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Work less, earn less, live a little: tracking the anti-aspirational voter

By Clive Hamilton - posted Wednesday, 22 January 2003


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 babies.

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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.

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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.

Political responses

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 somehow deprived.

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This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 13 January 2003. An edited version of it appeared in The Age on 11 January.



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About the Author

Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.

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