The young and the assetless

Two very different public figures are pointing to the serious frustration being felt by young Australians

On the face of it, former Treasury boss Ken Henry and renter advocate Jordan van den Berg don’t appear to have much in common. One is a 66-year-old economist who spent 10 years as Treasury secretary, and who authored one of the most important tax reviews of recent decades. The other is a millennial (non-practising) lawyer, known to his social media followers as @purplepingers, who makes comedic videos reviewing Australia’s worst rental properties, and who has just put out a call for followers to submit empty houses that people may be able to squat in. Henry and van den Berg speak to very different audiences, and present their messages in very different ways. And yet both have given interviews over the past 24 hours that have centred upon a similar dilemma, recognising something that the major parties still seem unwilling to acknowledge: the deck is increasingly stacked against young, asset-poor Australians, and something’s got to give.

Purplepingers is best known for his Shit Rentals website, in which he calls out the appalling state of Australian rental properties. But it is his latest call-out – in which he is asking people to submit the addresses of vacant properties, suggesting those in need of a home might squat in them – that has really annoyed his critics. Americans on the social media platform X are particularly up in arms about the perceived attack on private property (in Australia). But it was last night’s interview on The Project, in which van den Berg calmly pushed back on criticism, that has drawn more widespread reactions. Asked by co-host Sarah Harris whether he really thought “encouraging people to squat on private property” was the right way to address the housing crisis, van den Berg countered with a question of his own: “Do you think it’s right that we have thousands of vacant, abandoned homes while we have people living on the street?” The interview has struck a chord with young people online, with many mocking the panellists as “out of touch” for failing to recognise that sleeping in an abandoned home with no power was better than sleeping outside.

Dr Henry, meanwhile, offered up a very different interview on RN Breakfast this morning, as he had yet another go at encouraging leaders to undertake a major tax overhaul. The former Treasury boss has taken to arguing that governments are letting down the next generation by refusing to do more than tinker with the tax system, which is increasingly reliant on income tax, leaving young people carrying the burden. Speaking to the ABC, Henry said the economy was heading towards an “intergenerational tragedy”, breaking the “golden rule” that future generations have the opportunity to be better off. “Young people look at the distribution of wealth in Australia and they’re asking themselves, ‘how is it possible for me now to buy a house?’ Well it’s not,” Henry said, noting that the “great wealth transfer” is not going to help. “Democracies – successful ones anyway – rest on a social compact,” he added.

Democracy does indeed rest on certain rules and norms, including – especially in Australia – the idea that it is possible to live a good life. But as both Henry and van den Berg point out, Australia’s social compact now appears to be at breaking point, with younger Australians feeling increasingly screwed over by a system in which older generations are allowed to hoard resources, and governments refuse any attempt to even the scales. For many, squatting is a perfectly legitimate response to this situation, in which it is all but impossible to acquire property through hard work alone.

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