The decline of the Australian in the UK
- 22 January 2014
- From the section Magazine
Once moving to the UK was a well-worn path for many young Australians. Now the numbers arriving on British shores are falling. Kris Griffiths asks why.
Rising migration might be a source of much British soul-searching, but the numbers of one long-standing immigrant group appear to be receding - the Australians.
Ten years ago you didn't have to walk far in Shepherd's Bush, west London, in its neighbouring enclaves Acton and Hammersmith, or in nearby Fulham and Putney to encounter a ubiquitous Aussie on a rite-of-passage working holiday, using the UK as a base to hop around Europe while grafting and partying.
Manchester and Edinburgh have also traditionally been popular spots for Australians to settle.
Now they are abandoning the UK in their thousands. The number of Australian working visas issued by the Home Office has more than halved since 2006 to fewer than 15,000, while the ONS reported a drop of almost 10,000 Australians resident in the UK in the year between 2011-12.
For the UK, the repercussions extend much further than having fewer Aussies around to engage in sporting banter. For many enterprises it has meant a slow death.
Antipodean travellers' bible TNT magazine entered administration for a second time in September 2013 and remains bullish about the long-term presence of Australians in the UK. "London will always be a popular place to live for Australians as they use it as a base to explore Europe and beyond," editor Caroline Garnar says.
Several Australian-themed Walkabout pubs have closed, including the chain's famous Shepherd's Bush branch. Also closing their doors were nearby Jumbuck's Aussie Pie Co and The Australia Shop after 18 years' selling imported Australian food products.
Dave Hancocks, manager of Reading's Walkabout outlet, explains the chief reason behind his Australian customers and bar staff evaporating. "It's simply an economic one: Australia's strong growth has continued while the UK has struggled.
"As the Australian dollar is now worth much more, Aussies don't have to work here so much to travel Europe for a summer, after which it's much more tempting to return home where they can easily be paid twice as much for doing the same work."
Trevor Kite, assistant manager at Fulham pub The Larrik Inn, which takes its name from the Australian slang term "larrikin'", tells a similar story.
"This year it's gotten even worse. We've now had to 'de-Australianise' the venue as there aren't enough of them out there any more. The eight we used to have behind the bar have all gone, replaced by Brits or Europeans."
It's not just traditional bar work that's seen departing Aussies freeing up jobs for locals, but also higher up the employment chain where easily transferable skills, qualifications and work ethic once made Australians valued employees.
"There are definitely less of them about nowadays," says Liam Doyle, Senior Consultant at City-based Argyll Scott who recruits for the finance and technology industries.
"Australian candidates were generally always well-trained and educated and spoke English as a first language which helps in interviews. The government haven't made it any easier for them to get visas though, and the job market's been flat for years, until the last six months that is. A bit too late it seems."
The visa regime Doyle describes stems from government changes to the system in 2011 which abolished the general visa category under which many Australians had applied, introduced a cap of 20,700 on the number who could be sponsored by UK employers, and permitted a further 1,000 only of those with "exceptional talent".
The Home Office says the visa changes should not affect the number of Australians legitimately coming to visit or work in the UK, and notes that the cap of 20,700 represents an increase of nearly 7,000 on the number of skilled workers who were sponsored by employers in 2009. "We value our close relationship with Australia, which is based on our strong links through the Commonwealth and our shared history," a spokesman says.
However, the new restrictions were decried as ''absurd discrimination'' against Australians by London Mayor Boris Johnson, who also claimed that Australia shared Britain's tastes and humour and was thus "more deeply connected with us" than any other country.
Johnson's views are echoed by Walkabout's Dave Hancocks, who underlines the consequences. "Previously Australians could get sponsored to stay beyond their visa when working in hospitality-management roles. That's not possible now though so we've lost many experienced managers, which has negatively affected many of our venues and also deprives the UK of positive contributors to the economy.
"It's sad that the close relationship between our countries has been slowly weakened."
For many, the Commonwealth bond between Britain and Australia has been one of the world's strongest, built on a shared history and monarchy which has seen Australians fighting alongside the British in both world wars, and both nations enjoying a longstanding rivalry in major sports like rugby and cricket, something neither shared with the US, for instance.
Adding to the forces pushing Australians away from this island is a major one pulling them back to their own, which transcends economic or bureaucratic considerations.
"Australian society has transformed in the last 10 years," affirms Dale Eaton, director of The Britain-Australia Society whose membership has dropped 30% over the last year.
"The cultural cringe has evaporated and Australia is now a super-confident country with high expectations of quality and service - a country at the top of its game."
This view is echoed by Simon Larcey, a Melbourne-based entrepreneur who established an online portal for expats in London before he returned home when the recession bit. "When I moved to London in '95 it had everything and Australia seemed tiny in comparison. But since then Australia has matured heaps. Today we've as good or better opportunities than London did in the boom and we're close to Asia - a huge opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs."
Indeed, China and Japan have become two of Australia's largest trading partners.
Accordingly today's newer, sparser breed of Australian arriving on British shores has quite different priorities to those who voyaged around the world a decade or two ago - no longer so inclined to pull pints to fund their customary trips to Munich's Oktoberfest and Anzac Day in Gallipoli.
Those still here tend more towards the higher strata of the workplace, says Eaton: "White-collar professionals - lawyers and accountants - rather than backpackers and barmen."
Nonetheless, Australians have long been established as much-loved entertainers in the UK ever since Barry Humphries, the comic legend behind the characters Barry McKenzie and Dame Edna Everage, first moved to England in 1959. Since then, Australian faces in the UK arts and media - Kylie Minogue, John Pilger, Nick Cave - have become a familiar fixture.
A relatively recent addition is Sydney-born-London-based novelist Kathy Lette, whose Mad Cows and Foetal Attraction featured plot lines about Australians moving to the UK.
"Previous generations, Clive James, Germaine Greer etc, felt they had to prove themselves by 'making it' in Britain," she says.
"But no longer. Australians have not only come of age culturally but we've also realised we're actually part of Asia. Young Aussies now tend to want to explore Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan and China, rather than freezing their bits off in a Hackney bedsit.
"Some Brits also have a condescension chromosome when it comes to Antipodeans. They presume our record collections are criminal, not classical. Young Aussies are perhaps weary of this. You'll miss us when we're gone, though."
There is still some way to go, however, before younger Australians become as vulnerable a species in the UK as koalas have back home.