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There's no 'silver bullet' answer to the complex problems of social change

By Lindsay Tanner - posted Tuesday, 10 February 2004

There is a downside to the economic and social benefits since the 1950s - our relationships have suffered.

The most important question any historian can ask is, why now? Why did the Reformation occur in the 16th century and not in the 14th? Why was Australia colonised in 1788 and not in 1688 or 1888? Why did Nazism emerge in the 1920s and not the 1870s?

Answering the "why now?" question helps us understand the underlying causes of major events and changes in our society. It helps us avoid simplistic explanations like attributing the timing of Nazism's emergence to the birth of Adolf Hitler.


Christopher Scanlon ("You can't legislate to repair society, Mr Latham" The Age, 2/2/04) makes just this kind of mistake by attributing Australia's epidemic of social problems to the rise of economic rationalism and castigating the federal Labor Party for failing to tackle these problems at their alleged source.

Critics from the Right make the same mistake in attributing the increase in family breakdown, drug abuse and youth alienation to Feminism and the '60s revolution.

These phenomena are all related, and are all products of dramatic changes in technology and production processes since the 1950s.

Our behaviour, and the way we organise our society, are heavily influenced by the capabilities we create for ourselves. Once the pill was invented, sexual behaviour changed and family relationships changed. Television and the car totally changed our lives, and the mobile phone and the Internet have brought similarly dramatic changes. Computers have radically altered the production process, particularly in the financial sector, where antiquated regulatory structures from the pre-computer era simply became unsustainable.

The two political revolutions of the postwar era, the '60s social revolution and the '80s economic revolution, are direct outcomes of these changes. Enormous improvements in material living standards, and huge increases in social problems, have also ensued. The challenge for politicians is to tackle these problems without falling prey to the delusion that turning back the clock to the structures of the past - such as women back in the kitchen or a highly protected and regulated economy - will help solve them.

While richer than ever before, our society is awash with loneliness, stress, youth alienation, family breakdown and a host of other problems such as drug abuse, gambling addiction, violence and youth suicide.


The economic and social changes since the 1950s have generated an enormous wave of individualism in our society. While this has meant many benefits, it has also had plenty of costs, particularly to the health and strength of our relationships. In the world of stress, change and choice we now inhabit, our relationships are under great pressure.

We're working longer and harder, separating from our partners and children more, living alone more, and moving more. We've built a society in which we have less time for our children, less interaction with our neighbours and less involvement in the community.

These problems cannot be alleviated by creating new bureaucracies and big-spending programs but they are the responsibility of governments.

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Article edited by Sarah Johnson.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published in The Age on 3 February 2004.

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About the Author

Lindsay Tanner is Shadow Minister for Communications and Shadow Minister for Community Relationships and the Labor Member for Melbourne.

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