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Why the well-off feel hard done by: the politics of affluence

By Clive Hamilton - posted Tuesday, 3 December 2002

Baby boomers today are three times better off than their parents and perhaps five times better off than their grandparents at the same age. But pick up any newspaper or listen to any politician and you would conclude that average Australians cannot make ends meet.

The commentators are reflecting back the sense of material deprivation felt by the great majority of Australians, including the richest. Despite the fact that we live in an era of unprecedented abundance, the broad mass of middle-class Australians believe that their incomes are insufficient to provide for their needs.

But the problem is not inadequate incomes but inflated needs. This new ‘middle-class battler’ syndrome has transformed Australia’s political culture. Politicians tell us ad nauseam that ‘people are doing it tough out there’ and ‘families are struggling’, validating the self-pity of people who are well-off by any standard.


John Howard has been more adept than others at fanning the embers of complaint. The manufactured privations of ‘Howard’s battlers’ gave the Coalition victory in the 2001 election.

All of this is bad news for the ten per cent or so of Australians who are genuinely struggling. Political parties can see more advantage in pandering to the imagined woes of the middle classes than the real distress of the poor. So they cut taxes on the well-off and increase middle-class welfare, and use the complaints of the wealthy as an excuse to shift resources from public schools and hospitals to private ones.

The emphasis on the tribulations of the middle classes not only trivialises the concerns of those facing real hardship but reinforces their obsession with their own financial circumstances. The rise of the middle-class battler over the past 10-15 years has coincided with the outbreak of ‘luxury fever’.

While ordinary citizens have always watched and envied the rich, a qualitative change has occurred in the relationship over the past two decades. In the 1980s attitudes to consumption and material acquisition underwent a transformation, reflected in booming sales of luxury travel, luxury cars, cosmetic surgery, holiday homes and professional-quality home appliances.

Above all, houses have become bigger and more opulent. People have been building bigger houses at the same time as the average size of families has been shrinking. The average new house is over 220 square metres, double that of the 1950s, and it must be filled with furniture, carpets, appliances and ensuites, with retail sales of these goods booming.

Australian households are accumulating so much ‘stuff’ that even bigger houses and garages can’t cope, and a burgeoning self-storage industry has grown to accommodate it. There are now nearly 1000 self-storage facilities around the country.


Although incomes have never been higher, the desired standard of living of the average household is now so far above the level actual incomes can provide that people feel a gnawing sense of deprivation.

Television is the main culprit, but not so much through advertising as through the presentation of opulence as normal and attainable. The proliferation of lifestyle, home improvement and travel programs, and soaps in which the consumption patterns of the very rich are portrayed as normal, both contribute to a false view of the world.

The social and political implications of the incessant scaling up of lifestyle goals are far-reaching. The expansion of ‘needs’ often outpaces the growth of incomes with the result that many people who are wealthy by any historical or international standard actually feel poor. The Australia Institute’s survey shows that an extraordinarily high proportion of Australians, including those in the wealthiest households, believe that they cannot afford to buy everything they really need and that they spend nearly all of their incomes on ‘the basic necessities of life’. The average East Timorese might demur.

This imagined deprivation explains why, after decades of sustained economic growth that have seen average incomes increase several times over, the ‘Aussie battler’ has not disappeared from public discourse but has become more ubiquitous than ever. The self-indulgent hearts of the suffering rich are the holy grail of modern politics.

Abandoning the noble goals of nationhood and commitment to building a better society, political parties now actively foment dissatisfaction amongst the middle classes in order to perpetuate the myth of the Aussie battler, for they can then claim to understand their pain and offer solutions. The little Aussie battler has turned into the great Australian whinger.

Yet when asked to reflect on the state of our society, a large proportion of Australians believe that we place too much emphasis on money and material goods and neglect the things that really matter. Prompted by a thousand personal epiphanies, a growing number of Australians are realizing that their preoccupation with money and consumption is making them miserable, and are opting to change their lives to bring back some balance. These subversives are the forerunners of the politics of the future.

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This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 30 November 2002.

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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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