Locked out of a housing market that blew out beyond their means, young Australians have embraced a different way of living in recent years.
If Australia can’t provide a house, they figured, then the world would become their home.
And if their work can’t be secure, then they would make insecurity a virtue and float from one place to the next.
Through both desire and necessity, the great Australian dream for many millennials isn’t a big house and backyard — it’s the ability to travel widely and live and work anywhere but here.
Now that dream has come to an end as well.
Charting the wanderlust
In the decades before COVID-19, Australia was experiencing a slow but remarkable shift.
We were increasingly travelling overseas.
What was a trickle in 1990 became a flood by last year, where almost 12 million international trips were recorded by Australian residents. That’s almost one trip for every second Australian.
And the group that left our shores the most? Those aged 30-34.
In fact, people aged 25-34 took almost the same number of overseas trips last year as all Australians took in 1990.
Within one generation heading abroad went from being a luxury of the few to an expectation of the many.
We can be a bit insufferable about it, actually.
Ask an Aussie where to visit and they will probably reel off a list of places and throw in some pointers about where you can get a “real” New York steak or why the Eiffel Tower is overrated and packed with tourists anyway.
At the same time, home ownership among that same 25-34 cohort has been in decline.
The majority now rent privately and are putting off buying until later in life (if that’s even possible then).
You might argue that the reason millennials aren’t buying houses is because they’re spending all their money on holidays, but that doesn’t really stack up.
At least, it’s not the only reason. Wages just haven’t kept up with prices.
Median house prices have increased from about four times the median income in the early 1990s — when many of their parents bought — to more than seven times by 2018, according to the Grattan Institute.Coronavirus update: Follow all the latest news in our daily wrap
‘There’s just so much more out there’
Millennials like Rina Laino know this well.
The 26-year-old production manager was born and raised in Melbourne. Her dad and grandparents migrated to Australia from Italy in the great post-war wave and quickly set about establishing roots here.
“So for them, the first and most important thing in life is basically owning a house,” she said. “Owning a house is a really, really, really big deal for them.”
When Rina got some money together — which included offers of help from family — her dad insisted on taking her to open homes and auctions, hoping to find something simple, suitable and within her budget.
They couldn’t find anything. So Rina moved to Japan.
“For me personally, it’s like, yeah cool, I could have a house and I could have a mortgage. Or I can wait until that’s something that’s really necessary in my life,” she said.
“[Living overseas] was something I’ve wanted forever. Don’t get me wrong, I love Australia, but I think there’s just so much more out there.”
Rina has been in Tokyo for almost two years and has stayed on in her full-time job with a French company, despite the many pleas from her family to return to Australia during the coronavirus pandemic.
After all, Japan is her home now. You might say she’s one of the lucky few.
The dream is over
A few thousand kilometres away, Australian entrepreneur Michael Craig is rolling with the punches in Indonesia.
Five years ago he founded a co-working space called Dojo Bali for people who could work remotely and wanted to have a base to operate and travel from.
The initial members were those who had started working in the 1990s and now had established careers.
Then something interesting happened: they began sharing their experiences on Instagram.
Suddenly, a wave of young creatives starting turning up, enticed by the idea of cheap beer, beachside massages and the freedom to work when and where they chose.
The age of members now ranges from 18 to 70, but the cohort that makes up by far the largest chunk? You guessed it: 25-35.
It also gave rise to a new term that evokes the kind of mentality they can wear with pride: digital nomad.
“They don’t see themselves sitting at a desk and working for the man, so to speak,” Michael said.
“They’re sick of living with so many rules around them. Australia seems to have become like a nanny state.
“That’s what they tell me: ‘There’s too many rules, I can come here and it’s freedom’.”
Then the coronavirus came.
Wandering dream over
Dojo Bali has shut its doors, but that was the obvious move.
As the virus spread, whole countries put their people into isolation.
While the rules aren’t as strict in Australia as some other places, travel bans still mean no-one is getting out and very few are getting in. If Australians are coming back, it’s for the long haul.
For people like Grace Conrick, a 26-year-old nurse, this has brought long-held dreams to a halt.
Grace and her partner had been strategic in their plan to move to London next year to work and travel. It was a goal years in the making.
“I wanted to do post-grad study, which I’m completing as we speak and due to finish at the end of the year,” she said.
“And obviously we want to have enough financial backing to enjoy our time over there and then come home [with some money] in our early 30s. We don’t really feel the need to settle down and buy a house just yet and I feel like why not do something different?”
Grace was drawn to the idea of seeing the kaleidoscopic cultures of mainland Europe as well as working in a different health system.
Now they’re waiting to see how the pandemic unfolds. But Grace says they might have to settle for an extended holiday, if that.
Wandering dream could be over
If you were looking for signs of a recalibration of priorities among young Australians, this might be it.
The more dire forecasts say flight prices could surge 27 per cent and house prices could drop as much as 30 per cent. Perhaps that swing would be enough to coax some millennials to settle here instead of leaving.
Or maybe the choice will be taken out of their hands.
“We want to be able to go and enjoy mainland Europe and enjoy the benefits of traveling,” Grace said.
“If we don’t have that freedom then the trip wouldn’t be as we planned at all.”
And here’s where we start to hint at the real fear: this isn’t a temporary hit to the wandering Australian dream, it’s the end as we know it.
We initially pinned our hopes on a COVID-19 vaccine being 12-18 months away, but increasingly experts are warning it may never come.
What does that future look like?
Most countries have already closed their borders and turned inwards to contain the spread. While in the US, President Donald Trump has also announced a suspension on immigration.
At this stage we’re led to believe these are radical but temporary restrictions to travel. Yet it’s hard not to see the marshalling of political forces who will use this crisis to further their isolationist cause.
In recent years we’ve seen far-right anti-immigration groups rise in Europe and call for tighter border controls.
This pandemic is like throwing petrol on that smouldering flame.
It is already happening on the extreme fringes in Australia, where white supremacists are reportedly “delighted” at the closure of borders and hope an ensuing societal collapse with create conditions to foster their uprising.
American travel writer Sam Youkilis also fears the crisis will deepen suspicions of foreigners and he has already witnessed early signs while in Morocco in March and news was filtering through of the outbreak in Italy.
“At a lot of the markets, where anyone would say they were from Italy there was a sort of sceptical resistance from Moroccans in their interactions,” he said. “Just a general scepticism that people didn’t have before of foreigners and tourists.”
Sam quickly returned to the US only to be forced into lockdown in New York City.
‘Fences are easier to build than dismantle’
It’s not alarmist to consider that the draconian restrictions we’ve accepted under extreme circumstances will never be fully wound back. That the modern age of free(ish) movement has come to an end.
History tells us this is exactly what can happen in times of global crisis.
As migration expert Speranta Dumitru writes in The Conversation, World War I saw the introduction of previously unheard-of restrictions on movement, including mandatory passports.
Those passports began in Europe and were only supposed to be a temporary measure to be wound back when things settled down.
It was the stated goal of many international conferences that they be abolished and there be a “complete return to pre-war conditions”, but somehow it just never seemed the right time to do it.
As one person argued to a gathering of international delegates in Geneva in 1926: “Conditions had changed so much since the war that everyone had to take into consideration a good many things they could formerly ignore.”
Now the people who argue against passports are the radicals.
As Dumitru writes: “Fences are easier to build than dismantle.”
We could be entering a new age
Still, there is another way of looking at this. One that is a more positive idea to end on.
And that is that this pandemic will open our eyes to the idea of working away from the office and recognising the freedom of remote living.Coronavirus questions answeredBreaking down the latest news and research to understand how the world is living through an epidemic, this is the ABC’s Coronacast podcast.Read more
“It’s the biggest experiment of remote work in the world,” says Michael from Dojo Bali.
“You’re having this massive experiment where all these people are going, ‘Hey, we’re working from home and hey, we can do this and it still works’.
That, combined with the wanderlust of millennials, could mean that rather than ending the era of movement, we are instead entering a new age. Even if there are new restrictions to deal with.
“They will push through that, because of the drive to go on that lifestyle,” Michael said.
“We’re already seeing our members want to come back to Bali. They’re all messaging, ‘When is Bali opening up? When is Bali opening up?'”
Who knows. But as long as millennials have the will, they may find a way.
So, dream on.