I met a young woman recently who told me that at one point during COVID-19, she was effectively staring down homelessness and unemployment with no obvious pathway to a long-term solution.
She was forced to live on the couch of a friend while she desperately applied for any job she could get, having not finished high school and therefore only being qualified for entry-level hospitality or admin roles (the latter being very difficult to get). As she told me this story, the woman shrugged and said words to the effect of, “But I know I’m really lucky, I did have someone to stay with, I have more privilege than others”.
Wait a second. Having a temporary roof over one’s head, without any certainty or agency, is now considered ‘privilege’? Being ‘lucky’ is defined by not being completely destitute? When did we start setting the bar this low for a good life?
I know other young people who have been working short-term contract to short-term contract for years but count themselves lucky to have been gainfully employed. Some people have been unable to find a rental they can afford in Canberra but consider themselves among the fortunate when they can move into a studio granny flat with no heating or cooling, and that’s too small for the two people and two dogs in their family.
One woman I know admitted that she feels terrible having to rely on her partner’s income due to her long-term health condition preventing her from working full-time, but that she knows she’s lucky not to be living off the meagre Newstart allowance.
On one cynical level, I agree with this assessment of privilege and fortune. No matter how ill-fitted or temporary, having a home is still better than being one of the thousands of Canberrans currently on the waitlist for social housing (a wait that could extend to years). No matter how insecure, having some employment is better than trying to make ends meet on a welfare payment that has been proven to be too low to prevent poverty.
But our willingness as a society to accept the gradual widening of the wealth gap to the point where the circumstances I describe are becoming more the norm and no longer the exception is horrifying.
When I was a child, I watched my parents come to Australia with nothing but meagre savings and the promise of my father’s new job, and turn themselves into wealthy business owners over the course of two decades. Within a few years, they were homeowners, a few years further, they had an investment property and a business. These things were achievable, even with four children, and only one full-time salary in the family (my mother worked packing shelves at a supermarket part-time) because the average income was commensurate to living costs.
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A generation later, and most of my peers spend more than 30 per cent of their salaries on rent or housing costs, placing them into what is defined as housing stress. There is no appetite for homeownership among this cohort, not because they don’t want to own a home, but because they assume it isn’t an option for them.
Homeownership aside, the dreams we have are different now. They’re smaller, more realistic. We don’t expect to be rich, to retire early, to exercise our economic freedom. Having been ejected out of school or university into a workforce where the youth unemployment rate has been over 10 per cent for a decade, we’re just hoping for a long-term job and the chance to maybe afford a child one day. However, the prohibitive costs of childcare make this seem unattainable too.
This might sound like a bunch of millennial whinging, but it’s worth noting that the gap between household income and the cost of living is almost twice as high as it was in the 80s.
The gap between the most wealthy and the least wealthy Australian is astronomically high – the wealthiest 20 per cent of Australians have 92 times more wealth than those in the bottom 20 per cent.
Listening to the young woman I mentioned at the outset of this column, I was perplexed by how small her hopes were, how little appetite she had for big dreams because she was firmly grounded in her depressing reality.
How have we allowed inequality to become so entrenched, that we now ‘dream’ of the necessities that all people should have access to – food, water, shelter, and the resources to live a physically and intellectually fulfilling life? When did we decide to place the onus only on the individual, and not on society, to ensure that people have the resources to survive and thrive?
If we keep setting the bar for a good life so low, with the average Australian expending most of their energy on retaining their basic quality of life, how can we expect Australia to continue to burgeon with innovation and progress?