Remembering the recession: 'The experience of the 90s changed my view of the world' (2023)

CWhen John Andrews was 51, he lost his job. It was the early 1990s, Bob Hawke was Prime Minister, Paul Keating was Treasurer, and Australia was in a deep recession.Unemploymentwas close to 11%. Andrews was just one of many, suddenly unemployed after three decades working in IT. "As the saying goes, they let me go."

Andrews was never without a job, and the experience changed him. He took short-term jobs here and there, but didn't find a permanent position for five years. For most of that time, he survived on unemployment insurance. It wasn't just the recession; it was his age, a form of discrimination that still persists.

“Logo discovered that it was difficult for a 50-year-old man to get a job,” he says. “What I remember most is when I was being interviewed by one of these placement organizations and the person who interviewed me said something like, 'Well, the manager of this area is 35 years old and I feel like he's not going to be completely happy to have 50 years working for me. for or'".

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At the same time, Andrews' 20-year-old son Paul graduated with an art degree from the University of Sydney and was unable to find work. He also began receiving unemployment insurance. “I went straight into a year of unemployment; It wasn't a situation I expected to be in." Recessions hit the young especially hard. Companies cut back on internships and hired fewer apprentices. In 1992, the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds reached 17 percent.

Behind economic data, inflation reports, measures of consumer confidence, interest rates, business investment, there are human beings. Battered by international headwinds, Australia's economic growth is at its lowest level since the global financial crisis a decade ago, with stagnant wage growth and weak consumer confidence and business investment. last week i sawanother sign of a faltering economy– with lackluster retail spending the weakest since the 1990s recession – and this week saw the employment rate for thefirst time in three years.

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But economists like Stephen Koukoulas don't think a recession is likely, given factors such as infrastructure spending and healthy exports. The central bank's interest rate cuts could start to have an impact on household spending, although they haven't yet.

Remembering the recession: 'The experience of the 90s changed my view of the world' (1)

Whether a recession is likely or not, few Australians remember what a recession really is. Sixty percent ofthe current workforce was too young to workwhen the last recession hit in 1990, 29 years ago.

The conventional definition of a recession (two consecutive quarters of negative gross domestic product growth) is often seen as inadequate, and high unemployment is also critical. But the September 1990 quarter saw a 1.8% drop in GDP, which measures the size of the economy in terms of the monetary value of goods and services over a defined period.

The formal recession continued through the September 1991 quarter, although unemployment remained stubbornly high for several years. It was the “jobless recovery”.

The causes of this recession, which were global, and whether the Australian government could have made it less severe are still debated. But recessions are terrible. AsGreg Jericho recently wrote for Guardian Australia: “Recessions don't just ruin the economy and lives; They completely change society." Recovery is slow and uneven, and some people never fully recover. Jobs are lost and relationships fall apart. Thirty-one of 38 studies on theimpact of recessionsfound that suicide rates increase during recessions.

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Andrews, now 78, says it changed the way he saw the world.

“A friend we've had forever and he even told me I could get a job if I wanted to. It still happens that many people think that the unemployed choose to be unemployed, and many poor people choose to be poor. So these people revealed themselves to me as basically heartless."

At one point, he received a letter in the mail recommending increased burglary security because there were so many unemployed people in the area. I was furious.

He and his wife, Sue, sold their Northbridge home to buy a cheaper one. “We thought we should prepare ourselves to never get a job again.” Five years later, he landed a permanent job in IT at Macquarie University, at a lower salary than he was previously paid. His years of unemployment made him think deeply about what we owe each other.

"The experience of the 1990s made me angry and made me very strong in my belief that we were all in this together."

Remembering the recession: 'The experience of the 90s changed my view of the world' (2)

For his son Paul, now media manager at St Vincent's Health Australia, this meant starting his working life without getting a job. His family was not desperate and he managed to live at home, but his confidence in his future faltered.

“It was kind of classic, hitting brick walls for jobs you wanted and then all of a sudden it's kind of terrible, applying for second or third level jobs that you had no interest in or any career ideas for, and getting kickbacks for those ones. , also.

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“It was like a big vacuum cleaner that sucked all your vacuums out of the room.”

I flipped through the newspapers at the time and the issues and politics were different: Maggie Thatcher lost office and Patrick White died, and the first Gulf War dominated the headlines for months. However, there are echoes of today's debate. There was denial. Two days before the March 1990 election, Keating declared that "we are not going to let there be a recession". In November, it was Keating's famous "recession we needed" as he continued the economic reforms that would later usher in strong economic growth.

Unemployment jumped very quickly, sometimes a whole percentage point in one month. “10,000 join strike in one week,” read the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald. There were only three jobs for every 100 unemployed.

Bankruptcies soared, more than 30% more in the September 1990 quarter than in the same period a year earlier, fueled by interest rates at 17%. The economic downturn and the Gulf crisis drove consumer confidence to a record high. Those who finished school in the late 1990s were advised to postpone the post-school holidays and apply for a job immediately.

The Reserve Bank has suggested cutting interest rates to 0.25% as retailers forecast a dismal Christmas.

Then there were the unexpected impacts. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in May 1991 that the city's largest provider of abortions had seen a 31% increase in abortions requested by married women compared to the previous year, with some advisers saying that "there is no way we can terminate this pregnancy if our the business wouldn't have failed if we hadn't lost our jobs."

The economy and work were different then, but there areechoes of the debatenow whether the government should stimulate the economy more instead of maintaining its top priority of generating a budget surplus to prepare for future crises.

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The 1990–1991 recession was not Australia's first, but Koukoulas believed it was "nearly the worst since the great depression". And while he didn't personally suffer, he said, "People suffer a lot... you do whatever it takes, even if it involves radical politics, to avoid that."

The then Secretary of Industry, John Button, described the recession as a time when "misery and despair descended over the country like a yellow fog". It was particularly difficult in the "rust belt" states of Victoria and South Australia, which are more dependent on manufacturing industries hit by tariff cuts. Financial institutions such as the State Bank of Victoria and the State Bank of South Australia collapsed.

By day, Tony Keaney worked as a manager at Telecom, now Telstra. In the evenings he would volunteer in St Vincent de Paul visiting people in Box Hill, a suburb of Melbourne, who were struggling to afford food, clothing and appliances. Back then, Box Hill was more working-class than it is now, and the suburb was beginning to attract refugees, who also needed help settling down. Keaney, now 84 and still a volunteer, visited four or five homes a night. “They lost some hope of getting a job due to lack of skills.”

Cities like Geelong, suffering from the collapse of the Pyramid Building Society in 1990, suffered the most. St. Vincent de Paul reported a 50% increase in requests for assistance. Geelong-based automaker Ford, the city's biggest employer, announced that 850 local jobs remained. The local newspaper printed stickers reading “Put Geelong First” and thousands demonstrated to save the city.

“If the situation gets worse, City by the Bay risks becoming Dole Queue by the Bay,” editorialized the Geelong Advertiser.

Tony Anderson worked at Ford for 33 years, until his disappearance in 2016. In the early 1990s, he had a mortgage and a young family. She kept her job, but knew people who took orders and struggled to find work afterwards.

While the interest rates were high, Anderson, looking back, thinks they were affordable if you had a job because the loans were less - she had a $30,000 mortgage. He is now the secretary of the Geelong Trades Hall Council and worries that young people are getting large mortgages while wages are stagnant and jobs insecure.

“I'm not sure how the next generation will be able to handle this,” he says. “I say this from my children's point of view. The bills, the mortgage, it's a matter of trying to keep a job that actually pays reasonably. That's the hard part now."

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Paul Andrews also wonders how a new generation would handle a recession. After a year without a job, he got a job. “I was working in a stock register mail room, basically stuffing envelopes, not a great job but at least it kept me out of unemployment.

“Today's young people are much more professionally minded than we are. There are many more internships and schools preparing young people for careers.

“A recession can hit them harder because they have much more definite plans for where they can go. In a recession, many of these plans end up with the doors slammed in their faces."


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