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Modernity’s paradox: Fatter, sicker and sadder - Part 1

By Brendan Gleeson - posted Wednesday, 9 February 2005

There is much hand wringing about the implications of population ageing. Not a week passes it seems without a new report urging attention to the issues arising from an older Australia. But what about our children? They seem to have disappeared from public focus, only to return in bouts of wild panic about abuse and various other catastrophes that occasionally touch young lives.

We may be starting to prepare for an increase in older Australians. But are we planning for a future Australia that will nurture children and youth? Our pop demography debates have led us to obsess about a very partial view of the future: one fixed on ageing baby boomer legions flocking to seachange regions. The future will contain a far greater range of human needs and interests than this simple picture would suggest. For a start, we are, and will remain, a thoroughly urban society, with most of us living in the suburbs of our principal metropolitan regions. Australians overwhelmingly continue to prefer living in the sub regions of our main cities.

Our future will not be decided by the fortunes of new seachange or “treechange” regions, but by the ability of our suburbs to provide inclusive and sustainable living environments for the bulk of our population. And in many places this population will include more children, not less, than we presently have.


We have reason to be very concerned about the ability of our cities to provide healthy living environments for our young. Health and social commentators are reporting a worrying deterioration in the worlds of young Australians.

Great shifts are underway within children’s home worlds and within the policy areas that structure their lives, especially education, health, and childcare. These shifts - especially social polarisation and the contraction of the public domain - threaten to reduce the life chances of the poor and their young, and to entrench their exclusion from society in degraded urban realms. Meanwhile, in the new spaces of affluence, the relative absence of a public domain impoverishes the young in a different way, excluding them from the principal civic resources and social experiences that nourish the development of strong citizenship values.

The growing endangerment to our children presented by these and other shifts is surely reflected in the accumulating social scientific evidence which tells us that they are getting fatter, sicker and sadder. Australia has become an immensely wealthier country over the past three decades, but this material enrichment has been accompanied by a startling decline in the health and well-being our children.

Fiona Stanley, epidemiologist and Australian of the Year (2003), reports an exhaustive review of physical and mental health indicators which shows that “whilst death rates are low and life expectancy is terrific, trends in almost all other outcomes [for children] have got worse”. Consider just some of the indicators that have registered declines for children: birth weight, post neonatal mortality (Aboriginal children), asthma and diabetes, obesity, intellectual disability, depression, anxiety, behavioural problems, drug use and child abuse.

What happened to the great promise of “modernity”? Why has escalating wealth not lifted the prospects for our young? How can it be in the first years of the new millennium, two centuries after the Industrial Revolution, that Australia’s leading scholar of the young could declare, “…childhood is rapidly vanishing”? Stanley writes:

Clearly, our nation’s economic prosperity has failed to deliver the social dividend that was promised. While Australia prospers economically, alarm bells have been sounding in the suburbs - witness increases in divorce, family violence, child abuse, homelessness, working hours and social isolation.


Could it be that the centuries long “growth fetish” has produced cities and communities that are environmentally and socially injurious to their most vulnerable human inhabitants, the children and the poor? In explanation, Stanley speaks of the shattering consequences of growth and the social changes partly engendered by this: unprecedented levels of family breakdown and discord; ever longer working hours, cultural alienation; and, rising wealth inequality. The weakening and withdrawal of the public domain from many urban communities has also left children vulnerable:

Macro indicators mask how vulnerability affects young Australians in different ways. Wealth polarisation - what Stanley terms the “toxic social divide” - produces distinct forms of endangerment for the young. In our new urban poverty spaces, the endangerment is real, even life threatening.

The undeserving: Sites of desertion

One Saturday in early November 2003, the lifeless body of five-year-old Chloe Hoson was found discarded amidst refuse in the reserve opposite her home, Lansdowne Caravan Park, in south-western Sydney. Chloe had been raped, strangled and cast aside like rubbish by her killer. A young man resident in Lansdowne Park was later charged with her murder.

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This is the first part in a two part series looking at our toxic cities. Read Part 2 here.

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About the Author

Brendan Gleeson is Professor of Urban Management and Policy and Director of the Urban Research Program at the School for Environmental Planning at Griffith University, Brisbane.

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