Remembering armchair activism from the 1980s

Remembering armchair activism from the 1980s

When I went to university in 1979, there was plenty of noise. British students were boisterous.

We shouted and boycotted Barclays because it was the biggest high street bank in South Africa. We listened when the Anti-Apartheid Movement campaigned against Barclays because it helped finance the Cabora Bassa dam project in Mozambique.

Then, after James Callaghan’s minority Labour government lost a no-confidence motion by one vote forcing a general election that elected Margaret Thatcher, we had some local politics to get us lefties agitated. We crowed when the new conservative government introduced means-tested student loans. A few of my buddies estranged from wealthy families suddenly had to fund their education.

I remember that the first black-led government of Rhodesia in 90 years came to power after the power-sharing deal of Ian Smith in the soon to be independent Zimbabwe. I didn’t know that I would live in that beautiful country a few years later.

Alloporus at the University of Zimbabwe, 1987

The handsome young fellow at the start of his academic career, Zimbabwe, 1987

1979 saw the One-child policy introduced in China with significant political and population consequences.

Meanwhile, in the United States, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.

By 1979, protests to end the Vietnam war were over. But their residue left a slightly cantankerous youth still able to muster an occupation of the university administration building. I can’t remember why.

What I do remember was that protest was inherently political. 

It meant something to throw challenges and abuse at the politicians because these were the people who made decisions. Whether that was Margaret or PW Botha, the last prime minister of South Africa before the State President was given executive powers under the new post-apartheid constitution, politicians were the target.

What I didn’t feel was any danger. 

My generation railed for others because we had it lucky. The world was our oyster, and we were enjoying a fabulous education heavily subsidised by the state.

Not so much now.

It is much harder everywhere, with more obscure prospects and a clear risk of system collapse. Even the fundamentals of the social contract are crumbling.

School strike for climate placcard

Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash

Activism skipped a few generations before it landed in schools. 

Today, the teenagers have taken up the chants and populated the demonstrations because they are worried. And I don’t blame them.

They point to the risk of environmental collapse and ask for urgent action.

Only the groundswell of justice that pushed my generation onto the moral high ground is, at best, a trickle of support. The political elite has insulated themselves from the noise in the fantasy land of their parliaments and used the media to make blunders like Brexit into great victories.

They are all deaf, dumb, blind and crap at pinball.

Even when the best of the schoolkid activists addresses them, all they can say is “go back to school”.

“Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future.”

Greta Thunberg, Houses of Parliament, UK, April 2019.

Guardian columnist and writer Zoe Williams sums it up.

And then, in the matter-of-fact simplicity of youth.

We are sick of conference upon conference as if that alone is the solution.

Ella Simons, 15-year-old high school student from Melbourne, Member of the School Strike for Climate movement.

Each generation lives with noise. 

In hindsight, my late baby boomer peers had few moral dilemmas to chant about; the reality was far away in another land. We were unhappy with one in ten and danced with Rankin Roger as he implored Margaret to stand down, but these issues were never existential.

Today’s generation has its very future in the frame.

Do we always have to pay the rent

Do we always have to pay the rent

When I was growing up through the 1970s the only financial advice that stuck with me was the rule of thirds on what to do with income. It was to allocate one third on rent, one third to spending for everyday living, and a third saved.

Oh, how naive; how quaint.

Today rents in England account for half of the tenants’ take-home pay if you are lucky enough to live outside London. In the big smoke expect the proportion to be 75%. 

The rent just ate the savings.

And for today’s younger renters there is no bailout from inheritance despite the apparent wealth of the baby boomers. The typical inheritance age in the UK is somewhere around 60, and the median amount handed down is about £11,000.

Not surprisingly the youth are not happy.

The Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in the UK, was brave enough to publish numbers that suggest 80% of youngsters blame capitalism for the housing crisis, 75% believe the climate emergency is “specifically a capitalist problem” and 72% back sweeping nationalisation. 

Worst statistic of all for a right-wing think tank—67% of youngsters want to live under a socialist economic system.

It’s a similar story in the US. 

A Harvard University study in 2016 found that more than 50% of young people reject capitalism, while a 2018 Gallup poll found that 45% of young Americans saw capitalism favourably, down from 68% in 2010.

So much for the libertarian land of opportunity. 

And so much for the trickle-down.

The numbers for youngsters do not add up anymore. 

At the end of 2021 in Sydney, the average house was selling for $1.36 million and units for $837,000 with a typical Sydney house about $340,000 more expensive than it was at the end of 2020. 

Take a deep breath for this statistic—the rise in value in a year matches the full cost of a house just 25 years ago.

Image modified from photo by Maximillian Conacher on Unsplash

Who can afford the mortgage?

Borrow the money to purchase one of these $1.3 million houses to avoid paying rent and you will need $65,000 on the minimum 5% deposit and expect to pay back the bank $4,500 a month for 30 years.

Total repayments of 1.62 million at $54,000 per year in after-tax dollars. 

The average salary of an Australian in 2021 was around A$99,600 per year with a wide range starting around A$33,000 and a median salary of A$72,000.

Assuming an approximate tax burden of 25%, a single person on $72,000 could pay the mortgage but would have zero dollars left for any of the other bills life throws their way.

Clearly, this is not sustainable.

Rather than do what most of us baby boomers would do and lament the loss of the picket fence and the Sundays spent painting it white, how about a reboot.

What if ownership was not the only route to the long-term security of house and home?

What if we invented new social norms that not only promoted rents but removed the landlord. Let’s take rent-seeking out of the equation and have society build the housing stock at cost, then rent that stock to individuals in the community at rates that reflect recovery of those costs and perhaps a modest return linked to the bank rate.

You know, the sort of thing a sovereign wealth fund could handle.

Just thinking.

Why the baby boomers had it good

Why the baby boomers had it good

Photo by Esther Ann on Unsplash

I was born in 1961 as one of the last Baby Boomers, the demographic cohort that came about from a spurt of fertility following WW2. 

The world of the 1960s was very different to today. 

There were far fewer people for starters, technology had not reached everyone, there was no internet, no streaming, and a long-distance phone call cost over $1 a minute. There was also no Covid.

My grandma bathed her children in a tin tub in front of a coal fire. I always had access to instant hot water. 

My father bought his first car, a third hand Austin A40 the size of a peanut when he was in his 40’s. I am lucky enough to buy a new car with a turbocharged engine and big enough for five adults.

Image source: Morse Classics

Personal computers, mobile phones, the internet, global travel, gastronomic delights, and Netflix have arrived in the lifetime of the Baby Boomers. So many things have changed over the last 60 years that my infant self would never have imagined my future. 

I have experienced so much that I need to pinch myself to be sure it all happened.

Cmglee, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Alpha generation 

What of the babies born today, the Alpha generation? What will they experience in their lifetimes?

If the Boomers went from landlines to Facetime, maybe the Alphas can expect holograms, space travel for the masses, and bionic body parts. They could also have to pinch their virtual selves.

Only they will have more to do than the Boomers.

We know that their generation must solve many problems made from the successes of the previous generations. They will be faced with issues of food security, water security, wealth discrepancies, refugees, and any number of technology transitions, especially with energy. 

Oh yes, and Covid or its derivatives. 

They will also be impacted by changes to the climate.

Here are some of the numbers based on a warming scenario should we meet the Paris agreement targets and see a global average of 2.7℃ of extra heat

This is a lot of extra disasters.

The WHO describes heatwaves as the most dangerous of natural hazards. From 1998-2017, more than 166 000 people died due to heatwaves, including more than 70 000 who died during the 2003 heatwave in Europe.

The Alpha generation can expect over 600,000 heatwave related deaths every decade.

A golden age

The Boomers parents and grandparents did it tough too — nobody goes through a global war unscathed.

So I am lucky to be born a Boomer and forever grateful.

However, my generation has done a lousy job of preparing for the future. We have not curtailed population or consumption but promoted both. Nature has buckled under our excesses, and the natural resources we leave for the Alphas are either depleted or dangerous to use.

The Baby Boomers had it good because we were born at just the right time, the golden age of technology and wealth. We tapped the sun’s ancient energy for a cheap fix and a costly legacy.

It will take a lot to make a platinum age from what we will leave behind.


Feel free to browse the Alloporus back catalogue for more ideas and random thoughts.