In his Australia Day address, social researcher Hugh Mackay said that “the Australia I love today – this sleep-deprived, overweight, overmedicated, anxious, smartphone-addicted society – is a very different place from the Australia I used to love".
He identified three big changes: the gender revolution, increasing disparity in wealth, and social fragmentation.
He approves of the first, but laments that we’re “learning to live with a chasm of income inequality" and that social fragmentation means Australians are become “more individualistic, more materialistic, more competitive".
The third big change, he said, posed the biggest challenge – preserving social cohesion.
Earlier this month, the playwright David Williamson lamented that, since the advent of neoliberalism, “the world has become a nastier, more competitive, more ruthless place".
“There’s no perfect society, but I don’t think it needs to be as brutal as it is now."
As we move on from our officially required season of national navel-gazing – “yes, but what does it mean to be Australian?" – these concerns are worth pondering.
Economists object to being blamed for every ill that’s beset our country in the past 40 years. Where’s the proof that this economic policy or that has caused a worsening in mental health, they demand to be told.
It’s true that few developments in society have just a single cause. It’s also true there’s little hard evidence that the A of “microeconomic reform” caused the B of more suicides, for instance.
But there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence. After all, the specific objective of micro reform was to increase economic efficiency by making our markets more intensely competitive. The economists’ basic model views us as individuals, motivated by self-interest, and the goal of faster growth in the economy is aimed at raising our standard of living.
And if some of our problems stem from changing technology – pursuing friendship via screens, for instance – can economists disclaim all responsibility when one of their stated aims is to encourage technological advance in the name of higher productivity?
Economists assume that economic growth will leave us all better off. Most take little interest in how evenly or unevenly the additional income is shared between households.
The Productivity Commission’s recent and frequently quoted report, finding that the distribution of income hasn’t become more unequal, refers to recent years, not the past 40. And the report averages away the uncomfortable truth that the incomes of chief executives and other members of the top 1 per cent have increased many times faster than for the rest of us.
Sometimes what’s happened since the mid-1980s reminds me of the old advertisement: are you smoking more, but enjoying it less?
Our real incomes have grown considerably over the years – even for people at the bottom – and economic reform can take a fair bit of the credit. It can take most of the credit for the remarkable truth that, unlike all the other rich countries, we’ve gone for 27 years without our least fortunate experiencing the great economic and social pain of recession and mass job loss.
But though most of us are earning and spending more than ever, there’s evidence we’re enjoying it less. Our higher material living standards have come at the cost of increasing social and health problems.
Is that so hard to believe when the key driver of our higher incomes is more intense competition between us?
Economists generally take little interest in social and health problems, regarding them as outside their field. But though problems such as loneliness, stress, anxiety, depression and obesity were with us long before the arrival of neoliberalism, they seem to have got worse since the mid-1980s.
Last year, Dr Michelle Lim, a clinical psychologist at Swinburne University, and her colleagues produced the Australian Loneliness Report, which found that more than one in four Australians feels lonely three or more days a week.
It’s most common among those who are single, separated or divorced. Compared to other Australians, the lonely report higher social anxiety and depression, poorer psychological health and quality of life, and fewer meaningful relationships and social interactions.
Turning to increased stress, it’s an inevitable consequence of living in bigger, faster cities and working in more competitive workplaces. Our bodies respond to stressful events with a surge of adrenaline, which increases our reaction speed and helps ensure our survival.
Trouble is, our bodies aren’t designed to cope with repeated stressful events and adrenaline rushes. Our readiness for fight or flight doesn’t decline, and we remain permanently aroused, which damages our health, making us more at risk of a heart attack or getting sick in other ways.
If more “jobs and growth" and the higher incomes they bring are intended to make us happier, maybe governments would do better by us if they switched their objective from increasing happiness to reducing unhappiness.
For instance, if the banks are now being criticised on all sides for putting profits before people, why are governments – facing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes – so respectful of the food and beverage industry’s right to continue fatten its profits by fattening us and our kids?
By Ross Gittins, Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.