The Mobile Generation
Had a fun surf with a twenty-something fella the other day. Good laugh, nice chat, shared a shred. Nothing unusual, right?
Highly unusual, at least for the most part. Unless you are surfing Byron Bay with achingly cool hipster gals, the twenty-something is becoming a rarity around here in the ocean. Almost a lost generation.
For the same reason single mums are sending kids to school out of the backs of cars. There's nowhere to live and what housing there is has become crushingly expensive.
My new pal came up here for work from the South Coast somewhere. His search for a place to live was in vain. “Couldn't find anywhere mate,” he tells me. “A single bed shitbox in Casino was 500 bucks a week!”
So he lives in his van.
Another mate who I'll call Bob, a smooth and skilful surfer, lives in a Troopy, migrating between the North Coast where he works as a glasser and South Australia where he drives tractors for broad acre agriculture. The problem is not work, there's plenty of that, but putting a roof overhead.
The housing crisis is in full swing and the numbers are brutal. According to CoreLogic, in the past twelve months there's been a 32% increase in rental costs in Byron Shire, 28.4% in Ulladulla, and 26.1% in Buderim on the Sunshine Coast. If you show up to the rental properties available in Ballina Shire you'll find long queues. Sharply dressed work-from-homers step out of new Teslas, offering hundreds above the listed price and paying twelve months up front. It's a vicious Darwinian game and the deepest pockets get the kill. Losers leave town or live in cars, if they are lucky. The housing crisis, according to Ballina State MP Tamara Smith, has now become a “full-blown emergency”.
This coastal town is flooded with new money. Big money. Be careful reverse parking as a scratch on a new Audi or Range Rover will set you back hundreds if not thousands.
A coastal farmhouse in 1974 cost five bucks a week rent with milk included. The same place now will be upwards of $800 a week. Blocks of land on the North Coast that sold for $40,000 in the year 2000 are now expected to fetch $850,000. The speed of change is dizzying.
Inter-generational wealth is the deciding factor for living on the coast, and it will continue into the future. The effects will be profound. As yet, we haven't even attempted to grapple with them.
When you price the working class, and now even the middle class, out of the coast, surfing level declines concomitantly. Wealthy boomers and tech bros in Teslas might keep coastal cafes booming but they drag down the overall level of surfing. We've seen that in Sydney, which used to be a hotbed of surfing talent, but now struggles to produce QS-level surfers.
Former blue collar suburbs like Bondi and Manly have long been the province of the wealthy. “Surf peasants,” as my old boss and Manly legend Lester Brien called them, largely split for the country during the early-70's Country Soul migration, dragging a lot of the surfing talent with them and seeding the growth of world class surfers in the regions from their progeny. The remaining spirit and energy of the punk era begat the “bastard desire” of Sydney's last great flowering as a source of Australian surfing talent. The decline since Tom Carroll, Damien Hardman, Barton Lynch, etc etc strode the world stage, has been precipitous.
Some neoliberal optimists claim wavepools will fill the void. I profoundly disagree.
My son and his crew surf, for free. Right now, they are frothed on skateboarding. Last Saturday, he and three of his friends started at Ballina skatepark at 7am. They skated until 11am. We shifted to Lennox skatepark and they went from 12 till 3. We drove to Mullum and went from 4.30 till 6.30. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of reps through the day. The cost? Thirty bucks in fuel, twenty bucks in hot chips.
The cost to run a similar program at URBNSURF, Australia's only commercially available wavepool?
I make it $1,699 for six hours for four twelve-year old boys.
John John Florence's will be not springing up out of the urban fabric for that cost.
Many, many more will be lost due to being priced out of the coast then will be gained from having wavepools nearby, unless private corporations out of the goodness of their hearts start giving away expensive man-made waves for free. Maybe in the next lifetime but not in this one, despite all the glossy PR 'social inclusivity' spiels they put out.
Human migrations and convulsions are nothing new and some explanations have been attempted.
Jared Diamond in his 1997 book 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' posits a bio-geographical framework to understand and explain the differing fates of human societies through history. Peoples with access to high carbohydrate vegetation that could be turned into crops, and wild animals that could be domesticated, were able to form societies with surpluses and thus form powerful states that were immune to animal-borne diseases and had access to superior technology. They prospered and conquered others.
Via similar reasoning, surfing nations rise and develop cultures when the confluence of affordable coastal living, available waves, and young people with the time and means to pursue it converge. No-one could argue that a fundamental shift in those factors is now occurring and that Australian surfing is in the death throes of what could loosely be termed its 'Morning of the Earth' era as a result.
History is full of happy accidents when circumstances converged to create the conditions of great art, or scientific advancement, or musical hotbeds. Take the North Coast in the 70's and 80's for example. Depopulated, depressed rural economies offered dirt cheap living, the welfare state enabled surfers to survive, even thrive for next to nothing in semi-communal living arrangements, augmented by cash work or small scale drug growing and selling. Ironically, that Utopian ambition led to the dominance of Australian competitive surfing. Those times in our very recent history are now over and the results are becoming manifest.
In California, the results have been manifest for a generation. Its elite surfers are all dynastic; born into it if you will. Kolohe Andino: pro surfer father. Conner Coffin: born to wealth and connection. Likewise Griffin Colapinto. Kanoa Igarashi was determined by his parents to be a pro surfer from before his birth. Dane Reynolds was the last outlier: born inland at Bakersfield to non-surfing parents and discovered surfing in a non-structured, working class milieu. There are no more Dane Reynolds coming down the pipeline.
That's the macro level. At the individual level, it's people who can't afford to put a roof over their head. For now it's fine for my South Coast pal and Bob to be mobile. Van life ain't all it's cracked up to be - it's cramped and stinky and sucks when it rains- but it beats paying a landlord an arm and a leg every week. It's fabulous living the nomadic life, until it ain't. Usually the day you realise the real estate sitch is a game of musical chairs and with each passing year there are fewer chairs and they cost more. The end game is not pretty when the music stops.
Will there be a correction that enables the Mobile Generation to settle down?
Otherwise...what? Shanty towns, refugee camps, a reverse dust bowl migration where surfers head inland en masse because they can't afford to live near the coast?
Don't laugh. "Money can't buy happiness", sung Jordan Davis, but it can buy dirt. Increasingly, if that dirt is anywhere near the coast you'll need to be born rich to afford it.
// STEVE SHEARER