1 The third Australian culture
From the bush to the burbs to the beach
The first 200 years of white settlement yielded two distinctive Australian cultures: the bush and the city. A third culture emerged in the latter decades of the 20th century and remains ascendant - the culture of the beach. These cultures have emerged from demographic imperatives.
At the turn of the 20th century there were 3.8 million people of various backgrounds on the Australian continent. About 2.3 million of these lived in inland and rural areas. The capital cities then contained barely 1.2 million collectively. The balance lived on the coast in port-based cities. By the turn of the 21st century, the number in the bush had increased to 3.3 million, while the number in the capital cities had skyrocketed to 12.5 million. The balance of 3.6 million lived in coastal towns and cities. This collection of around three million people linked by a common geography is more than sufficient to exert an influence over the culture of a nation with fewer than 20 million.
At the time of Federation, the bush ruled: the swagman, the squatter, corked hats and windmills defined the Australian nation. But during the 20th century, things changed. The total number living in the bush did not decline per se; rather the number living elsewhere increased at a faster rate. This led to the rise of a distinctive second Australian culture - the culture of the city, or more precisely, the culture of suburbia. Australians pressed outwards from the inner suburbs into the light and space and independence of their own quarter-acre block. And with this shift came a cultural orientation to the suburbs, and from there to the parodies - Edna Everage and Ted Bullpit. But in the latter part of the 20th century, Australians forged a new territory within their island continent - the beach. Facilitated by new values and concepts such as leisure, entertainment, lifestyle and retirement and aided by new social and financial arrangements such as superannuation, Australians began clustering in large numbers along the coast and in most parts of the well-watered edges of the continent: along the eastern seaboard, across the Fleurieu Peninsula, and along the length of the south-west cape of Western Australia. Here is the demographic imperative of the third Australian culture. It has been ascendant for decades. It now has critical mass. This non-metropolitan piece of Australian geography contained 3.6 million people out of a total of 19.4 million at June 2001, up from less than 300,000 one century before (see Figure 1). This third Australian culture will remain a powerful force for decades to come, especially during the early years of the 21st century as baby boomers greet retirement from 2006 and seek out their own version of ’suburbia by the sea’.
2 The tyranny of distance is dead
Long live empty-island syndrome
The current generation of Australians do not consider themselves to be the victims of ‘the tyranny of distance’, as previous generations have. Developments in communication and travel technologies have brought Australia closer to the Northern Hemisphere centres of business and culture. And with more generations between the First Fleet and present-day Australians, there are now fewer emotional links with England. It was a tyranny of distance that underpinned the consciousness of early settlers, and this led quite naturally to a colonial deference and even to a cultural cringe. The thinking was, that because we are so far away from Western Europe (and North America), we defer to those cultures as being at the leading edge of pretty much everything - apart from sport. But by the late 20th century the tyranny of distance receded - and so too did any thought of cultural cringe. Sir Robert Menzies’ ode to Queen Elizabeth II - "I did but see her passing by" - would not be countenanced by the majority of Australians today.
But where the tyranny of distance receded, another uniquely Australian characteristic seems to have advanced: empty-island syndrome. This is the thinking that we are a small nation in charge of a big empty continent, and that this makes us lucky but also somewhat vulnerable. Empty-island thinking prevails in some form or another beneath the surface bravado of most Australians. And just as the natural counterpart to the tyranny of distance was the rise of a cultural cringe, so the natural counterpart to empty-island thinking is a national interest (obsession in some parts) with population levels, rates of growth and patterns of settlement across the Australian continent. Empty-island thinking lurks just below the surface of Australians living in the Top End; in Dubbo it’ s a grassy knoll in the centre of town. More importantly, empty-island thinking is likely to prevail in the Australian consciousness for at least the next century. After all, regardless of the levels of immigration during the 21st century, the Australian continent will remain a vast and sparsely populated island for decades, if not centuries, to come. To be an Australian is to be aware of the scale of this continent as well as that of our modest population base.
Empty-island syndrome: the thinking that we are a small nation in charge of a big empty continent, and that this makes us lucky but also somewhat vulnerable.
3 Suburbia - Australians say yes
To the barbie and brick veneer
Let there be no mistake about the fact that this nation singularly and relentlessly pursued the quintessential suburban lifestyle in every major city during the second half of the 20th century.
In the last decades of the century, the leading suburban growth areas were Sydney’s Campbelltown, Melbourne’s Casey, Brisbane’s Logan, Adelaide’s Playford and Perth’s Joondalup. Even Newcastle pushed south around Lake Macquarie, and Wollongong spilled beyond Lake Illawarra into Shellharbour. This suburban focus presented the nation with a stereotypical suburbia. Barry Humphries parodied it, and then the world envied it in the television soap opera Neighbours, set in Melbourne’s unlikely suburb of Vermont. Australians at this time preferred the space, the openness, the very ‘newness’ of suburbia. Many still do, and will continue to do so over the early decades of the 21st century. Put simply, most Australians like low-density urban living, and they have the space and geographical resources to pursue this lifestyle. As soon as a new piece of transport infrastructure is developed or expanded to cater for the growing population of the outer suburbs, low-density suburbia continues to spill further outward. And despite recent emphasis on downtown living, this area attracts no more than 10 per cent of annual metropolitan growth in our capital cities. Australians still prefer the quarter-acre block, the carport and the barbecue area.
4 Once more unto the beach
This generation of Australians has gravitated towards the beach like no previous generation. In the last half of the 20th century, this shift created new towns up north that quickly usurped old towns down south. The Gold Coast has been the premier single destination for Australians on the move for more than 25 years. The Gold Coast did not exist per se in 1945. Yet by June 2000 it contained 404,000 permanent residents; by June 2002 this number is likely to reach 433,000. Other new beach cities include the Sunshine Coast, Hervey Bay, Ballina, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie and Byron Bay. Indeed, virtually any point at which a large river flowing east of the Great Diving Range meets the Pacific Ocean has been a focus of quite extraordinary population growth over the past two decades. But as late as the mid-1970s this fundamental shift of the Australian nation was not understood.
In 1974 two academic demographers produced a forecast of Australian city populations for the year 2000. This outlook considered all capital cities as well as Newcastle, Wollongong and Geelong. The Gold Coast did not even rate consideration, and yet it is this city that has developed like no other over the past 25 years. The reason why the Gold Coast slipped through the net of the demographer’s study of future cities was the fact that the thing that most drives Australians to a particular location is the values that are held by the community. And of course, in the later decades of the 20th century, Australian values changed to embrace the beach as a lifestyle. Indeed most Australians, regardless of where they live, understand what is meant by the concept of ‘the Gold Coast lifestyle’, and yet neither this concept nor the city existed at the mid-point of the 20th century. And unless there is a fundamental shift in Australian values - for instance, ‘we don’t like the beach anymore’ - then the Gold Coast, and other cities like it, will continue to attract Australians at a greater rate than inland cities. (Indeed, so strong an influence is the beach on current popular culture in Australia that there must be a burgeoning market for parody of this lifestyle.) It’s almost as if the Australian nation is establishing a new colony along the edges of the continent. Just as both Melbourne and Sydney were viewed in some London quarters during the 19th century as ‘provincial’, the same relationship now applies between these cities and the new colony’s flash focal point, the Gold Coast. I say give the Gold Coast and its Coasters a break; too many Australians have made relocation decisions in favour of the Coast for too long for this shift to be trivialised. Viva C?te-d’Or.
5 Downtown turnaround
Suburban dream forgotten
What on earth happened in this nation in the mid-1990s? Many of the old rules about what Australians wanted and where they wanted to be, changed - in an instant.
Over the past nine years the number of people moving to the inner suburbs of all major cities increased. This reversed an earlier trend that lasted for more than a century in Sydney and Melbourne where population levels dropped in the city’s core, and transferred to the city’s edge - giving rise to the term ‘donut city’. Sydney led the way, with population increases in South Sydney as early as 1993, but within three years this new trend had spread to Melbourne’s Southbank and Beacon Cove, Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley and New Farm, Adelaide’s East End (Markets), and to Perth’s East Perth. With this geographic shift came a cultural change: suddenly it was chic to be downtown amid caf?s and restaurants and immersed in a complete culture of ‘apartmentia’. For many, it is brunch and a pied-?-terre rather than a barbie and brick veneer. And we have even elevated television series that parade this lifestyle to top spot in the ratings, such as Friends, Seinfeld and the racier Sex and the City. Inner city living will never quite do it for the average Australian the way nature strips do.
But this downtown trend cannot continue for as long as did the singular push to the burbs, otherwise our cities would eventually look like Manhattan Island. And mainstream Australia will never adopt the Manhattan lifestyle. It’s fine for a component of the community, but it is not as pivotal to grassroots Australian values as is the quest for space, for independence, for privacy and for low-density living. Some downtown development is required by a segment of the community. But inner-city living will never quite do it for the average Australian the way nature strips do. The currently prevailing push into the inner-city and inner suburbs represents, I think, about a 20-year catch-up period, or paradigm, during which developers and the market are compensating for the earlier absence of this type of residential option in metropolitan Australia.
6 The bush bleeds
The sponge lives
Previous generations of Australians set about exploring, taming and settling the harsh interior of this continent. The Wheatbelt blossomed as denser settlement demanded new towns and services in Victoria’s Wimmera, in the Midlands of Western Australia, and in the northern reaches of South Australia. Rural Australia also benefited from soldier settlement programs that populated the bush in the early 20th century. But from the 1970s, things started to change in the bush. Global pressure for economies of scale forced farm amalgamations, resulting in population loss. Small and remote towns especially started to lose services and people, whereas others appeared to actually soak up the population of the surrounding bush. This ’sponge city’ effect is present in Dubbo and Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, and to some extent in Horsham in Victoria as well as in Narrogin in Western Australia.
In June 1976 there were 57 local government areas in rural Australia that jointly contained 173,159 people. By June 2000 this number dropped by 31 per cent to 120,004, representing an average loss of 1.5 per cent per year. This is the sharp edge of the flight from the bush. Leading the exodus are five communities in the Western Australian Wheatbelt: Perenjori, Nungarin, Westonia, Koorda and Mt Marshall, where the net loss between 1976 and 2000 ranged between 37 per cent and 49 per cent. Other rural areas of significant loss include West Coast Tasmania (down 47 per cent), the Riverina’s Windouran (down 39 per cent), Victoria’s Buloke (down 37 per cent), Queensland’s Isisford (down 39 per cent) and South Australia’s Peterborough (down 35 per cent). And it’s not as if things have improved over recent years. The South Australian Wheatbelt district of Peterborough, located 250 km north of Adelaide, recorded a 3.6 per cent drop in population in the 12 months to June 2000. The erosion of the population base across the Australian Wheatbelt continues unabated and indeed has accelerated in places like Peterborough.
7 Boom baby boom
Get in the groove now
At 30 June 1961, some 15 years after the first of their generation was born, there were three million baby boomers in Australia. From that point onwards you would have expected this number to dwindle. Not so. The baby boomer generation continued to expand each and every year as a result of immigration. At last count in June 2000, there were 4.04 million people in Australia born between 1 July 1946 and 30 June 1961 who can call themselves baby boomers. This market segment is now close to its numerical peak, and also at the peak of its earning power, which (statistically) is reached at the age of 49 years. But from here on in it’s all down hill for the boomers. The number imported will no longer be sufficient to offset the number that . . . well . . . die, frankly. And by the middle of the current century, and especially by 2066, the baby boomer generation will have officially left both Australia and the planet. This imminent culling of the number of baby boomers will coincide with a fundamental shift in Australian culture.
Middle-age values are already dominant due to the numerical strength of the 40-something age group - at least relative to the number of 40-somethings in the preceding generation. Boomers are handling middle age quite differently to their predecessors, let alone their parents. Baby boomers will not retire. Retirement is for old people. Boomers will never grow old; their parents grew old. Baby boomers will downshift. They will ’step back’. They will seek and secure new working and living arrangements. They will repartner. They will rethink their lives. They will invent a new, trendy term to describe this process, such as ’sea change’, which will itself seachange from a noun to a verb. They will rediscover religion - or at least spirituality - as it suddenly dawns on them that they will eventually die. And while in the process of ageing they will cling on to the last vestiges of youth. They will kid themselves that "40 is the new 30", as one female media personality declared when she turned 40 in 1999. They will make it fashionable - even trendy - to be 50 when they turn 50 (around 2006 for the majority). But ultimately, time will catch up with the ‘me generation’; the wheel will turn. And it may well turn nasty as the younger and resentful Xers and Dotcoms and generation Zs reject boomers’ bullying and lobbying for a greater share of the national budget to be directed toward health - and effectively away from education. As youth disappears from Australia - as most surely it will - and after we refocus on middle age, there will be a backlash. Youth (and beauty) will then be upheld to an even greater degree than they are today, for the very reason that our attention was pulled towards middle age in the first place. Lots of middle-age people make middle age legitimate, acceptable - even fashionable. But this shift then has the effect of making youth rare and therefore even more valued and prized. Eventually youth will be viewed as the most precious element of our community. And of course this backlash, probably in the 2020s, will be much to the chagrin of the ageing, fading, spreading, languishing baby boomers - by then busily making peace with their maker.