The Great Debate bypasses young Australians


Morrison’s response centred on the importance of young people being able to get a job, pointing to his government’s success at securing a historically low 4 per cent jobless rate.

But beyond that, there was little attempt to grapple with the historic challenges being faced by younger Australians (a group which, as a high-income, property-owning “elder Millennial”, I increasingly realise I need to exclude myself from).

Insecure work. Almost non-existent returns on savings. Skyrocketing house prices. Rental insecurity. Student debts.

Former Reserve Bank governor Ian Macfarlane didn’t mince his words last week when he considered the plight younger Australians face from unaffordable housing and a tax system that lightly taxes accumulated wealth but heavily taxes their income from labour, compared with most OECD countries.

“I’m surprised that it’s not a bigger issue,” Mr Macfarlane told an annual conference of the Actuaries Institute. “The people who hold all the wealth are the older people – we don’t really tax wealth. The people who depend on income are the young people who have no wealth and our tax system relies very largely on taxing income, so we have a problem going forward.

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“I’m surprised that the younger generation aren’t actually squealing louder.”

The Labor Party was, of course, squealing quite loudly about all this at the last election, pledging to bump up taxes on superannuation and investment property owners in return for bigger income tax cuts for low and middle-income earners.

This time around, Labor is in lockstep with the Coalition on income taxes, which has only offered an extension of temporary tax relief for lower and middle-income Australians.

As this largely policy-free campaign nears its inevitable crescendo, both parties have focused their pitches instead on securing cheaper drugs and new concession cards for seniors, along with extended relief for retirees.

This, despite the fact that households headed by a person aged 25 to 34 were the only age group in society to suffer a decline in their household income between 2009-10 and 2015-16, according to a 2018 stocktake of income inequality by the Productivity Commission. They were also the only age cohort in the history of the survey, dating back to 1988, to ever suffer such a decline.

Households aged 15 to 24 didn’t fare much better, experiencing the slowest rate of growth in income among all the different ages surveyed.

Meanwhile, the wealth of older Australians is soaring. Sure, some lucky younger Australians can expect to receive large inheritances. But those inheritances are increasingly concentrated.

“There is less wealth mobility than income mobility, and more ‘stickiness’ at the top and bottom of the wealth distribution,” the commission found.

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It’s not that the parties don’t have any policies relevant to an increasingly divided younger Australia. The Coalition offers a strong record on economic management through the COVID pandemic and a record number of apprenticeships. Labor offers policies to invest in TAFE, make childcare cheaper and provide extra protections for those in insecure work.

But bigger picture policy changes to really help to reset the social playing field in favour of younger Australians are missing. While our tax system remains light touch on the wealth stored in accumulated assets like super and property, younger Australians will end up shouldering a higher burden than otherwise on their dwindling incomes.

I do wonder if, rather than transmuting their sadness to anger – as we older generations so often do – younger Australians are simply sad about the apparent lack of genuine concern for their problems from today’s crop of political leaders.

So, go to bed, kids. Tomorrow is a new day, and it’ll be your turn soon enough. Stay kind, and resolve to do better.



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