Despite the fact that we are three times richer than in the 1950s,
nearly two thirds of Australians say they cannot afford to buy everything
they really need. And it's not just the poorest who complain. Nearly half
of the richest 20 per cent of households say they do not have enough money
to buy what they need.
These 'middle-class whingers' are caught in a life-long quest to make
their incomes match their consumer desires; and because their desires
always outstrip their incomes they constantly feel deprived. Consumer
society relies on the never-ending creation of desire for more.
But some people manage to break out of the cycle. New
research by The Australia Institute (pdf file, 129Kb), reported in The
Sydney Morning Herald (January 11), has uncovered a large but hidden
class of citizens who consciously reject the trappings of material
success. A Newspoll survey has found that over the past 10 years 23 per
cent of Australians aged 30 to 59 have made a voluntary long-term change
to their lifestyles resulting in earning less money. The figure excludes
early retirees, those returning to study and women resigning to have
Some employers are responding to the cultural revolution reflected by
these 'downshifters' by introducing greater work flexibility, with the
Federal Employment Department announcing a new deal that allows public
servants to sacrifice pay for an extra two months annual leave. They can
also choose more family-friendly hours. For some time teachers in NSW have
been able to opt for a 20 per cent reduction in pay and in exchange take
every fifth year off to do whatever they like.
While the reasons for downshifting identified by the Australia
Institute survey are diverse (more time with family, more balance,
more fulfilment), those making the change share a belief that excessive
pursuit of money and materialism comes at a substantial cost to
their own lives and those of their families.
The middle-class whinger is a close cousin of the aspirational voter in
whose hands, the pundits tell us, government lies. These voters aspire to
wealthy lifestyles characterised by trophy homes, private schooling, flash
cars, home theatres and whatever else marks them out as having 'made it'.
Such voters are open to political bribery.
But for downshifters the 'hip-pocket nerve' has been cauterised. They
might be called 'anti-aspirational voters'. For every anti-aspirational
voter another remains in the closet; they agree with the basic values and
life priorities of downshifters but lack the resolve or, in some cases,
the wherewithal, to make the transition to downshifting.
The survey results show that the phenomenon is by no means confined to
middle-class professionals and successful business people who can afford
to cut their incomes. Downshifters certainly include people in this
category, but they are just as likely to be low and middle-income people
who have decided to accept reduced incomes, live more simply and spend
more time on activities other than making money.
The numbers of Australians taking the downshifting path appear to be
growing. Many are baby boomers who have done well financially but just as
many are in their late 20s and 30s. Younger downshifters are somewhat more
likely to articulate post-materialist values, those that explicitly reject
consumerism in favour of simpler and more sustainable lifestyles. Many
have taken advantage of the flexibility permitted by the deregulated
labour market. They can more easily change jobs, work independently,
reduce their hours and negotiate more time off.
Rejecting the consumerist definition of success takes courage, and the
absence of everyday role models makes it all the more difficult. It is
unusual for prominent people to reject these values and when they do - as
in the cases of former National Party leader Tim Fischer and Chairman of
the ACCC Alan Fels - their decisions to step down for family reasons
attract widespread and sympathetic attention. But, because they have been
earning high salaries for a long time, they do not provide suitable role
models for ordinary people thinking of taking the plunge.
Downshifters frequently report that they feel the weight of social
pressure because of their decision. They are seen to be 'crazy' to reject
higher incomes and the accoutrements of materialism. Or they are accused
of trying to cover up failure. But downshifters have simply chosen
balanced lives rather than lives obsessed with material acquisition. Those
who remain the prisoners of overwork and consumer dreaming, and find
themselves beset by stress, ill-health and family strain will soon be seen
as the crazy ones.
The old political parties compete with each other to demonstrate
concern for 'struggling families', promising tax cuts and middle-class
welfare. The political system is geared towards trying to satisfy the
noisy demands of middle-class whingers, demands that can never be
satisfied because complaining is endemic as long as wealthy people feel
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