‘They were terrible times’: How Australians remember the 1990s recession
Australia’s last recession was almost 30 years ago.
But memories of dole queues, painfully high interest rates and tight budgets are still fresh in the minds of many.
Here is how some readers remember Australia’s last recession.
Work just dried up: redundancies and hours cut
Teresa R remembers going through six interviews for a retail job:
I remember the recession in 1991. I had just completed 4 years at university, and there were no jobs.
I lined up with hundreds of others in the city for a retail job with Daimaru — a Japanese department store about to open in Melbourne Central — and had to go through six interviews to get a job selling handbags.
It was a tough time for university graduates. No hope at all of gaining a job for which you had just spent four years studying.
But I was so happy when I got the job at Daimaru — considering how many of us had applied for the positions — I was so grateful to get one of the very few jobs on offer back then.
For Allan A, the recession was a huge wake-up call:
As a young worker who knew nothing about economies and economics and cared even less, it was a wake-up call and education into the ways of our world.
The place of my work was a foreign multinational-owned supplier of industrial equipment and parts to the transport, mining and agricultural sectors.
Business just suddenly stopped — and I mean stopped. From the phones ringing all day and people bustling here and there, to nothing — zip. The company, to their credit, or perhaps they knew more than the rest of us, did not lay off a single person.
We were put to work painting the premises, gardening the grounds, and painting all the gutters white around the driveways. Maybe they realised that re-hiring and training when business got back to normal would have been a greater impost than carrying us all through it.
But it was an eerie experience for sure.
Fiona M struggled with reduced hours and high interest rates:
In 1991 my (then fiancee) and I were two years into our first home mortgage and the interest rate was set at 17 per cent.
At my workplace, an architectural practice, about a third of the staff were retrenched and the rest of us had our hours reduced down to working 1 or 2 days less per week. It was a tough time, particularly with such high home loan repayments.
Now, at the other end of our lives we have low interest rates, when what we need is the high interest rates to protect our savings for our retirement!”
Memories of long queues for help and quiet city streets
Lorna J remembers bills on the fridge:
I remember the last recession. I was working part-time at a bank two days a week and my husband had just changed jobs so he was the first to go.
We had also just purchased our home in Victoria so paying off a mortgage at very high interest rate. We use to put the bills on the fridge in paying order and no idea how to pay them but the mortgage always came first.
We had two young children and because we weren’t able to dress them in the latest fashion at a snobby public school, they were teased.
My husband tried everything to get a job and he was only able to work casual, so one week we had money for food and also some money from the dole but the next fortnight, nothing. We thought at the time it wasn’t worth working as it was too hard to budget.
At least the dole was a regular income. He ended up taking a job 120km away but then a lot of the wages went on fuel.
We couldn’t afford to replace the old Ford Fairlane. We borrowed money from his mum and dad to pay those bills on the fridge.
Sarah M found a silver lining:
I was in my early teens when the last recession hit. I remember big queues with people applying for the dole, my parents looking sick trying to pay a mortgage with interest rates approximately 20 per cent, one of my parents losing their job twice because the company went bust (including losing last wages).
It was a big, big thing to go through. The silver lining is that I feel like I know what is coming and what to do and how to thrive/survive.
Barry O helped people try to find work:
I was working in the Commonwealth Employment Service during the last recession. As the only provider of government employment services, I recall queues stretching out the door of clients lining up to apply for our job vacancies.
I remember one day when one unlucky punter had waited in line for three hours with a job slip in hand (in those days jobs were displayed on boards so you wrote the number of the job you wanted to apply for) and by the time he got to the front, the job had been filled.
To say that the poor bloke wasn’t happy is an understatement! I also recall when the number of long-term unemployed exceeded the 1 million mark, and we had to call them all in for their Newstart interview, as it was called at the time.
Ruth R remembers quiet streets:
I was in my early 20s and I remember catching the tram from South Yarra to St Kilda Road as being a very melancholic experience.
The streets and public transport were almost as barren as they are presently [during COVID-19 lockdowns]. I moved to Sydney in March 1991 for better work opportunities.
There were upsides of course, like bank interest on term deposits.
Cliff W recalls a huge empty worksite in Sydney:
I remember the World Square hole in the middle of Sydney’s CBD. It was a part of the construction bubble bursting during the recession. The massive hole in the ground was there until the early 2000s.
The recession’s lasting impact
It changed the way Dan J managed finances:
In 1991, I was 16 years old, in high school. Both my parents worked for a family business. Because of the recession, they both lost their jobs. My grandparents lost their business, their home, and all of their assets to pay bills.
My brother lost his apprenticeship and had to stay at school or be unemployed. I was the only one in the family with a casual job — that turned into two casual jobs. I worked Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday, Sunday and went to school Monday to Friday.
As a 45-year-old today, I save money like any day is going to be a recession — it’s had a lasting affect on me and how I view money and security.
Jen especially loathes debt:
I remember the last recession like it was a fortnight ago. We were young, my husband lost his job with ANZ and we nearly lost our house.
They were terrible times. Ever since, I have hated debt. Right to this day, I never feel safe when we have debt.
Martin C hit the books, for a decade:
I remember the last recession. That’s why I spent 10 years at uni.
Memories spark concerns about the current downturn
Elaine remembers it well, and now worries for her own children:
In 1991, my husband had a factory in Bayswater, the place was buzzing, every factory running a vibrant business. Within a few months, they started closing one after the other, it never returned to that pre-recession time.
We managed to hang on by the skin of our teeth. Three little kids and double-digits interest rates on our mortgage.
Now I worry for my kids, all in their own homes and struggling now to keep their jobs in these COVID times. Boom and bust has always been around, but this is looking very dire indeed.
The COVID-19 recession has hit Matt S already, but his family are keeping their heads above water:
I remember the 1991 recession, but from the point of view of a 10 or 11-year-old. Parents had just built a new house, dad was two years into building his own business when the recession hit, it happened so quickly — interest rates blew up and the business closed, we had to sell the house and move in with the grandparents — Dad’s hair turned white pretty much overnight from the stress of it all.
While I was only a kid, I felt the effects of having to relocate to a new school, in a new area and have never forgotten — as an adult I have spent my working life trying to build a security net to avoid exactly this situation.
[I’m] turning 40 next week and despite losing a role of 15 years to COVID this year, we have thus far managed to weather the storm, with a new job picked up fairly quickly and although a substantial pay cut, it’s enough to keep our heads above water and avoid having to put our kids through the trauma of relocation and rebuilding our life just like we did in the 90s.
We made it through to the other side back then, I hope we all can again this time around.
It was tough, but some were optimistic
Like previous downturns, Liz says this recession will pass. Her children remember a lot snags for dinner and no-name brands:
I remember the recession in 1992. I’d just started a degree as a mature-age student, my husband’s work hours were cut back and we had two almost teenage kids.
The budget was cut back severely.
Today, our kids recall the meals from those days as consisting of mince and sausages and all things plain label. It was tough, but we survived and can now recall those times and share a laugh.
This, too, will pass and we’ll all thrive again.
Sonja N took a punt and pulled through:
I remember it well! I was 23, the business I was working for closed and I thought now what? I roped in a work buddy who was based in the London office and moved back.
My pitch was “if it doesn’t work out, we’ll spend summer on the beach with everyone else out of a job!” We went in instincts only, if we had a remote idea of what was involved we never would’ve started.
Everyone told us we were mad to start a business in a recession, we knew no better. So our little agency was a success story for over a decade. Be ignorant of other people’s negativity only.
Robyn W kept smiling:
We had three small children, aged three and under, I had given up work to look after the children, had just brought a house and all you could see was interest rates going up, up up, I think we got to 17 to 18 per cent.
Hard times, but got there. Keep smiling, think positive for everything.