Australia at a Turning Point

Saturday 18 May 2002

Paper based on a presentation by Hugh Mackay

It is the greatest of all cliches to say that Australian society is changing. It is a bit hard to talk about contemporary Australia without mentioning the changes, but it is possible to resist the widespread temptation to assume that change inevitably means degeneration.

Many of our demographic statistics point to radical change, and some of them (like the high and rising rate of youth suicide, or the record level of tranquillisers and antidepressants) are a bit hard to interpret in anything other than a negative way.

But every statistic tells a story and some of our most dramatic statistics tell quite complex stories. We are experiencing our lowest-ever birthrate and our lowest marriage rate for 100 years. Combined with our high divorce rate (40% of contemporary marriages seem destined to end in divorce), that means the institutions of marriage and the family are undergoing significant change.

The women's movement has played a part (encouraging women to be more financially and emotionally independent), and so has the change in our divorce laws. Obviously, as young people experience a high rate of divorce among their parents, they become more wary of marriage. But there's a cultural shift involved here, as well: as a society, we are moving from a view of marriage as an institution to marriage as a relationship: older Australians entered the institution with a commitment to its stability; younger Australians evaluate their marriage on the basis of the quality of their relationship, which means that the entire concept of marriage becomes more subject to regular assessment and, in the process, more transient.

Attitudes to marriage and parenthood are also influenced by the tendency of the rising generation to postpone commitment: having grown up in a world of accelerating change, they've learned to keep their options open.

These factors - plus others associated with an ageing population - are driving the rise of single-person households: by 2006, the single-person household will be the most common household type in Australia.

Meanwhile, we have set a new record for the level of personal debt (largely driven by the influence of Baby Boomers who have not yet shaken the habits of the Sixties and who continue to embrace debt as the pathway to instant gratification).

Reviewing such trends, it's perhaps not so surprising that the level of consumption of antidepressants continues to rise: some social analysts whimsically suggest that if you're not on antidepressants, that's because you're not fully aware of what's happening to you.

Underlying these statistics are a series of contradictions which characterise contemporary Australia. We are experiencing record levels of personal wealth at the top of the economic heap (fuelled by a boom in economic prosperity unprecedented since the 1950s) and yet we are experiencing a steady increase in the problems of poverty and homelessness. ACOSS estimates that about 2 million Australians could be classified as 'poor'; about 30 per cent of households have a combined annual household income of less than $20,000.

There are contradictions, too, in the way we are distributing work. While members of the full-time workforce are now working such long hours that their overtime alone absorbs about 500,000 extra full-time jobs, there are still roughly two million Australians who are either unemployed or seriously under-employed, and unemployment among young Australians has crept back up to 25 per cent.

Most of us are walking contradictions: we experience great optimism about Australia's future combined with persistent pessimism about the state of contemporary society. We are experiencing a surge of confidence, yet we continue to feel deeply insecure.

Four revolutions at once

There is no mystery about the insecurity: it is a long-term problem in Australia, arising from the fact that we have been living through four socio-cultural revolutions at once.

The gender revolution has radically redefined the role and status of women (and, gradually, caused men to reassess their own roles and responsibilities). In turn, that has reshaped the institutions of marriage and the family, the life of the neighbourhood, the nature of shopping, the landscape of politics and the dynamics of the workplace.

Simultaneously, the information revolution has been changing the way we live and work and, in the process, blurring the distinction between human communication and mere data transfer. As human encounters are rapidly being replaced by electronic transactions, our sense of connection with each other is being eroded. (There is some encouragement to be had, therefore, from recent American research suggesting that when people imagine they have fallen in love on the Internet, a face-to-face meeting usually dispels any such thought!)

Meanwhile, we are still in the throes of a cultural-identity revolution, in which we are coming to terms with new meanings of 'Australian', a new sense of our place in the region, a new, more confident acceptance of multiculturalism ... and, less happily, a challenge to our traditional embrace of egalitarianism implied by some of the other social, cultural and economic upheavals.

While all that has been happening, we have also been living through the economic revolution sometimes dubbed 'economic rationalism'. Terms like 'downsizing' and 'human resources' capture the essence of how that revolution has been conveyed to the Australian community. Increasingly, people are inclined to believe that when a corporation experiences tension between the social conscience and the bottom line, the bottom line will win. The bleak folklore of the workforce now includes the proposition that 'if you've still got a job, that's because they haven't worked out how to get rid of you'.

A sense of disengagement

At the turn of the century, Australia is characterised by a renewed sense of caution, uncertainty and, above all, a sense of disengagement from the national agenda.

In essence, the problem is that Australians are feeling overloaded by a rather daunting national agenda containing items which seem utterly beyond their control: globalisation, foreign investment, population policy, immigration, youth unemployment, the republic, the GST, Aboriginal reconciliation ... all of this seems too hard, considering that it is coming on the heels of the four revolutions which have already so destabilised us.

It is as though Australians are entering a period of retreat; they are saying that the distant horizon is too forbidding, so they will deal with a more local, immediate, personal agenda. The mood has swung from a concern with national issues to a concern with tending our own patch. We have become more self-centred, less compassionate, more prejudiced and more concerned about things we can control: what video will we rent tonight? Will we put another room in the roof? Where will we go for the holidays? Which school will we send the kids to next year?

The implication of this period of disengagement is that, as people focus more on their own personal agendas, they do, indeed, begin to feel more cheerful and more optimistic. (It's no wonder that the media audience is drifting away from news and current affairs programs, in favour of 'lifestyle', voyeurism, comedy, romance, violence and all the other traditional escapist fare that takes our minds off 'the real world'.)

Are we at a turning point?

I see signs of three emerging responses to the events of the past few years, that will help to reshape Australian society during the early years of the 21st century.

First, a significant and growing number of Australians will be looking for ways to close 'the values gap': that is, the gap between the values we claim to espouse and the way we actually lead our lives. There is increasing talk about the need to 'restore balance'; to 'get my life under control'; to live 'the way I want to live'.

This quiet revolution will be led by women (who are increasingly reaching levels of authority and influence in business and the professions and, looking around them, are concluding that 'this is no way to live'). But men are getting the message, too.

The second discernible trend is less attractive: it is heard in the growing voice of those who are not saying 'I want to get my life under control', but 'I want to get your life under control'. This is the voice of regulation. These are the religious, social and cultural fundamentalists - the people who want to see tougher sentencing, more censorship, more laws to control everything that moves. Their answer to the instability and uncertainty of contemporary life is to say that if only we had more rules and regulations, we could restore our sense of security.

There is a double hazard in all this, of course. On the one hand, we might give away too many of our freedoms; on the other, we might stifle the very consciences such people would hope to quicken (since the more we regulate, the less we leave to the moral choices of individuals).

The third signpost comes from the rising generation of young Australians, who are showing us how to make sense of life in an uncertain world. Having never known anything but an accelerating rate of change and an unpredictable future, they have developed three strategies for coping:

  1. Keep your options open as a way of incorporating a realistic uncertainty into your world-view;
  2. The quest for a spiritual framework is leading them to explore post-material values;
  3. They have become our most tribal generation, having realised that the most precious resource they have for coping with life in an uncertain world is each other.

The common thread running through much of this analysis is that we are on the threshold of a period of significant community development. The shrinking household means that we will have to satisfy our herd instinct in new ways: book clubs, eating out, adult education classes and community/group activities of every kind will satisfy the desire for connections with the herd which were previously satisfied by the life of the household.

This coincides with the increasing tribalism of young people, and a widespread desire to 'make the community work'.

All of this is very good news for libraries. Increasingly, the library can be the 'village green' where people meet not only to borrow or read books, but to discuss issues, to participate in 'book club' and similar events, to hear authors speak and to connect with the world of ideas. If communities thrive on conversation and contact, then libraries will be failing in their responsibility to their communities if they don't provide facilities for this contact to happen.

Of course, electronic networks are important but, in the emerging world of the 21st century, the paradox is that the more 'wired' and 'linked' we become, the more we crave compensatory human contact. The library can be the nexus between both forms of 'connectedness'.

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