Australians under 40 face an uncertain future and lower living standards than their parents or grandparents enjoyed. To bring us back from the brink, Australia needs to end the neoliberal consensus.
A worker at Zelda bakery in Melbourne, Australia. (Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images)
Review of Gen F’d?: How Young Australians Can Reclaim Their Uncertain Futures by Alison Pennington (Hardie Grant Books, 2023)
For many young Australians, the mythologized early adulthood rites of passage — renting ramshackle share houses or working minimum-wage casual jobs — now stretch over the foreseeable horizon. And the wages for those jobs have risen far more slowly than the rent charged for those houses. In short, people under forty have endured a historic decline in living standards — and this is the reality that political economist Alison Pennington seeks to understand in her new book, Gen F’d?: How Young Australians Can Reclaim Their Uncertain Futures.
In addition to providing a wealth of information about this decline of living standards and the ideology that inspired it, Pennington lays out some proposals for turning things around. Most of these sit at the progressive end of the social democratic spectrum, although she avoids clearly demarcating her political position.
It’s Not All in Your Head
The first chapter of Gen F’d explores the rise of insecure, casual employment and the decline in secure, permanent jobs. Pennington traces how reforms introduced in the 1980s aimed at making the Australian workforce flexible and competitive meant stagnant wage growth and the loss of many work entitlements. She also argues that many of “the worst trends for youth jobs and incomes set in” during and after the financial crisis of 2007–8, in opposition to analysts who hold that Australia emerged unscathed.
Similarly, the second chapter details how the goal of “a secure place to call home” became “a pipe dream for many young Australians.” In the early 1980s, over 60 percent of people aged twenty-five to thirty-four were owner-occupiers. That figure has now dropped to below 45 percent. For those in lower income groups, the drop is far steeper. As with declining wages and workplace rights, Pennington traces the origins of today’s housing crisis back to the 1970s and ’80s. The decline of government construction of public housing — along with weakening restrictions on lending and tax concessions for property investors — transformed housing into a “closed shop.”
While this analysis is increasingly common sense for writers on the left, Pennington’s analysis is bolstered by impressive detail and depth. Indeed, at times, wading through the thickets of data in Gen F’d can be heavy-going. But there are also many moments where the path opens up. Some of the most compelling sections are those in which Pennington discusses the psychological experience of living in a neoliberal economy. Your brain is “wired” to engage in “risk assessments to mitigate future threats to your ability to sustain yourself,” she writes, and as a result “insecure work is nothing short of systematized anxiety.”
Pennington also explores how the anxiety-inducing experience of insecure work is exacerbated and augmented by social media:
Young people’s lives run on vertigo-inducing contradictory timelines. The slowing cogs of economic opportunity delay or postpone key life stages, but at the same time young people are tethered to an increasingly fast-paced digital world. . . . Real life mimics the doom-scroll.
Connecting structural forces to mental anguish is likely to resonate with Pennington’s target audience. If there’s one thing that millennials and zoomers have an abundance of, it’s conceptual frameworks that claim to make sense of our minds. Anyone who’s been on a dating app in the last decade will have noticed the popularity of Myers-Briggs personality types: ISTJ, ISFJ, INFJ, etc. Similarly, amateur and professional therapists now turn to TikTok and Instagram to peddle advice. While many of these frameworks exacerbate the problem by focusing on the individual to the exclusion of society, Pennington’s analysis points out some of the material and structural origins of our distress. This, in turn, suggests solutions that go beyond creative new diagnoses or self-care routines.
At the same time, Pennington explains how the economic changes of the 1980s onward were accompanied by lifestyle changes that gave people a psychological buy-in. Thanks to cheap third-world labor, for example, consumer products became much more widely available. Similarly, the competitive service economy means that those “with disposable income can put their feet up on weekends and be served a cooked breakfast. This simple luxury of being served has made workers feel richer.”
This is related to what has often been called the “Millennial lifestyle subsidy,” exemplified by companies like Uber. By squeezing their employees — sorry, “partners” — and using venture capital debt to offset unprofitability, such companies have been able to offer cheap convenience to young people. Pennington’s implicit suggestion is that this has made young people more accepting of neoliberal reform than they otherwise would be. With rising inflation and interest rates, the “Millennial lifestyle subsidy” is reportedly now over. If so, Gen F’d is particularly timely.
Remixing Social Democracy
While the first two-thirds of the book are concerned with diagnosing the problem, in the last third, Pennington begins to offer advice for making things less f’d. On the level of strategy, she argues that change will require the Left to recognize that the internet cannot be the primary locus for political action. Instead, we must foster empowering real-world institutions that counter social isolation and a resignation to the current conditions of people’s lives. Although Pennington suggests that political parties or activist organizations may serve this role, she spends more time spruiking the value of unions.
Pennington also acknowledges that some unions haven’t adapted to the reconfigured economic landscape and criticizes those that retain “internal organizational structures that narrow members’ activity . . . and don’t actively facilitate their participation in designing campaigns.” However, she sees promising signs in the rise of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union and Hospo Voice, which have experimented with new forms of organizing youth-dominated sectors.
Pennington also makes a number of policy proposals. For example, she criticizes popular “anti-work” policies like a Universal Basic Income, describing them as “misguided and defeatist.” Instead, she thinks a strengthened labor movement should primarily focus on improving work. Our goals should include decreasing working hours, establishing cradle-to-grave education and training, and abolishing of Australia’s “archaic” junior wage system, under which a seventeen-year-old can be paid almost half of an adult wage.
Most of Pennington’s proposals are aimed at giving workers “a seat at the table,” and some readers may be disappointed that there is little discussion of expanding public ownership. Although the reasons for this aren’t explored in depth, she makes passing reference to the need for a more “ground-up approach” given the “damage to our public institutions and lack of trust in government institutions.” However, she does praise the public sector as a provider of high-quality jobs and mentions, also in passing, that there’s no reason that public ownership can’t be extended to any type of work that we deem important to a better society.
While her political proposals are inspired by postwar social democracy, Pennington says the Left shouldn’t seek to simply rebuild the achievements of that time. However, apart from the demand for a decreased working week, her proposals for unionized, secure jobs don’t go too far beyond what the :eft achieved in those years. In social security and housing, however, she makes a more decisive break from the postwar settlement.
Pennington’s welfare proposals start by criticizing the “wage earners welfare state” model, which prevailed through most of Australia’s social democratic era. As she argues, its rigid central premise that “there are enough good jobs out there” was patently false then and is even more so today. Instead, she argues that the labor movement and the Left must refuse to prioritize wage earners — as she writes, “the fight for dignified jobs is also the fight for livable incomes in the social security system.”
In housing, too, Pennington argues against trying to reproduce the postwar expansion of owner-occupation, which she recognizes as inherently conservatizing. Rather, she calls for a massive expansion of public and social housing, as well as the introduction of shared equity and cooperative housing schemes common in Nordic countries. Echoing her calls for a more “ground-up” style of workplace reform, she argues that the “highly bureaucratic, paternalistic” public housing system should be partly devolved into a network of smaller public housing community bodies, with residents involved in day-to-day operations.
Neoliberalism vs. the “Fair Go”
Throughout the book, Pennington clearly identifies “neoliberalism” as the villain of her narrative. Indeed, she spends a whole chapter detailing its history and the material and psychological effects it had on the world. However, she seems unwilling to identify her project with any specific political formation, be it social democracy or democratic socialism.
Instead, she presents her demands as a resuscitation of the “Fair Go,” a term that always appears capitalized. Given Pennington’s frequent references to “neoliberalism” and occasional comments about “social democracy” or the “welfare state,” this doesn’t seem to be a stylistic decision designed to avoid overburdening readers with political jargon.
As Pennington acknowledges, the concept of the “Fair Go” is quite nebulous and has been appropriated by people of all political persuasions. But if this is the case, wouldn’t it be better to plant a more decisive political flag? Presumably, Pennington — or her editors — are appealing to the broadest spectrum of progressively minded people, some of whom may be put off by terms that are historically loaded and often misunderstood. It may also be that she considers her proposals a jumping-off point for a political trajectory that she doesn’t want to circumscribe with particular labels.
At the same time, “Fair Go” and the various other Australianisms sprinkled throughout seem designed to tap into a supposed deep vein of national common sense. In fairness, it’s a common rhetorical strategy to depict your enemy’s ideas as unfamiliar and imposed, and your own as conventional wisdom. And it’s true, as Pennington points out, that Australia has some “world-leading traditions of people power,” such as the fight for an eight-hour day. However, it’s far from certain that this language will resonate with depoliticized Millennials and Zoomers. It also raises the question: If Pennington doesn’t want the Left to orient itself too rigidly toward past forms, is it effective to use language that seems so redolent of another era?
Neoliberalism Can Get F’d
At just over one hundred pages, Gen F’d is sometimes short on detail. However, the book is clearly intended to be a short and sharp manifesto. And judged by the conventions of the genre, it largely succeeds in distilling the breadth and depth of Pennington’s critique of neoliberalism into an accessible and condensed form.
For those of an older generation seeking to understand why some young people make mean jokes about Boomers on the internet, Gen F’d will help. And by the same token, if you’re a young person struggling with the reality that you’re worse off than your parents’ or grandparents’ generation, Gen F’d will vindicate your anger. And, more importantly, it’ll arm you with a clear-eyed analysis of how things got this bad in the first place.