- The Future of Us: demography gets a makeover, by Liz Allen. NewSouth. $29.99.
There was a demography department at the ANU which was housed in the same building where I worked in the early 1970s. Some of the demographers had well-deserved international reputations but they seemed like the other academics in the building, reserved, reticent and private about their work.
I sometimes vaguely wondered about the nature of that work and its value, but history was all-important to me and I had little time for curiosity about others in the building.
So I was excited to read Liz Allen's new book. I would at last find out what it is that demographers do. Liz Allen is an ANU demographer, held in high regard by her peers. I don't say she is a typical demographer because I don't know what that would be.
But I can say, on the basis of this marvellous book, that she is a gifted and charming communicator, lively and alert to the ins and outs of debate and invariably interesting.
She is also an inspiring, if not inspirational, scholar, at ease in incorporating some of her life story into her book in a way that an historian would never do.
Her story may reduce the sensitive reader to tears; all readers will find it awe-inspiring.
But this is, in fact, a book about immigration and its place in Australian society. It directly challenges those who would seek to reduce the level of immigration to zero for fear for Australian jobs and of the increasingly stifling urban congestion and "over-population".
"It's very clear," Liz Allen writes. "Any talk about population size must consider population composition." This is central to her argument.
Relying on, and praising, the mighty work of the Australian Bureau of Statistics and its five-yearly census, which Liz Allen can see not lasting very much longer at all, she plots the composition of the Australian population and its implications for all of us.
Her arguments are well mounted, cogent, and, to this reviewer, compelling. The Future of Us is a book that should be read by policy-makers and anyone with a concern for Australia's future.
Liz Allen writes of the "ovarian lottery" and how luck plays a significant role in her account of contemporary Australia. It is clear to her that young first home buyers "are [now] only able to enter the housing market because of the wealth of their parents".
So it all comes back to the luck of being born into a well-off middle class family, or else making luck in some other way. Finding a wealthy partner would do also, but the chances of that lucky break would be relatively rare.
This is a fairly bleak outlook for many young Australians, and Allen writes sympathetically of the young being neglected by politicians who will always follow the money.
That is, they will nurture and protect older Australians who may have a bit of wealth.
Demographers, I discover, do know some history as well as having a fascinating capacity to manage and arrange statistics. The book is divided into three parts, the past, the present and the future, and the argument marches inexorably to its conclusion.
But demographers weigh in to current debate, at least this one, who gives us a ten-point plan for the future, which no historian would ever do.
Liz Allen argues that "as a demographer its my job to help draw up the map that we'll follow into the future".
So the social sciences can have a point and a usefulness beyond what we historians always thought of as the value of teaching and inculcating critical thinking.
And demographers tell it straight. "Without a coherent, integrated population policy, Australia risks going backwards." So get on the job, ministers and bureaucrats.
Liz Allen's thinking is wholly integrated. She is just as likely to throw in an informed discussion on the failure of infrastructure spending when writing about urban congestion and public transport difficulties as she is to stick to her own field of statistical analysis.
The integration of her argument touches so many aspects of Australia's current problems and dilemmas.
I don't think I should list out her ten-point plan for the future, but it seems so sensible, so possible and so creative that the reader, having followed the complexity of the argument thus far, is likely to close the book, for the plan is on the last page, screaming ''do it and do it now!''
Those demographers who seemed so much like the historians so many years ago, in their cardigans, their quiet studies and their humble demeanour were, in fact, a bunch of radicals with an agenda for Australia.
Liz Allen has taken on their mantle with enthusiasm and scholarly skill. Who knew?
- Michael McKernan is a Canberra writer and historian.