Worth his Salt

Written by: Rachael Licciardello | July 31, 2018

He’s Australia’s leading demographer, having carved out a career writing, speaking and presenting about the trends and insights into our workplaces, property markets, motivations and generational matters, and advising businesses and governments at the highest levels.  

Since ancient times, leaders have relied on guidance from future-seeing advisors. Seers, oracles, prophets and soothsayers offered visions of tomorrow to navigate the decisions of the day. While yesteryear turned to the language of fate and fortune, today’s leaders turn to data and demographics. 

Bernard Salt is a respected futurist; the modern soothsayer for today’s business and government leaders. Using his ‘crystal ball’ of Census Data, various dry reports and established history, Bernard
has predicted major trends including the baby boomer ‘sea change’
in property buying and Gen Y career and lifestyle expectations. He has written and spoken on topics from the serious business implications of demographic and social change, to the more light-hearted trends like the “pillowfication” of Australian bedrooms and show-pony homes.

He’s built a reputable consulting career over three decades, authored five books and founded KPMG’s research division KPMG Demographics (in 1998) from which he retired last year. Today, he runs his own firm, The Demographics Group, writes, speaks and presents across the country about social and demographic trends, hosts The Next 5 Years with Bernard Salt on SkyNews Business, and writes two weekly columns for The Australian newspaper. 

The key to Bernard’s status as Australia’s leading demographer and social commentator is his ability to entertain as much as he educates. Anyone can access dry data, but seeing the stories within the decimal points and percentages and delivering insights in a human and often humorous way is what makes people – from CEOs to regular Joe’s – take notice.

While much of Bernard’s recent work looks at job skills of the
future, and the global power shift from the US to China, it was a tongue-in-cheek newspaper column linking $22 avocado toast with housing affordability two years ago that sparked global media attention and exposed a whole new audience to Bernard Salt. (Yep, he’s that smashed avo guy.)

 

HOW SMASHED AVO BECAME THE TROPE FOR THE HOUSING AFFORDABILITY CRISIS

In his October 15, 2016 column for The Australian, titled
‘Moralisers, we need you!’ Bernard parodied being middle-aged, risking hamstrings to sit on milk crates in hipster cafes, being confused by modern toilet signage; how the middle-aged tut-tut and eye-roll at millennial habits. In 76 words of a 600-odd-word piece, Bernard wrote: 

“I have seen young people order smashed avocado with crumbled feta on five-grain toasted bread at $22 a pop and more. I can afford to eat this for lunch because I am middle-aged and have raised my family. But how can young people afford to eat like this? Shouldn’t they be economising by eating at home? How often are they eating out? Twenty-two dollars several times a week could go towards a deposit on a house.”

Latching on to those 76 words, the media and public response was intense, far-reaching and to this day, two years after the article, avocado toast is a recurring trope for housing affordability. While his comments were taken out of the context of his column, Bernard had inadvertently given a sensitive issue the perfect, indulgent and delicious, motif. Discretionary spending habits were now represented by a $22 café menu item. The millennials got defensive while the baby boomers became self-righteous. For anyone who had actually read Bernard’s article, the outrage was bemusing. 

When the debate flared up again mid-2017, thanks to an Aussie property mogul reiterating Bernard’s trope on 60 Minutes, the media again went nuts. Time Magazine even launched an avocado toast calculator, for Americans to calculate how many smashed avo brunches they would have to forgo to afford a house deposit based on their city. The argument was again split open like a fleshy, ripe avo before it was mashed across a slice of sourdough and topped with feta. 

No doubt, we haven’t yet heard the last of the avocado toast housing affordability debate.

 

WORKING CLASS ROOTS

Growing up in small country town Terang, about 200 kilometres south-west of Melbourne, Bernard describes his childhood as a “very loving, normal, basic, working class upbringing”. The fifth of six children in a Catholic family, raised in a Housing Commission house in the 1960s in what Bernard refers to as “old world Australia”, where material possessions were few, the family home was never locked – “we had bugger all, there was nothing to steal” – but the security of a big family was riches enough.

“When you’re number five, you’ve got lots of older brothers and sisters to pave the way for you, and so in that respect I feel very fortunate,” shares Bernard, who lists his mother Brenda as his greatest influence. “I didn’t have a fancy, private school education, and we certainly didn’t come from an advantaged family, but I had a totally supportive family and loving mother. 

“My mother was a pre-feminist, can-do sort of woman, who set an extraordinarily good example, and was very interested in education and self-improvement,” shares Bernard. “Mum and dad had what you would call eighth-grade educations – but mum really valued writing, speaking, presenting and how you conducted yourself. By the time I was 20, at university in Melbourne, people would often ask, ‘Are you English?’ I’d say, ‘No’, they’d say, ‘But you speak with an English accent’. I didn’t think I did!”

Benefiting from Whitlam’s fee-free uni policy, Bernard attended university in Melbourne from 1975 with intentions of becoming a history and geography schoolteacher. Although he gained his degree, he never taught. Instead, he pursued a Master’s degree in urban growth and development, specifically the history and geography of Melbourne in the 1880s.

While doing his Master’s, Bernard discovered an appreciation for the written word. Tutored by a bloke named Joe Powell, “a working-class academic form Liverpool whose ability to write was flawless”, Bernard was taught proper punctuation, sentence structure, rhythm, rhyme and the elegance of writing. “Each morning I write my column for The Australian I’m drawing upon that experience from 30 years ago. When someone who is really clever at what they do takes the time to walk you through it, it is life changing.”

In 1985 Bernard began his career in demographics, and took to consulting “like a duck to water”. “It was such an adrenaline rush to stand in front of a board or senior management team, and pitch your view as to what the issue was. To bring forward the right figures, the right argument, the right impact, the right conclusion, into a compelling story, I thought ‘this was what I was geared to do’.” 

 

NORTH QUEENSLAND’S FUTURE

Bernard has been upfront in his support for a second capital city in Queensland or making North Queensland its own state. From a demographics perspective, it’s a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’.

“The more separate your city is from a capital city, the more self-reliant you are,” points out Bernard. “Geelong isn’t separate from Melbourne, Wollongong isn’t separate from Sydney. If you lose your job in Geelong, you can always jump on the train to get to a bigger market; you’re not as motivated for survival, for entrepreneurial enterprise, to have a go, to make it happen. There is no safety net this far from George Street.

“It’s very hard to manage Queensland’s 5 million people when you have the capital in the bottom right corner. 

“I know recent times have been tough; it’s almost like once every 10 years there’s a comet that hits Townsville,” says Bernard. “But it bounces back. Townsville will not be denied; it is the largest city in tropical Australia and probably quite determined to remain so for the balance of the century.”

As North Queensland’s critical mass grows, so too will the need for self-determination and local representation. “There might be half a million to 600,000 people north of Mackay at the moment. Cast forward 50 years; as Australia pushes 40 million people (we’ve 25 million at the moment) and the Queensland population north of Mackay reaches 1 million. You can’t have 1 million people, 2,000 kilometres away from the point of administration – that is illogical. There are only 250,000 to 300,000 people, at best, in the Northern Territory. 

“Maybe this is a more powerful issue in the 2030s and 2040s. But until then, it’ll keep surfacing for political reasons,” says Bernard. “It’s like the Alice Springs to Darwin railway line – that was talked about for 100 years before it finally got across the line.”

 

WHAT WE’RE MISSING

While Cairns’ strength in tourism is the envy of many regional cities around Australia, Bernard says more diversification would benefit the city in the long-term. “Tourism is going to be a mainstay of the far north – particularly as India, China and Vietnam get richer – but I’d like to see Cairns’ economy augmented by growth and development of other sectors as well.”

Bernard says Townsville’s population of 192,000 people, local television stations, military bases, major university, plus tourism, agri-business, manufacturing, all bode well for Townsville ultimately prospering long-term. “It’d be great to see Townsville have a direct flight into Wuhan, or Chengdu, or one of your sister cities in China [Changshu or Foshan],” offers Bernard. “Bypass the first-tier cities; you want some territory all to yourself. International connectivity is absolutely critical.”

 

AUSSIES: GET BACK TO THE GARAGE

Looking to our futures, for both North Queensland and Australia, Bernard emphasises the need for entrepreneurial enterprise. 

“Our future depends on our ability to create business. For there to be jobs of the future, there need to be businesses of the future,” says Bernard. “Business are created not by government, but by individuals.”

It seems an obvious point – of course individuals create big businesses! Look at Jeff Bezos and Amazon, Steve jobs and Apple, the list goes on – but as Bernard lists Australia’s entrepreneurial history, it becomes clear that many of the nation’s biggest companies have indeed stemmed from government and not individuals.

“Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Westpac, Commonwealth Serum Laboratories – all were owned by government. They didn’t begin in some entrepreneur’s garage like Bill Gates when he started Microsoft,” says Bernard. “Even Atlassian [the Aussie-founded software company, valued at $13.2 billion], which was founded in that entrepreneurial way 18 years ago in Sydney is still not huge at the scale of say a bank or BHP.

“Americans seem to be more admiring of people with the get-up-and-go to actually create a business, whereas our approach is one of ‘how did you get to be so rich?’ The tall poppy syndrome is very real, and it’s quite visceral in Australia.”

“I’m hopeful that the millennial generation will deliver global-scale entrepreneurial enterprises over the next 10 or 20 years, because the baby boomers certainly haven’t delivered new businesses at that scale.

For Townsville and Cairns, disconnected physically from the nation’s capitals, it’s even more important to cultivate that sense of entrepreneurialism. “It’s not being entrepreneurial in a Townsville sense, or a Sydney sense, but in the sense of taking a business to a global level,” emphasises Bernard.

“I don’t want to see an Australia in 2030 or 2040, of 40 million people where most of us work either in small businesses or for big corporates headquartered somewhere else. We need to be, as a nation and as a people, in control of our own destiny.”

 

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