Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Myth of the mobile Australian

I first became aware of the myth of the mobile Australian back in 1980. Then, like most Australians, I accepted the view that Australians and especially young Australians were happy to move for work or adventure. After all, I worked in Canberra where everybody came from somewhere else!

There was a mining boom at the time, with problems in getting people to move to take jobs. Someone pointed to data suggesting that job mobility in Australia had declined quite sharply. I was surprised and asked why. The primary reason given was the rise of the two income household. 

Track forward.

A few years ago friends visited Australia from the US: Sally is US, Dave Australian. We were talking about universities and university choices.

In choosing universities, our daughters had opted for the local: any hope that I might have had that one or other might continue the UNE tradition was long gone;  even Canberra and the ANU were too far away from Sydney to be considered. Sally compared the Australian position to the US where it was normal to move to get the university of your choice. 

This local Australian stickiness was not in fact new.

During the very rapid growth in the Canberra based Commonwealth Public Service in the 1960s, the Service struggled to recruit graduates from Sydney or Melbourne: there were sufficient local job opportunities, so people stayed at home. I found exactly the same thing when I was involved in graduate recruitment a decade later.  Our recruits came from universities where local job opportunities were less. That's one of the reasons why, for example, the Armidale based University of New England came to have such a disproportionate share of senior people in Government relative to its size. There were no jobs in Armidale.

Australia has always been an urbanised country. Arguably, we were the world's first such country outside the city states. However, the current population dominance of the metro centres is both old and new.

Population was relatively centralised in the first period of European settlement. However, the population then spread with pastoral and later mining and agricultural expansion. In NSW, for example, Sydney's share of the state population fell to around a third. The growth in the capital cities relative to other parts of the country from the 1880s attracted attention because it was seen as unusual. The rise of the capital cities is one constant theme in the early official Australian year books.

The Australian population was clearly very mobile in the earlier periods of European settlement. People moved for work and in search of wealth. By the 1880s, the population was becoming less mobile with the rise of urban centres - the rise of the town is one theme in the history of colonial Australia. From then, mobility was primarily one way, to the capital cities.

Today the Governor-General Quentin Bryce and former cricket champion Glenn McGrath are combining to launch the Australian Year of the Farmer. Had you heard of it? I hadn't.

Population mobility in the nineteenth century and then the drift to the cities in the first part of the twentieth century meant that there were close family interconnections between country and city. Australia may have been urbanised, but people still had connections with the country.

These connections have attenuated with time. A survey released in conjunction with the Australian Year of the Farmer found that 22 per cent of city dwellers never visited a rural area, 69 per cent did so only once a year. The Year of the Farmer aims to reintroduce Australians to the country. The need for such a program would have seemed incomprehensible even fifty years ago.

As with so many things, mobility is not clear cut. We clearly have a mobility issue within Australia as evidenced simply by the rise of FIFO, the fly in, fly out worker. The rise and fall of the mining towns that once were a feature of Australian life have been replaced by an urbanised workforce that simply visits. Now politicians worry about ways to get people to move.

There are some complicated issues here that extend well beyond the simple question of mobility. For example, the shortage of experienced engineers in Australia means that mining developments bring in overseas engineers. In writing specifications, those engineers use terms and specs that they are familiar with; this favours overseas product. Arguably, we are getting neither the local benefits from development nor some of the down stream benefits that we once expected.

While some areas struggle to get workers, while overall mobility is down, the Australian population still moves. However, the pattern of mobility is different.

One element is the increased importance of life style considerations.

The flight to the sea that saw large increases in population in certain parts of the coastal strip was driven by life style considerations rather than jobs. Indeed, the jobs weren't there when the population started moving and those jobs that have come have been lower level service jobs. The end result in places has been social dislocation.

A second element in the changing pattern of mobility has been the changing patterns of migration to this country. The new settlers are mobile, but in different ways.

During the first period of mass migration after the Second World War, the new settlers actually spread quite widely, if with concentrations in particular areas. The Greek families that came to Armidale, for example, formed links with each other. Their children and grandchildren left to pursue new opportunities, but links remained. The Greek families may no longer live in Armidale, but they still hold regular gatherings.

I have the strong impression that this type of cross-geographic linking within Australia no longer occurs. I know Sydney best. The Chinese and Indian young, for example, are mobile but between Sydney and their home countries or, sometimes, other parts of Asia. They are much less likely to move within Australia. This reflects changing economic conditions, as well as cultural factors.

I first became really aware of the locational impacts of culture a few years ago when looking at problems associated with attracting professionals to regional NSW. The Asian emphasis on education meant that many professional courses, those with the highest entry scores, were increasingly dominated by Asian students including both overseas and local born. Those students were highly unlikely to leave Sydney upon graduation; they had no links with and limited knowledge of the rest of NSW.

I haven't attempted to spell out all elements in this muse, simply point to what I see as some features. Mobility is important because it affects economic activity. It is also important because it affects attitudes and cultures. The common assumption that the Australian population is relatively mobile acts to conceal quite significant demographic changes.  


Anonymous said...

As a former American, who has lived 23 years as an Australian, I have to agree with your article. I have moved from W.A. to Victoria to NSW, and in each case found that interstate moves seemed to be the exception, rather than the rule, amongst my colleagues and friends. It has been rewarding to experience 5 significantly different locations in Australia - prior to the traditional 'grey-nomad' years!

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a fascinating comment, Anon, and I don't think that you are unique. Because you don't have the bounds, movement is just more natural.It's also interesting that you confirm my impression about aussies.