It seems like only yesterday that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating floated the dollar. Australia, the so-called lucky country, made its own luck as our leaders opened up our economy to Asia and the emerging world.
Back then, baby boomers began taking their business out of ‘Fortress Australia’; trying their luck on the world stage, often in new lands that weren’t as affluent or familiar as they are today.
The first of the baby boomers will be retiring this year, many to lucrative superannuation and part-time directorships. But who will step up and take Australia forward? Will Generation X become generation export or will Generation Y become the global generation and help put green back into the green and gold?
Australia was lucky to have those brave baby boomers. But we were also lucky in another sense. Much of Australia’s success as an exporting nation was due to the efforts of the post-war immigrants who led successful companies.
Great icons Westfield, Bing Lee, Aussie, Crazy Johns, and Myer were all started by people either born outside Australia or first generation Australians. Around 50 per cent of all exporters and two-thirds of all entrepreneurs were born overseas. Immigration was key to helping Australia build its export capability.
According to Austrade/Sensis data, of all small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) that are exporters, 42 per cent of businesses have been in the game for over 20 years. Meanwhile, 6 per cent have been around for less than five years, and 25 per cent have been around for less than 10.
You need experience to compete in global markets (to get used to swings in commodity prices, exchange rates etc) and to build strong relationships with your overseas business partners so you can survive dramatic events like the Asian financial crisis or the recent GFC (which Australia emerged from comparatively unscathed thanks to past reforms and the resilience of our experienced exporters).
There’s another implication to gaining export experience.
It also means that the average age of an SME exporting proprietor tends to be older than your local domestic businesses. According to the research, 39 per cent of all exporting SMEs were classic baby-boomers aged in their 50s, and a further 27 per cent were over 60. By contrast Generation Xers made up 33 per cent of exporters. Gen Ys were 1 per cent and Gen Zs are still watching The Wiggles.
So, should we be worried? The short answer is no. It’s just a matter of Gen Xers getting the experience to run exporting companies. This will occur through generational change as the baby boomers pass the baton on. In addition, there are many reasons why Gen X, Y and Z will be OK to lead the charge.
Technology opens up the export world
The internet has allowed many startups to export straightaway, which has opened up global marketing opportunities to SMEs. Lara Solomon, a savvy Gen Yer, began her business totally online and saw her market as global from day one.
“Australia is too small a market for me, and online gives me the potential to reach the UK, the USA and Western Europe with the same speed as Australia. Eighty per cent of my business is now in the USA. I can’t physically be there all the time so the technology really helps,” she said.
Global markets embrace Gen X & Y
Global markets tend to have a very positive attitude towards young entrepreneurs. According to Jade Stack, a Gen Y financial planner: “The Australian market does have a lot of opportunities but I do find that our closest countries, including places like China and Japan, are more open to the idea that the youth can be a valuable source of information and skills.
“This makes it easier to do business with them as they respect you for the work you have achieved at your age instead of distrusting your level of commitment and reliability to tasks and services.”
New generations learn from their elders
There are plenty of global role models in popular culture that young(ish) Australians can look up to.
Take music. Gone are the days when you had to get a gig on Countdown (as great as it was) to get better known in Sydney and Melbourne. Now Australian bands can use technology to take their tunes global. Plus, pioneers like the Easybeats, LRB, INXS, ACDC, Midnight Oil, and even Molly Meldrum have shown it’s entirely possible to perform and network internationally.
So many role models
The same thing applies in popular entertainment – think the Aussie takeover of Hollywood at the Oscars this year. Or in the business world – the Kangaroo mafia running riot in corporate circles in London, New York, Bangkok or Dubai.
There are about a million Australians who work overseas as expats. That’s allowed groups like Advance to recruit Gen X and Gen Y in all four corners, forming an Australian community in the world’s business capitals.
Gen Y: Born to be global
We already have some fantastic Gen X and Gen Y global leaders, be they engineers, entrepreneurs or marketers.
Gen Y does have a “born to be global” attitude. According to Stack: “Gen Y (my generation) have grown up with technology, so extending your reach to all ends of the globe seems like an easier task than other generations would envisage.”
“Gen Y have been told all their lives that we can be anyone or anything we dream of being, which has helped breed a generation of strong, self-confident and independent people.”
Solomon agrees: “A lot of people, when they are older, are scared of debt and won’t take a risk. But I have found the rewards so exciting that it has been worth it. In many ways, it’s not your age, it’s your attitude, your confidence, how you were brought up and your values. If you’ve got some get up and go, you’ll get up and go!”
So have no fear, Generation X is ready to become the export generation. And Generation Y will really be the global generation.
As for the baby boomers, some of them are already sea changing, tree changing and cool-changing down to Tasmania (for more comfortable, cooler weather and a good pinot noir) but we need their experience and mentoring.
After all, in our recent economic history we converted from a closed economy to an inclusive one. In the future we’ll need to help put the green back into the green and gold.
Tim Harcourt is chief economist with the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade). A prolific author and globetrotter, Tim has visited over 50 countries in the past five years alone. His articles and speeches can be found at www.austrade.gov.au/economistscorner. Tim’s latest best-selling book, ‘The Airport Economist’, can be found at www.theairporteconomist.com and all good bookshops – including airport bookshops!