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No vision, no hope? Suicide as the despair of the disadvantaged

By James Cumes - posted Monday, 23 February 2004

Evidence for increasing tensions affecting society seems to be contained in the statistics for suicide, especially among younger people. From the end of the Second World War until the late 1960s the suicide rate among young Australian males was low and stable. That was a period when the social mores and rules were explicit and fairly universally observed.

Then a dramatic change began - past routines were no longer to be relied on, as individual choice became the norm. Families were less available as a refuge in times of stress. Certainties about careers vanished and financial difficulties increased. Simultaneously, the suicide rate among young Australian males began to rise dramatically and by the mid-1990s was the second-highest in the world. In some age groups, suicide was the largest cause of death among young males.

Was the increase in the suicide rate affected by the breakdown in economic stability - and the consequent social degeneration - from the late 1960s onwards?


Many instabilities of the past quarter century have especially affected young males. Unemployment has become widespread and chronic. Many long-term unemployed are over 40 but the highest percentages have been among the young. The persistent prospect of long years of unemployment or of low-skilled, poorly paid jobs can lead either to revolt against the society, expressed often in criminal activity, or to a sense of despair.

The difference in suicide rates between young males and young females is striking. There may be many reasons, but a first inference is that young females are generally less dissatisfied with their lot than young males. In some ways this is surprising. The feminist revolution has brought some advantages: career opportunities are more extensive; discrimination and sexual harassment are supposedly less; equality before the law purports to be improved, and so on. But these advantages can be exaggerated - women are in many ways worse off than earlier generations. They have lost much of the protection that families and society once afforded them. For the strong in spirit and intellect, independence can be a marvel. For the less strong, it can be a torment and a prelude to personal disaster. The most impoverished sectors of the population are often young mothers without skills or family support. The old shames have gone but many young women and their children are totally dependent on public welfare, which is usually ungenerous. And yet, strangely, the suicide rate among young females is something like a sixth of the rate among their male peers.

Again, we must ask why. It might be that despite these vicissitudes the female "vision" of a satisfying life is more nearly met while for equivalent young males it is not. Unemployment dims the vision but the problem in recent years has been more troubling: there is now no vision, no enticing prospect for the future. We have to go back to the 1930s to find a period when young males had so little to inspire or motivate them - there was little to conjure up enthusiasm in a failed democracy and a failed capitalism. But there were alternatives; one was socialism that took many forms; from social democracy to socialist Utopia, to grabs for power by communist revolutionaries. For some, there was fascism, a desperate escape from the nullity that was all that democracy seemed able to offer. Even Hollywood offered an escape in touching and hopeful moralities, that the violence of the modern screen does not now seem to do except in an extreme and unfocussed direction.

A striking feature of the present is that there is no left-wing alternative to which the young male can look for vision. Left-wing parties have moved to the middle ground. When George V called on Ramsay MacDonald to form a National Government in the depths of the financial crisis of 1931, Britain lost an Opposition for the next four years, a time when a genuine Opposition was badly needed. The Australian and several other governments around the world desperately need a genuine Opposition today.

While all political parties belong to the centre there is virtually nowhere for the depressed, disaffected and the desperate in our societies to go. There is no choice for the young male, especially the unskilled young male, looking for what Australian Labor Party leaders used to call "the light on the hill". The only vision he has is of political and social institutions which in his terms have manifestly been found wanting and have no remedies to offer. Not only has the light been extinguished but, in all but name, the Labor Party itself has disappeared and the trade unions are powerless or have betrayed their members to a capitalist madhouse.

In Australia a few young males have found escape in forms of neo-fascism or neo-nazism. Some are inclined to blame "alien" elements in the community. We can only hope that extreme right-wing movements, with their record of tyranny and destruction of human life and values will not be used as a desperate last resort to put value back into the life of the young male or anyone else.


The young male needs to be able to assure himself with some sort of worthwhile purpose. Manhood has often been tested in war and also in sport and the satisfaction of personal ambitions. He might aim to run his own property or business, to succeed in a professional or trade career. He might get fulfillment in a relatively unskilled job that nevertheless satisfies the male urge to do something useful and to "belong" in some enterprise with his mates. Opportunities to realise even modest ambitions within society have been declining, as has the idea of the male as the staunch supporter of the family. The young male might therefore have lost his sense of manhood; he may have no satisfying vision of the future and have little sense of responsibility towards his family. Perhaps it is too facile to conclude that these are the main causes of the high suicide rate among young males in Australia and elsewhere but they are plausibly contributory factors.

If the individual rejects the idea of escape through suicide, what then is the path to resolve their life's dilemma? For the young women identified above as burdened or blessed with children but denied the support of a husband or family, the only resort may be dependence on public welfare and resignation to poverty. Some of those children will find their way out of a cycle of poverty, poor education and chronic unemployment and eventually make satisfying lives and careers. But access to a good education is becoming more difficult.

Even in the difficult years of the Great Depression before the Second World War, education was genuinely free up to a fairly advanced level and remained inexpensive thereafter. In Australia and other advanced economies primary-school education, from the age of five until 14, was without cost to parents at State schools. Secondary education was again virtually free, if the child won a State scholarship that was obtainable by a quite average student. Standards in State schools were as high as in private schools, although the old-school-tie factor could be important in later life. If the student matriculated and went to university, costs were greater but in most faculties fees were tiny. In Australia, each subject cost about one guinea a term (a little more than $A2), plus cost of books. A student could stay at a first-class residential university college, with full board, recreational facilities and some tutoring, at a cost of 30 shillings ($A3) a week.

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Article edited by Robert Standish-White.
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This is an extract from The Multiple Abyss, written about 1997.

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About the Author

James Cumes is a former Australian ambassador and author of America's Suicidal Statecraft: The Self-Destruction of a Superpower (2006).

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