The generation wars always seems to come down to this one topic – and it turns out Boomers might just be right.
In the battle between Australia’s different generations, commentary on both sides of the debate at times descends into hyperbole and painfully overused cliches.
For those taking part in the intergenerational conflict, many would have heard all about how smashed avocado on toast is the real culprit for the lack of affordable housing and how Boomers bought their houses for about the same price as a packet of chips and a Mars bar costs today.
Like most hotly contested societal battles, there is truth within the hyperbole on both sides of the debate, with exactly how much truth there is very much depending on the eye of the beholder.
But what does the data say about spending on eating out today versus 40 years ago?
That’s what we’ll explore in this article – how spending patterns have changed, the impact of that on the economy and how the makeup of the economy has shifted over the past four decades.
Back in the 1980s
In the last 40 years the makeup of the Australian economy has shifted immensely.
Where once there were factories across the nation producing everything from cars to fishing reels, there are now gyms with personal trainers and barista made coffee in practically every city suburb.
When you look at the data it really shows.
When comparable records began in 1983, spending on takeaway, restaurants and cafes came to 0.68 per cent of GDP. Around half way through our data set in 2002 that figure had more than doubled to 1.4 per cent of GDP.
Finally in a lockdown impacted 2021-2022, it had risen to more than three times its original size as a proportion of the overall economy, to sit at 2.33 per cent of GDP.
While this point goes to older Australians based on the data, it’s an economy wide measure and not indicative solely of the spending habits of younger Australians.
The economy has changed
In 1990, value added manufacturing represented roughly $1 in every $7 generated by the nation’s economy in terms of GDP (13.8 per cent).
At the time Australia wasn’t quite what you would consider to be a manufacturing powerhouse that could compare with the likes of Japan or Germany, but it could certainly hold its own and produce all manner of goods for domestic consumption.
That level of self-sufficiency and manufacturing output is now a distant memory.
As of the latest comparable data from the World Bank, manufacturing now represents just 5.65 per cent of GDP or roughly $1 in every $18 generated by the nation’s economy.
Where once Australia could be considered at least within the same ballpark as the United States or Great Britain, some of our immediate rivals in terms of manufacturing as a percentage of GDP are now nations like Botswana and Eritrea.
Naturally this has drastically changed the makeup of the economy, where once manufacturing was a powerhouse of economic growth, it has been supplanted by minerals exports in terms of GDP and the services sector for jobs.
Cliche’s and the economy
As the data has shown, Australians do indeed expend a greater proportion of the nation’s income on things like eating out. In this, older Australians are arguably correct – there are some households that could stand to be more careful and live a bit more frugally.
However, there is an ‘if and but’ to follow that particular statement and it’s a big one.
In recent decades, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, the economy has become more and more connecting on consumer spending to drive growth and to create jobs.
This may be characterized by some as buying random cr*p and spending too much on eating out, but for better or worse that’s the economy that has been created and delivered the lowest unemployment in decades.
It could certainly be argued that excessive consumerism is bad for the planet, but as we’ve learned in the past two years these things can’t just be turned on or off without consequence, even if we wanted to.
Older Australians may well be right that we re-examine our lives to dedicate our money to what really matters to us, but at the same time we need to be wary of the consequences this may have if we were to somehow collectively follow their advice.
Tarric Brooker is a freelance journalist and social commentator | @AvidCommentator