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The fall of the Australian working class

Opinion

Australia’s working class faces a bleak future but their plight barely registers in the leafy suburbs, argues Malcolm King.

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The fortunes of the working class have tanked just as wealthy Australians were poetically imagining the lives of the battlers by reading Jimmy Barnes’ autobiographies.

The fall of the working class is caused by the decline in manufacturing, restructuring, offshoring, casualisation and the introduction of labour-eliminating algorithmic technology.

Once upon a time, families earning around $50,000-$60,000 – with the main wage earner having a diploma qualification or less – were part of an expanding middle class. Now they are part of a burgeoning working class.

Many white-collar workers in banking and finance are desperately treading water, as flat wages, job losses and rising costs, pull them down.

NAB, for example, with a recent profit of $5.3 billion, plans to sack 4000 staff in three years as new technologies come online.

While there are still university-educated middle-class families earning $80,000-$150,000, their numbers are falling, as the population ages, white-collar retrenchment rises and full-time work evaporates.

This reconstruction of Australian society is forming a pear-shaped iceberg of blue and white-collar workers below the water line, a rich middle class above the water line and a very rich elite on top.

South Australia

According to the ABS Household Income and Wealth Survey (2015-2016), released last December, three out of five South Australian households earned $787 per week or less. That’s only $80 a week more than the minimum wage for a full-time worker (38 hours per week).

How many families can live on $787 a week?

The fantasy projected by the media is that Adelaide is a progressive, middle-class city.

It’s not. It’s a struggling working-class city with pockets of upper wage earners clustered around North Adelaide, St Peters and Unley, extending to Burnside and up into the foothills.

Much of the Adelaide Plain from Onkaparinga to Gawler, from Port Adelaide to Tea Tree Gully, is working class territory and it is in deep trouble.

School leavers from the northern and western suburbs and regional areas know the shape of things to come. They want to learn new skills and embark on careers in advanced manufacturing.

So far they have been smacked with Vocational Education and Training (VET) fee debts after getting ripped off by dodgy training providers. When they turn to TAFE SA, they find their courses have failed national audit standards. You can’t blame them and their parents for getting angry.

Politics of identity

The urban middle class is shielded from the economic brutalities of working-class life. The stories of white, middle-aged ex-Holden workers, fighting to keep their families together, have little resonance with literary festival audiences compared to more exotic horrors from other lands.

In the 1980s, left-wing identity politics became the de facto creed of a generation of academics, students, teachers and journalists. Universities focused on group differences in gender and race rather than economic inequality, forgetting that poverty targets all sexes and ethnicities.

Unlike their parents, the kids of blue-collar workers who went to university in the 1970s – and who are now a part of the professional-managerial class – support globalisation, free trade and immigration. They attack the political economy that allowed them to go to university in the first place.

The inner suburban ‘knowledge class’ have little interest in improving public housing and providing decent public transport for people in the outer city suburbs. They talk of intelligence as if it were a moral virtue such as courage but intelligence has no more moral virtue than a crowbar.

Today the ‘fair go’ is a rhetorical device used by politicians to appeal to people they have little in common with and who stopped listening long ago.

When I talk to my friends in the culture industries about this, they nod sagely. It’s not that they don’t care but working class penury is a blip on their political horizon. They think of them as an anthropological oddity.

The elite show no sympathy for blue-collar workers displaced by disruption and economic change. They call them ‘history’s road kill’ and they wonder why they don’t move to where the jobs are.

Where exactly would that be? Besides, working-class families won’t move because they value close family ties: those reciprocal relations are their safety net.

Concerns about the distribution of wealth, education and health, are difficult to raise without needing to beat off the ghost of Stalin. We enter the theatre of the absurd when politicians and business lobbyists oppose tax increases on the rich, by portraying the ‘enemy’ as a cabal of under-achieving but somehow all-powerful riff-raff who want to destroy capitalism.

Unfortunately, Australians’ views on social equality range from outright denial of any disparity to Darwinian acceptance. Many believe ‘people get what they deserve’, which I find alien.

Has it come to this that after two world wars, the Great Depression, two major recessions, a Global Financial Crisis and billions of words printed in national debates on democracy, that the sum conclusion is: ‘people get what they deserve’?

Australia’s long tradition of egalitarianism was something people my age learnt at school. Teachers spoke of ‘the fair go’ with a reverence they only applied to Don Bradman or the Anzacs.

Today the ‘fair go’ is a rhetorical device used by politicians to appeal to people they have little in common with and who stopped listening long ago.

So we come to the turning of the tide. In the next 12 months or so, as US interest rates begin to rise, so to will Australian mortgage rates, forcing many working-class families to the wall.

They won’t accept poverty and they won’t surrender their culture, with its roots buried deep in patriotism. They will fight for their families, for jobs and the dignity that comes with a full-time job.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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