in Queensland, and then pretty soon in the following years, the rest of the states follows suit. At the time, they're affecting a tiny number of households of extraordinary wealth and raised a bunch of revenue and was a perfectly reasonable, very, as we said, very common tax. I think Australia is one of the few countries in the OECD, certainly that doesn't currently have an estate or inheritance tax. It's a way of addressing inequality. And you know, if you had to be taxed, you really want to do it when you die. It doesn't affect you at all. And overwhelmingly at the end of estate taxes, those who receive the inheritance, the children of those very wealthy people, are perfectly fine. They still do extremely well. Just some of that is gone back into making a better society. Obviously, there is a political element to this and it is very easy, unfortunately, to run a scare campaign on this idea of death taxes. That's a reality. But hey, if we're not fighting for things we believe in that are tough, then why the fuck are we in politics?
Jessica Irvine: Yeah. Richard, do you think the inheritance tax, if we did, would that actually help to stop people parking so much wealth in property? Do you think an inheritance tax? Because I already know the answer that you don’t.
Richard Holden: So, I'm against an inheritance tax. Okay, I hear tons of arguments, you know, and in one sense, it's completely reasonable. Firstly, it doesn't raise a lot of money, okay? And it never did. Secondly, and part of that is because people find ways of getting around it. So in the US where there isn't an estate tax, and I agree we shouldn't fall into this sort of stupid political game of calling it death taxes and stuff like that. Let's just call it what it is — inheritance tax or an estate tax. In the US where there is one, it doesn't generate a lot of revenue, and it is pretty easily evaded. And it's just not easy to shut down those sorts of loopholes in terms of finding ways to avoid paying it.
And the other two other things, one, it leads to people trying to consume a lot of that wealth during their lifetime on, or often, I think what we call frivolous or conspicuous consumption. And I don't think that's a great idea, either, encouraging billionaires to buy $500 million yachts and things like that. I don't think is a great outcome either. And the other thing is, it's... I mean, you know, this is an unpopular opinion, but it's double taxation. People already paid the taxes on this stuff. And if we're taxing them the right way, and there are loopholes that can be shut down and things like that. But if they paid their taxes, and they've earned it, and they've owned it legitimately, they should be able to pass it on.
Alison Pennington: But there's a clear contradiction in your argument. If you acknowledge that we've got, you know, tens of billions in tax concessions flowing into asset price inflation that makes people rich off the back of the public purse, then surely an inheritance tax is just the counterfactual to that.
Richard Holden: Firstly, you know, I'm against the tax concessions on things like negative gearing and stuff like that, right. So I want to get rid of those. I think it's very important that…
Alison Pennington: I see, in a perfect world...
Richard Holden: No, no, no, not in a perfect world. I think it's very important that we use the right tool for the task at hand, and saying, “Oh, you know, somehow, we can't really use that tool. So I'm going to come up with an imperfect one with a bunch of side effects”, I don't think is the right way to do it. And I'm more optimistic about the idea that we can wind back some of these tax concessions. I mean, you know, the Labor Party did take wiping out negative gearing on anything but new construction to two elections, and okay, they've been scarred by that. But we've already got back benches flying the kite on – it's not my preferred model – capping it at one investment property as if having one investment property is some sort of human right. I would phase out. My plan was to or my preferred thing, you go through many options, of which one was capping it at one investment property, but my preferred option was just to phase out negative gearing over time and only allowed it going forward for new construction. There are other tax concessions that I think should be on the block as well. And I think on that, maybe we agree a little bit that there's a lot of stuff that we can do better.
Tom Ballard: I think you're also underestimating just how much money people have, Richard. I mean, one fact I came across is that, according to Oxfam, one-third of billionaire wealth is from inheritance. Okay? I mean, there are some people who have so much money that the idea of being able to spend it all, get rid of it to avoid estate tax, and pass it down to their children, which would also leave them with nothing, in theory, is a little bit silly.
Alison Pennington: It's dead money.
Tom Ballard: It's dead money. Gina Rinehart did nothing. She was born into a family. We should get a little bit of that.
Richard Holden: Whenever we bring up, you know, Gina Rinehart or whatever, and these kinds of things, we shouldn't also forget about, you know, Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht, and we shouldn't, you know, forget about, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar. And sure, there are some examples of companies having people who are easy not to like, and that I don't particularly like, but they're also people who created an enormous amount of social and economic value, a lot of jobs.
Tom Ballard: And so they deserve billions and billions of dollars?
Richard Holden: That's the way you get that to happen is sometimes there's a consequence, and I'm just very uncomfortable with making a value judgment that says, you know, that's too much money when it's the product of the system. What I do, and what the book argues, is, and I think maybe we agree a little bit more on, is that we need to do a lot more in lifting up people at the bottom. And I'm focused less on inequality and more on making sure that people have dignity and opportunity.
And I think that means doing better in the education system, it means doing better in providing a range of core goods, it certainly means doing better in housing. But I'm much more focused on lifting up the people at the bottom than trying to grab some money from Melanie Perkins.
Tom Ballard: And this, to me, is the limits of liberalism, right? Liberalism doesn't have enough to say about our class society that is an inevitable consequence of capitalism, which produces people who own the means of production, who amass enormous amounts of wealth, and everybody else who has to sell their labour in order to work with that. And the political consequences of that, the wealth that is concentrated and found at the top, give those people outsized economic and political power that allows them to shape our society to their will. So it infects everything. It corrupts our democracy and affects our ability to change our society and perpetuates that same system. That's what the sort of death drive around capitalism that constantly produces this inequality that really affects our ability to change it or do anything about it.
Alison Pennington: Swooping in. I don't want this to be a pile on liberalism. But I think even in your argument, Richard, there's a contradiction where you've acknowledged that there's been some aberration from the norm, there's been this outsized wealth that's been able to be built through bad policy, bad politicians, right? We acknowledge that. But then there's no like corresponding acknowledgement of like, what's required to unpick that. So, you can be about individual hard work and all of the tenets of liberalism, right? But if wealth has been accumulated off the backs of other people's hard work, then how do we account for that? How do we find some kind of policy solutions for that issue?
And I think this strikes at the heart of the young people's problem because, yes, it's definitely the case that we will have to work together to change the structural dynamics of how this parasitic economy is working. But there is going to have to be some mild level of reckoning from older, wealthier people who are more likely to own businesses and therefore should be taxed better in that world. But equally, like there's a problem of, you know, ‘that house was bought for a couple hundred thousand dollars through coming into wealth’. And now, like, maybe through a portfolio of housing, we've got millions of dollars being captured by single-family units. And I know when you've created a world where what you're born into is determining your life chances, there has to be some sort of reckoning for liberalism because it wasn't individual hard work that got up to that point, right?
Richard Holden: Well, I question a little bit. And he keeps accusing me of contradictions and, you know, I don't like to be contradictory, and I don't think I am being. So, I sort of take issue with this idea that all this wealth was created off the backs of other people. I think there are instances where it was basically stolen from collective ownership of natural resources. And I think we've done, you know, a really, really crappy job of those sorts of things.
And I've railed against the PRRT [petroleum resource rent tax] for a decade or so. And the way that was designed – that was designed by the Hawke Government and some economists who enjoy a very high profile in this country. But you know, anyone who was well trained would have known at the time that they would never collect a cent. So that was crappily done. And I think in that instance, you know, it needs to be reformed. I don't think the answer is to then just go and say to Andrew Forrest, “Sorry, buddy, we're just taking it all back from you”. I think we need to own our choice about that. You know, the Google guys, I mean, they've created amazing jobs. There are a lot of people who've got fantastic jobs at Google who are not, I don't think they have been exploited. And so, some two founders made a lot of money out of that while creating, you know, fabulous products and providing people with really good jobs. I don't think that's exploiting…
Tom Ballard: And they’re not paying their taxes.
Alison Pennington: But this is also a straw man though because what you’re doing is saying, just by acknowledging supreme levels of wealth that's been gifted sometimes, but also through hard work, I understand as earnt that somehow, all of the innovation that happens in that economic activity, because you want to tax it, it must mean you don't like it, or you don't want it. Like the post-war period was an explosion in innovation, right? And all sorts of awesome stuff happened in that time with high taxes, and it wasn't seen as, 'well, you're not in favour of new technologies or new innovation or good jobs or anything like that'. It was, it's not taking it all from Twiggy Forrest or taking it all from Gina Rinehart. It's just taking a bit, and giving it to people who really need it.
Richard Holden: The innovation that happened in the post-war generation largely occurred in the United States where there has always been concessional taxes on capital. So I don't think you can sustain the argument that we can have, you know, super high tax rates and get all the innovation.
Jessica Irvine: I'm going to… I mean, I love it. Personally, I find this awkward, but also from an intellectual point of view. I think it's so interesting to watch the debate here, the debate playing out between you, but I'm doing a terrible job as a moderator because we did promise we would have some questions at the end, and I've got five minutes and 50 seconds left on the clock, and we have got some roving mics around. I have just made eye contact with this lady down the front here if we can come to you for a question and thank you. That was very interesting.
Alison Pennington: It wasn't awkward.
Jessica Irvine: Well, I'm conflict averse, which makes me a bad journalist.
Richard Holden: Just call it debate.
Jessica Irvine: Oh, yes. Hello.
Audience Member: I want to ask. You know, how we get the tax concessions on the investment properties. Why don't we change it and do that to the first homebuyers? They get the tax concessions on the mortgage and any improvements they do. Because in the UK, when I lived there, they did that. And so, it was cheaper to buy a house than rent a house. And I've actually written to the Greens Party about this, and I never heard anything back.
Jessica Irvine: Does that fit in with your plan, Richard, at all?
Richard Holden: I hear where you're coming from. What I worry about is that anything that is a kind of demand-side subsidy that fuels demand is going to drive prices up. And so, while it looks like it's going to help people, if it inflates prices, then it actually hurts them. So I think what my view about the property market is, we need to dramatically increase housing supply. And I know that can't be done overnight. That's why people have been talking about it for so long but it's never going to happen if we don't start doing that in a serious way. And we need to get rid of these demand-side subsidies like negative gearing, first homeowner grants, and concessional capital gains tax.
Alison Pennington: Australia used to have a strong network of public banks and the opportunity for people to get cheap finance outside of the big corporate banking system, which we have now. And I think that'll be a big fight, that'll be a change that's really needed to help young people buy houses if they want to, which, if we look at the time of the explosion of housing ownership in Australia, it was through government schemes that made financing cheaper and more concessional loans, and but also government, as Richard said, played a strong role in building houses. And so we need the marrying up of both of those things. Otherwise, we'll have an explosion in prices.
Jessica Irvine: Yeah, hope we do get to revisit the housing debate and the tax side of things. Not a lot of appetite, I think from the Labor Party at the moment. But there's a question down here.
Audience Member: Hi, thank you very much. It’s been really interesting. I wish we could have longer time listening to the debate. I just wanted to raise something that hasn't been talked about at all, which I think is quite important, that superannuation in terms of providing wealth to older people, where we got very large tax concessions that are not available anymore. I can take – I'm retired now – I can take 100, 200, whatever I want out of my super tax-free, but I see people who are earning very little money paying tax on it with families and young, whatever. So, nobody's addressed the superannuation area, can anybody like to comment?
Tom Ballard: Oh boy, well, in my privatisation chapter, actually it looks at superannuation. There is this left-wing critique that superannuation amounted to, as designed by Paul Keating, essentially a privatisation of the pension system. And our reliance on the stock market to provide returns to do something that we should do as a society, which is provide people with a dignified retirement.
In the way that Keating designed superannuation with individual accounts, again, a very neoliberal imagining of how super should work, individual accounts privately operated, as opposed to one big public fund like they have in Norway, for example, which is much more democratically accountable and actually getting much better returns with much lower fees, and is not plagued with a whole bunch of the issues that plague the Australian superannuation system.
Superannuation has played a massive role in wealth inequality between the generations. Again, as we move towards an asset economy, older people, the boomer generation who got into housing and superannuation at the right time, what do you know, a whole bunch of the housing wealth, and it's extraordinary wealth inequality between generations, tied up with super is certainly there.
Jessica Irvine: It's definitely also ripe for reform. We can have one more question, over there.
Tom Ballard: Yes, quick reform and fix it. Sorry, yeah, time.
Audience Member: Thanks, guys. My question is for Richard. Richard, how do you rationalise that some people get born into families where just purely because of the family wealth, they can have proper education, healthcare, and opportunities, while other people get born into families that have no wealth and have to declare bankruptcy when they need to remove their wisdom teeth?
Richard Holden: Well, I want to, and we're very clear in the book, I want to make sure that we have extremely high-quality healthcare and education for everybody. And one of the things again, might not sound very much like me, and I don't think it sounds very neoliberal, is we talk about having a kind of Cadillac tax on private schools to fund public schools being better.
Richard Holden: A bit like, it was brought in on healthcare in the United States under the Affordable Care Act. So, I think education and healthcare are part of what we call ‘core goods’. They're central to people having dignity and economic opportunity. And I think that they need to be funded better and a lot more.
Jessica Irvine: Yeah, Richard, your book is really a thoughtful contribution. And I reckon if everyone could read Richard's books, if you could read Alison's and Tom's, you will just get this wonderful view from across the field, sort of hands-on bringing us together here, different philosophies but actually a lot of commonality, you know, free markets – don't kick them to the curb entirely maybe is what Richard is saying. Have that strong social safety net with housing and education for everyone. There is actually a lot of commonalities in the books and in their intent, and I have really enjoyed, well, not so much the conflict, but I've enjoyed the airing of our intellectual differences and it’s definitely an important area. And I don't think, I think the boomers have come off fairly lightly off this. We've blamed politicians, we've blamed the system. It's not the individual.
Richard Holden: We're outnumbered.
Jessica Irvine: We could’ve gone much harder. But would you join me all in thanking our panellists today?
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and Sydney Writers’ Festival. For more information, visit centreforideas.com and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
'Ok Boomer' Panel
Tom Ballard is the fearlessly funny voice of a generation. Tom is one of Australia's favourite comic talents and has performed and won acclaim as a stand-up all around the world. Tom hosts a political interview podcast called Like I'm a Six Year Old and he is also the co-creator and co-host of green politics podcast Serious Danger alongside Emerald Moon. In 2022 Tom released his first book I, Millennial a self-styled "screed against Boomers, billionaires and everything else."
Richard Holden is a Professor of Economics at UNSW Sydney and President of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. He was formerly on the faculty at MIT and the University of Chicago, and earned a PhD from Harvard University. He has published numerous papers in top economics journals and is a regular columnist at The Australian Financial Review.
Alison Pennington is an economist, writer and commentator. She recently published Gen F'd? How Young Australians Can Reclaim their Uncertain Futures. Pennington investigates economic issues facing working people including the future of jobs, skills and the role of government. She is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in Politics, Philosophy and Economics with La Trobe University, and was the former Senior Economist at the Australia Institute.
Jessica Irvine is one of Australia's leading economics journalists. She is currently a senior writer at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers. She is the author of three books: Zombies, bananas and why there no economists in heaven: the economics of real life, The Bottom Line Diet and Money with Jess: Your ultimate guide to household budgeting. She has an honours degree in Economics (Social Sciences) and can be found regularly oversharing the intimate details of her financial life on Instagram @moneywithjess.