“Fifty years ago!” exclaims Carole Brennan. “It seems like yesterday. I’d just got married and moved to Brisbane, which was a boring city back then. But safe, and friendly. Was life better in those days? In some ways, yes … but then we were young, and everything was on a roll!”
For Carole, as with other Baby Boomers, to be young and living in Queensland in 1973 was to be living the good life in every possible way.
The state had its own robust free health system but private medical insurance was cheap. So was petrol, despite the oil crisis. Owning your own home was easy for most young couples though limits on borrowing, with banks and building societies the only mortgage lenders, were strict – enforcing modest first home expectations.
Food was simple and mostly unpackaged, with seafood and steak always affordable but bread mostly white and sliced and high in carbs.
Most young people got married and de facto relationships had little social or official recognition but divorce rates were higher, 4.4 per 1000 compared to about 1.9 per 1000 today.
To live in 1973 was to live on the cusp of change. “It’s Time” Gough Whitlam told us all in 1972 when the election of his Labor government ended 23 years of continuous conservative rule.
Most young Queenslanders embraced the new idealism and though Whitlam didn’t last long the scrapping of long-held policies had an impact upon life in Queensland today.
These include the end of the already-faltering White Australia policy and opening the way for further changes such as abolition of the death penalty for federal crimes. There was a general sense of social liberalisation as hitherto “voiceless” minorities began to make themselves heard.
One of them was the environmental lobby but despite the daily dose of climate change and other environmental issues in the media today, lifelong activists Mike and Elizabeth Russell say that people in the main ae still surprisingly unaware of environmental threats.
Back then there were some major (and ultimately successful) conservation battles being fought; for example to stop sand mining on Fraser Island and to have Cooloola, north of Noosa, declared a national park.
Despite these modest successes, natural habitat in our region, including vulnerable foreshore, continues to be sacrificed to development and global warming has become the dominant issue. At the same the education and employment of environmental specialists, unknown in 1973, is common practice today as government attempts to balance the built and natural environments.
When it comes to entertainment, older Queenslanders are in common agreement – popular music in 1973 was a lot better than it is today.
Over a glass or two of wine Renee, Patti, Jan and Gill reminisce about the music of their youth, when the songs were more varied and the artists more distinctive.
“Not like all this synthesized studio stuff today,”says Gill. “And as for rap – yuk!”. One of the others says it’s not just an age thing. “I try listening to today’s “young” music but I can’t connect; it has no heart.”
So what were we listening to back then? The biggest selling single was Tony Orlando and Dawn with Tie a Yellow Ribbon and Carly Simon’s iconic You’re So Vain. Elton John came to our attention with Crocodile Rock, Suzi Quatro canned the can – hey, a hard-core, leather-clad female rocker!
Aussie Helen Reddy had two hit singles with I am Woman and Delta Dawn, The Carpenters were On Top of the World, the Rolling Stones gave us Angie and the teenage Michael Jackson and Ben lost the Oscar to Maureen McGovern and The Morning After from the hit film of that year, The Poseidon Adventure.
Michael and his brothers toured Australia, and so did the Stones
And what have our grandchildren and great-grandchildren been listening to this past year? Ed Sheeran had two hits that aren’t so very different to songs of yesteryear, although Bad Habits tips over into weirdness.
Adele’s Easy on Me has an ‘80s vibe, and in Old Town Road by Lil Nas, we have a sort of rap meets country mix.
It’s not bad to ageing ears, but it does indeed seem to lack that special something that makes music memorable through several generations.
We enjoyed pop concerts in the old Festival Hall boxing stadium and dutifully visited the state art gallery in City Hall where Godfrey Rivers’ iconic Under the Jacaranda Tree was the best-known painting.
But the times they were a-changing and down in Canberra they had just purchased, amid great controversy, abstract-expressionist Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for $1.3 million.
Not to be outdone, the Queensland Government recognised the need for a new state art gallery, performance centre and museum which was soon to be built on what was formerly a scruffy area of light industry, godowns and dubious pubs.
Today, crowds flock to both the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art for exhibitions as “out there” as any in the world.
In sport, John Newcombe won the Ausralian and US Open without being covered in advertising or smashing his racket or swearing at the umpire. The Socceroos made Australian sport history in Hong Kong but soccer was still a poor fourth in popularity behind the three other codes. And interestingly, it still ranks third in terms of attendance and media coverage.
Which is strange, says Stevo, one of four mates who have worked, surfed and fished together since the mid-1970s.
We met on his patio with Jeff, Garry, Jimmy and Ron, and discussed the changes to football over the past five decades.
They are all strong Maroons supporters who don’t think the game is as good as it was in Wally Lewis’ time, mainly because “every player today thinks himself a superstar”.
Stevo, the child of Hungarian immigrants, is also a strong soccer fan and says it should rank number one in this country over AFL “a Victorian game that nobody else in the world plays”.
Jeff passes round a picture of himself taken in 1973 wearing long hair, thick beard and bell-bottom pants. He points out that he was skinny back then and ruefully pats his midriff.
The talk switches to food and Garry remembers that his father ate chops or steak for breakfast every day, generally a cheese or devon sausage white bread sandwich for lunch and roast, chops, sausages or steak in the evening until he died at 59 of heart complications.
“We lived at Redcliffe and a health food shop opened up there in about 1972. First we’d ever seen. My new wife and I got into it in a big way and although I still eat most things, I only have red meat a couple of times a week, eat wholemeal bread, unsweetened cereal and yoghurt, lots of fresh fruit and veg.”
All the men agreed that today’s diet is healthier and with a far greater variety of foods available in every season.
Food is just one area in which 2023 consumers have so much more choice than we did half a century ago – also fashion, sporting goods, health products, cars and household goods.
Not only is the choice of building and home décor items such as tiles, blinds and bathroom fittings much wider and of higher quality but retailers have sophisticated digital gadgets to help us make the right choice.
But it’s not all induction ovens and glass splashbacks! Today we have to put up with trade shortages, long builds and equally long delivery times compared to when I first built a house in 1973.
There is a common assumption among Baby Boomers that the cost of living was much cheaper 50 years ago but research shows that yesteryear’s prices were much the same when compared to income.
For example, in 1973 you might buy instant coffee for 30 cents a 100g jar, lamb chops for $1.30 a kilogram and a 420g can of baked beans for 15 cents. A cup of coffee and a cake might cost $1.15.
And you could buy a house for under $20,000, compared to an average $782,000 today – though it would have been a much more modest home.
But the average income was about $7000 a year back then. Today the average income is $85,000 a year (though many earn much more) and you can buy a can of beans for less than$1. In fact, a Reserve Bank inflation calculator shows that something costing $1 in 1973 is roughly the same as about $10 today.
By the beginning of the 1970s big shopping malls were already established in Brisbane and few today would argue that these have made retail therapy a lot more comfortable and convenient.
However they, and of course today’s supermarket food palaces have also led to the demise of the corner convenience store along with suburban butchers and greengrocers.
Now, mall retailers themselves are under threat from online shopping which has developed into such a fast, cheap, convenient, safe alternative that, since Covid, many older people have embraced it.
“I even buy some clothes online now,” says Heather Drewes who is in her early 70s. “It’s so much less stressful than going into shops with poky little changing rooms and blaring music”.
In 1973, the last Australian forces left Vietnam and the boys came home to a less than heroic welcome due to the war’s increasing unpopularity.
Since then, our military has been engaged in peacekeeping missions or as part of multi-lateral forces in the Middle East, East Timor, Africa and Afghanistan. Today, our overseas engagement is minimal and limited mostly to training.
There are actually fewer wars in the world today than in 1973 but according to surveys many of us think that society has become more violent, with drugs and lack of discipline for young people cited as the major reasons.
Statistics show there were 82 cases of homicide and related offences in Queensland in 2021 – down 13 victims from the previous year. Most of them were male and at home, while reported sexual assault and robbery showed an increase.
By comparison, although the annual murder rate – and the population – was lower in the 1970s, there was a spate of particularly violent crimes against women/girls.
In 1973, the highest profile homicide was the deliberate torching of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane which killed 15 people.
“I never bother with statistics”, says Barbara Hepburn, a retired nurse. “In ’73 you could come off night shift at the Royal Brisbane and walk to your car without a thought. I wouldn’t do it today”.
Barbara looks doubtful when told that the murder clear-up rate is much better today than it was 50 years ago. “It’s not much use if you’re dead, is it?”
Today trade union power is considerably less confrontational than it was in the 1970s, mainly due to the introduction of enterprise bargaining and the Fair Work Act of 2009.
Queensland was mostly free of strikes in 1973 but in Victoria the Broadmeadows Ford factory strike exploded into violence and in New South Wales the powerful Builders Labourers’ Federation conducted a whopping 53 strikes.
Several of these were so-called “Green Bans” led by union leader Jack Mundey, with a stated aim of preserving parkland, green space, architectural heritage and working class neighbourhoods from destruction by developers. Even Kings Cross strippers went on strike!
Industrial dispute is a quieter affair today, with striking employees more subject to legal action or dismissal; a matter of concern to some union spokespeople.
The biggest social change since 1973 has been in communications. The Baby Boomers entering their 20s still lived in households where one phone, usually black, was the norm.
Satellites were a novelty and had little impact on the lives of ordinary people. We wrote letters and sent telegrams; went to the drive-in on Saturday night; listened to music on portable transistor radios and cassette players.
Within a decade, desktop computers would appear and then the digital revolution took us over in an exponential storm. The question is, has it made us better communicators?
Former CEO Dick Howlett, mid-80s, thinks not. Despite being one of the early Queensland users (in the 1990s) of mobile phones, he now laments the way in which the smart phone and its apps has come to rule our lives.
He especially resents its uncontrolled use in schools and, like many others interviewed, is concerned that for all its wonders the internet makes older people much more vulnerable to scams and personal information theft than we were in the 1970s – a fear graphically underscored by the Optus and Medibank hacking scandals of the past year.
Amanda Dowie, early 60s and recently retired from working in a Catholic private school, agrees that the poor control of mobile phones in schools is adversely affecting educational standards. She is equally concerned about our dependence on social media and texting.
“I saw a bus go by the other day and all the passengers were glued to their screens. I ask myself whether they are plugged in or plugged out of life,” she says.
Nor has the digital revolution necessarily improved service, Amanda says, citing banking as an example.
“Banks today are so unwelcoming and strange,” she says. “There never seems to be any staff. Just frustrated customers.”
Amanda does concede, though, that applications on her mobile phone such as Facetime have made it much easier – and more affordable – to communicate with her granddaughter in London. She even reads to her over the phone.
Banks are not the only institutions cited as examples of deteriorating service and communication difficulty – medical practitioners, public transport, government services (especially Centrelink) and energy providers are on the consumer blacklist.
“Remember when our utilities were owned by the government,” sighs Carole Brennan. “Privatisation was supposed to make things cheaper and more efficient, but has it?”
Another major social change since 1973 has been the status of women – and gender identification. When former Labor prime minister Paul Keating made his first parliamentary speech in 1970, he bemoaned the fact that “husbands have been forced to send their wives to work in order to provide the necessities of life.”
No Australian politician would dare make such a statement today. Fifty years ago most married women with children were housewives. Today, few would identify as such – but that was the time when things began to change and most Baby Boomer women have juggled motherhood with paid work.
What’s more, when Keating made that speech it was to a chamber of male MPs only. Today, women politicians are plentiful, though they are still outnumbered by men.
Women? Men? Only two genders were recognised back then.
Today those who reject gender stereotyping identify as non-binary, same-sex partners can marry and raise children, and transexuals are not limited to The Rocky Horror Show. The Brads and Janets of our youth have become tolerant with age.
“Perhaps the best thing to have happened in the past 50 years is that people are more accepting of difference in others”, says retired engineer Iain MacPhail.
A summary of other changes to our lifestyle in 50 years include credit and debit cards, safer and more efficient cars, improved health technologies such as organ transplants, joint replacements and more accurate radiology, cable TV, casinos, drug-fuelled crime, greater recognition of indigenous Australians, global shifts in economic power, CCTV and security systems, wider acceptance of profanity and pornography, cybercrime, American food and beverage franchise outlets, age-specific lifestyle communities.
And amid all this change it’s sometimes hard to remember that when we were young many of us dressed like hippies, smoked a bit of cannabis, got drunk, got divorced, disrespected our parents, danced frenetically to loud music and took to the streets in protest.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, quotes Jeff, one of the four old workmates who had a lot of fun when I asked them to enter the time warp with me for this story.
“Even the beer was colder then! The way I see it, 1973 was a great time to be young but 2023 is a great time to be old!”