As an update in The Australian stated today, ‘you’d have to be living under a rock’ to have missed the uproar that an article in its Weekend Magazine has created this week. Bernard Salt, demographer and social commentator, has made the startling (to some) link between a struggle for people in their twenties and thirties to break into the housing market, and the consumption of avocados. And many people have become worked up about this. But instead, I thought I’d look into the issue further (and supplement my exploration with some evidence – because I’m a bit crazy like that). Is the avocado, formerly scorned as a source of weight gain, now responsible for the devastation of the Australian Dream for an entire generation? Or should this article be taken with a grain of salt? These are the things I wish I could ask Bernard Salt….
It’s been a little while since I read your articles but this weekend, I was fortunate to read two in a row. I KNOW – I am so fortunate! I learnt a lot, including your fascination with ‘hipsters’, your views on the opportunities that exist in the western suburbs (where ‘hipsters’ have now been found – you have on good authority) and, of course, the conclusions you’ve reached (or, maybe not you, exactly, but people ‘LIKE’ you, who moralise) about why ‘young people these days’ can’t afford to break into the housing market (which seems a little inconsistent with your views on the western suburbs, but let’s put that to one side for the moment).
I’m more interested in the insight you provided to us about housing affordability, in your Weekend Australian article ‘Moralisers, we need you’. It’s received a fair bit of attention, hasn’t it? (which no doubt made you and The Australian very happy – no such thing as bad news, hey?)
Most specifically, I’m interested in your views of why you (and again, if not ‘you’, then people ‘LIKE’ you) have concluded that ‘young people’ can’t manage to get their act together and purchase a home. It’s something I’m interested in too. And I saw you were speaking to me – an over 40 year old home owner, who has a tendency to moralise at times. Oh, how exciting! A new society I could join! So I read your article (of course, I read it on line before it was pay-walled – but I knew you’d support my money saving measures because people of our generation aren’t reckless with our money, are we?) And I have to admit, I was taken aback.
Like you (and, yes, people like you), I too share a moralistic view on housing. I think that, in a country like Australia, with the wealth that exists, all people should have access to reasonably affordable housing which also provides them with reasonable access to jobs and services. Because, as we both know, one of the strongest components of enabling people to feel at home, to connect and contribute to society (including economically), is to have secure housing. But a lot of people don’t currently have this at the moment, do they? In fact, inequality is becoming more and more prevalent in Australia, and a key factor contributing to inequality and insecurity is lack of access to home ownership. And – while not everyone wants to own a home, for those who do, or seek access to secure rental accommodation that they can sustain, not being able to find this is really debilitating.
Housing affordability is a topic I’d planned to write about, so I am going to bounce off your piece. I’m really grateful you wrote when you did, because I would have written this very differently. For one thing, I would have got my facts all WRONG!!! You see, all this time, I’d thought that the problems with housing affordability for ‘young people’ – you know, people younger than us – had to do with factors like:
- Changing employment – the fact that so many jobs have become part time, casualised, or have remained on low or static levels (source:)
- Housing prices – which have increased well beyond wages growth. Well beyond any price rises we had to contend with – yes, it’s changed in a generation. (source🙂
- The employment structure of many Australian cities – with jobs increasingly focused on central and inner city locations. That’s happened for a range of reasons, as we’ve moved away from manufacturing and towards a service and knowledge based economy, and is influenced a lot by the need for agglomeration in these businesses. I know you know this by maybe others don’t (Source:)Anyway, the point is that consolidating job opportunities within an increasingly smaller area makes the location of housing that a) doesn’t cost a huge amount in rent or to buy or b) mean an unmanageable commute (which can also be costly, as well as time consuming) more challenging – and it’s become worse over the past twenty years.
- Purchasing power – the increased focus on property as secure investment and the tax incentives which accompany them, and therefore competition for first home owners by people or companies holding multiple properties, is impacting the structure of our society.
But no. It seems I might have been wrong. Because you’d pointed to a factor I hadn’t even considered. Namely, the role of ‘avocados’ in preventing people from accessing the housing market.
The problem with avocados
I thought we’d moved on from the days when avocados were seen as bad.
But I was mistaken.
As you quite rightly noted, when you were in yet another of those ‘hipster’ places (a cafe this time), bemoaning how uncomfortable the milk crate seats are for us oldies (at least, those of us over 50 – they’re fine for me, by the way), and how unfriendly they with their loud music and their bad lighting, you pinpointed the key issue:
“I have seen young people order smashed avocado with crumbled feta on five-grain toasted bread at $22 a pop and more,” you wrote.
“I can afford to eat this for lunch because I am middle-aged and have raised my family. But how can young people afford to eat like this?
“Twenty-two dollars several times a week could go towards a deposit on a house.”
Nailed it. There it is. The great avocado scandal. Clearly the reason young people cannot buy a house today.
So I vote we encourage the young people to stop eating at these establishments (of course, this will mean many of them will go out of business, leaving many of the employees out of work – have you noticed that most of them are staffed by young hipsters? Of course – that wouldn’t have escaped your notice), and go back to the way we used to eat.
After all, we never had this problem with Eggs Benedict for brunch in the 1990s, now, did we?
Right of response
I was pleased to see, today, that you intend to respond to the backlash you received in your column in this weekend’s Weekend Australian Magazine. And that you are ‘pleased to have inspired such debate, and hopes action can come out of it to spark better affordability in the housing market for young people’.
As you say, somewhat optimistically perhaps, “Australia works better when everyone believes they have the opportunity to buy a house if they want to.”
I’m hoping you will answer this question, as part of your response:
- Why are so many of the homeless in Melbourne and other cities aged 55 and over?
- Why are so many older people, especially single women, vulnerable to housing loss due to lack of home ownership?
Have they, like the young people, been eating too many smashed avocados? Or do we need to find another reason – for instance, that ‘people were discouraged from saving for retirement by unaffordable house prices, which only meant they were more vulnerable to adversity such as sudden redundancy or the end of a relationship‘, as the author of the above report states.
Could there be more to lack of access to home ownership than too many smashed avocado brunches? Could it possibly be more complex than Mr Salt portrays?
And should social commentators, with a background and credibility based on years of evidence based research, be less flippant and dismissive about issues which cause so many people so much stress? Where does their responsibility lie?