Baby boomers today are three times better off than their parents and
perhaps five times better off than their grandparents at the same age. But
pick up any newspaper or listen to any politician and you would conclude
that average Australians cannot make ends meet.
The commentators are reflecting back the sense of material deprivation
felt by the great majority of Australians, including the richest. Despite
the fact that we live in an era of unprecedented abundance, the broad mass
of middle-class Australians believe that their incomes are insufficient to
provide for their needs.
But the problem is not inadequate incomes but inflated needs. This new
‘middle-class battler’ syndrome has transformed Australia’s
political culture. Politicians tell us ad nauseam that ‘people are doing
it tough out there’ and ‘families are struggling’, validating the
self-pity of people who are well-off by any standard.
John Howard has been more adept than others at fanning the embers of
complaint. The manufactured privations of ‘Howard’s battlers’ gave
the Coalition victory in the 2001 election.
All of this is bad news for the ten per cent or so of Australians who
are genuinely struggling. Political parties can see more advantage in
pandering to the imagined woes of the middle classes than the real
distress of the poor. So they cut taxes on the well-off and increase
middle-class welfare, and use the complaints of the wealthy as an excuse
to shift resources from public schools and hospitals to private ones.
The emphasis on the tribulations of the middle classes not only
trivialises the concerns of those facing real hardship but reinforces
their obsession with their own financial circumstances. The rise of the
middle-class battler over the past 10-15 years has coincided with the
outbreak of ‘luxury fever’.
While ordinary citizens have always watched and envied the rich, a
qualitative change has occurred in the relationship over the past two
decades. In the 1980s attitudes to consumption and material acquisition
underwent a transformation, reflected in booming sales of luxury travel,
luxury cars, cosmetic surgery, holiday homes and professional-quality home
Above all, houses have become bigger and more opulent. People have been
building bigger houses at the same time as the average size of families
has been shrinking. The average new house is over 220 square metres,
double that of the 1950s, and it must be filled with furniture, carpets,
appliances and ensuites, with retail sales of these goods booming.
Australian households are accumulating so much ‘stuff’ that even
bigger houses and garages can’t cope, and a burgeoning self-storage
industry has grown to accommodate it. There are now nearly 1000
self-storage facilities around the country.
Although incomes have never been higher, the desired standard of living
of the average household is now so far above the level actual incomes can
provide that people feel a gnawing sense of deprivation.
Television is the main culprit, but not so much through advertising as
through the presentation of opulence as normal and attainable. The
proliferation of lifestyle, home improvement and travel programs, and
soaps in which the consumption patterns of the very rich are portrayed as
normal, both contribute to a false view of the world.
The social and political implications of the incessant scaling up of
lifestyle goals are far-reaching. The expansion of ‘needs’ often
outpaces the growth of incomes with the result that many people who are
wealthy by any historical or international standard actually feel poor.
The Australia Institute’s survey shows that an extraordinarily high
proportion of Australians, including those in the wealthiest households,
believe that they cannot afford to buy everything they really need and
that they spend nearly all of their incomes on ‘the basic necessities of
life’. The average East Timorese might demur.
This imagined deprivation explains why, after decades of sustained
economic growth that have seen average incomes increase several times
over, the ‘Aussie battler’ has not disappeared from public discourse
but has become more ubiquitous than ever. The self-indulgent hearts of the
suffering rich are the holy grail of modern politics.
Abandoning the noble goals of nationhood and commitment to building a
better society, political parties now actively foment dissatisfaction
amongst the middle classes in order to perpetuate the myth of the Aussie
battler, for they can then claim to understand their pain and offer
solutions. The little Aussie battler has turned into the great Australian
Yet when asked to reflect on the state of our society, a large
proportion of Australians believe that we place too much emphasis on money
and material goods and neglect the things that really matter. Prompted by
a thousand personal epiphanies, a growing number of Australians are
realizing that their preoccupation with money and consumption is making
them miserable, and are opting to change their lives to bring back some
balance. These subversives are the forerunners of the politics of the