Australia and the World: The Australian Paradox

The Australian paradox: Relaxed, comfortable… and anxious

Has Australia been having its very own Cultural Revolution? Listen to a respondent in one of my recent surveys of the national mood: 'You feel as if you're on a runaway train, speeding out of control. You're too scared to jump off because you know you'll be left behind, so you hang on, but you have no idea where this is taking you.'

Hyperbolic, perhaps, but when you look at the last quarter-century of our social and economic history, you can see why some Australians are feeling bewildered, challenged, distressed and even depressed. Others, of course, feel the opposite: energised, excited and engrossed by the experience of living through such unstable and unpredictable times.

Four revolutions have been reshaping us.

The gender revolution, ushered in by the women's liberation movement of the mid-70s, has radically redefined the place of women in Australian society, with implications for almost every aspect of Australian life: marriage, parenthood, family life, the neighbourhood, the retail environment, the political landscape, the workplace. Even men have been reluctantly drawn into the revolution, though many young women report there are still plenty of dinosaurs out there – in academia and in the workplace – who are struggling to come to terms with what 'equality' actually means and who still treat women as if they are invisible, inferior or made to be exploited.

A few demographic snapshots capture the impact of all this on our way of life.

About 45 percent of contemporary marriages will end in divorce. One million dependent children live with only one of their natural parents. Almost a quarter of families with dependent children are single-parent families. About 500,000 kids are involved in a regular mass migration between the homes of custodial and non-custodial parents.

The marriage rate is at its lowest for 100 years. The birthrate is the lowest it's ever been, which means we are currently producing, relative to total population, the smallest generation of children Australia has ever seen. (One implication: they'll probably suffer from over-zealous parenting, producing our own version of China's 'little emperor' syndrome. Another: the growing army of non-parents will be profoundly uninterested in them, leading to more demand for child-free restaurants, resorts and even housing estates.)

The Australian household, gradually shrinking over the past 100 years, has increased its rate of shrinkage in the past 30. More than 50 percent of households now contain only one or two people and the single-person household is our fastest-growing household type. While this adds to feelings of loneliness and isolation for involuntary singles, it is a symbol of new-found freedom and independence for others. It may also turn out to be good news for communities: the human herd instinct won't be denied and when it is not satisfied by the domestic herd, we look elsewhere – to the coffee shop, the book club, the adult-education class – for the sense of belonging that is vital to our personal, social and moral health.

Falling marriage and birthrates are the result of many factors, but one is the ethos of the rising generation of young Australian adults. Shaped by the experience of growing up in a society in a state of rapid change, they have learned to keep their options open; to hang loose; to wait and see. Their favourite question: 'What else is there?' This is not a generation likely to rush into anything – especially not marriage and parenthood.

They are also remaking the gender revolution in their own image. Young women no longer want to be called 'feminists': for them, liberation means freedom to choose, and they are determined to exercise their freedom in ways that challenge the thinking of the pioneering feminists of the 70s and 80s. They'll marry if they want, reproduce if they want, be dependent on a man if they want, work if they want, dress as they please and be as 'feminine' as any simpering pre-revolutionary when they want to be. They have a new mantra: 'I want to have it all, but not all at once.' They refuse to be slaves to one view of liberation – the all-at-once view – in the way they think their mothers were.

On the other side of the gender divide, the New Bloke has emerged: comfortable both with his masculinity (unlike the pathetic and doomed SNAG, invented then soon despised by women), and with the new meanings of female liberation. The old-fashioned larrikin is not far beneath the surface, but the New Bloke knows that male chauvinism was only ever a panicked, defensive rear-guard attempt to slow the process of men's ultimate acceptance of women as true equals.

Meanwhile, the economic revolution has been challenging our traditional assumptions about egalitarian Australia and the place of work in our lives. If we once thought secure employment, like stable marriage, was one of the twin pillars of a stable society, we're now learning to live with a widespread sense of job insecurity. (Even CEOs have to face the fact that the average tenure in the top job is down to three years.)

Work has been radically redistributed, with growing emphasis on casual, part-time employment, and this has resulted in a redistribution of household income. The top 20 percent of households now enjoy an average annual household income of about $175,000, while the bottom 20 percent have an average annual household income of about $12,000.

We still embrace the egalitarian dream, but it's turning sour. Already a sense of entitlement (the harbinger of an institutionalised social-class structure) is emerging at the top of the heap while, at the bottom, bright tales of the nation's economic buoyancy only increase the sense of despair.

The information technology revolution, simultaneously, has been redefining the way we live, work, communicate, inform and entertain ourselves. The long-term effects are hard to predict. We're already confusing data-transfer with communication, and that's an error we'll have to correct. We're also beginning to realise that 'the global village' is a hoax: humans are herd animals, and electronic linkages will only get you so far. Herds still need their sense of place; their members need to see and touch each other.

The fourth revolution is in our sense of ourselves: the idea of the multicultural society (still a source of uneasiness to many Australians); the growing sense that we are defined by our diversity but that this may be too slippery a peg on which to hang a national identity; a painful recognition that we really don't know what to do about Aboriginal reconciliation; an acknowledgement of the tension arising from the fact that although our geographical region is increasingly our economic region as well, it still doesn't feel like a cultural fit.

With all that going on, it's no wonder so many Australians are desperate for a breather, or are drawn to the comfort of nostalgia, or yearn for a bit of stability. They couldn't contemplate the idea of changing the Federal government at the recent election, for instance: that was one boat they didn't want to rock when so many others were rocking around them.

The current mood is characterised by disengagement – from politics, from current affairs, from social issues. Feeling daunted by a 'big picture' that seems beyond their control, they bring their horizons up close: me, the family, the backyard, the street, the school, the weekend, the holidays. (Lifestyle TV programs have swamped current affairs, except when there's a disaster or scandal on offer.)

In the short term, disengagement, like retail therapy, works as a circuit-breaker. We retreat to the backyard and feel better – more relaxed, more comfortable, more 'in control'. But as a society we pay a price: we become less compassionate, more prejudiced, less tolerant. We take refuge in materialism, rating economic factors above all others in deciding whether we're 'doing well' as individuals or as a nation.

We perceive the world beyond the front gate as a rougher, tougher place than it used to be. We exaggerate our fear of crime and violence; we become more protective of our kids; we welcome, more than ever, the escape into sport and showbiz.

We also try to deal with our lurking uneasiness by calling for tighter controls – more rules and regulations, tougher (preferably mandatory) sentencing of criminals, harsher treatment of asylum-seekers, more emphasis on 'security', more control over everything from the behaviour of company directors to the behaviour of dog-walkers; from the information on product packaging to the warnings on playground equipment.

For some people, the search for control leads to a desire for the black-and-white certainty of religious and other forms of fundamentalism: economic rationalism, hard-line feminism, bleak environmentalism and even the single-factorial approach to health ('hormone therapy is the answer!').

The good news is that when the focus turns inwards, we begin to examine what we see. The present mood of disengagement may well give way to a more contemplative mood as we become more interested in the quality of our lives, and in the ways we express the values we claim to espouse. This explains the rise of interest in spirituality; the so-called 'sea-change' fantasy ('if only we could move to a little place up the coast'); the urge to simplify and down-shift; the dream of 'balance'.

It also explains why so many Australians report that a crisis in their lives – a retrenchment, a marriage breakdown, a major illness – had the unexpected but welcome effect of forcing them to rethink their priorities: 'I didn't think so at the time, but it was the best thing that's happened to me'.

Let's hope we won't have to wait for a national crisis – political, environmental, military – to precipitate that kind of re-thinking on a large scale. There are plenty of pressing problems that could engage our attention, from water and transport to homelessness and poverty. Perhaps some visionary leadership will be the catalyst; more likely, our re-engagement with the national agenda will be part of a gradual process beginning with the urge to connect with local neighbourhoods and communities. No wonder 'village' has become one of our favourite words.

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