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Adelaide – Athens of the South’s long, slow decline

By Malcolm King - posted Thursday, 15 December 2011


This is a story of the slow decline of the City of Churches, the Athens of the South or as the painter Jeffrey Smart once called it, with some distain, 'Adders'.

I lived in Adelaide until my late 20s but moved to Melbourne for work in 1988. My wife's parents live in Adelaide and as they are ageing quickly, we moved back to help three years ago.

There are serious problems in Adelaide: A stagnant and contracting employment market, fear of the new, 'recruitment apartheid' and nepotism, to name just a few.

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The closed shop syndrome

Anyone who has lived in a country town knows what I mean when I say Adelaide is a 'closed shop'. This is not to suggest that people from other states won't get a job. They will and the fact that one out of 50 interstate applicants will be hired, will be lauded as 'evidence’ of rising jobs demand or satisfying the ubiquitous demand for 'skills.'

The closed shop syndrome has its historical antecedents in the fall of the State Bank in Adelaide in 1991 and the gradual decline of the local manufacturing industry. Large and small employers sacked thousands of people (even the State Government will sack 4000 public servants over the next three years). Not only was money tight in the local economy, but also consumer and employer confidence was shaken to the core.

Add to this the casualization of the workforce, the slow creep of HR bureaucracy in to corporate life and you have the conditions for a closed shop. Employers only employ people they know – or who can be vouched as safe by an authorative second party.

Over the last thirty years, the best and brightest employees have fled to the eastern states or overseas. Adelaide needs them back urgently but the welcome mat is threadbare. When they do return, ex-pats are forced to apply for lower ranked and lower waged positions where they have more qualifications and experience than their managers. Naturally, few succeed.

Other states, especially Queensland and Western Australia, are poaching nurses, accountants, aged care nurses, engineers and a raft of other professions and trades by offering them higher salaries and training. It is gutting whole sectors. Adelaide can't compete.

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So what does this mean for the state and especially Adelaide? If you look at the economic indicators such as exports or mining, they say that Adelaide is 'doing fine' but alas, the real politics, the lived experience, is very different. Adelaide is slowly dying.

GSP by state

On a measure of Gross State Product (GSP) South Australia (Adelaide has about 75 per cent of the population) is ranked just above Tasmania at $47,466 and it is falling.

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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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