From 'problematic' bogans to the COVID divide: Australia's messy relationship with social class

The article below talks of class in terms of income.  But there is more to it than that.  Even occupational prestige does not capture it.  Yet there clearly is a stratum in Australian society where people have an elite identity.  People in that stratum are economically prosperous but economic affluence is by itself not enough for such an  identity.  People can become suddenly rich without acquiring an elite identity.  

So what is the key variable leading to an elite identity?  It is IQ.  Elite people are smart and it is the characteristics of high IQ people that become markers of high social class.  Toby Young explains it

So the article below rather misses the point.  It shows an awareness of cultural differences but explains those differences in terms of income.  But any approach to levelling income will not abolish social class.  Smart people will always do better.  Even in the heavily equalitarian Soviet Union, there was a "nomenklatura"  who lived privileged lives

Australia, we are often told, is the land where everyone can get a "fair go." It's one of many egalitarian terms that are used in this country, from inside our parliament to throughout our pop culture. But is Australia as equal as many of us like to think?

Steve Threadgold, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Newcastle, has a clear opinion: No way.

"People start at different places [in life]," Professor Threadgold tells ABC RN's Saturday Extra, "but we don't really like to talk about class very much, for some reason."

He's co-edited a new book with fellow researcher Associate Professor Jessica Gerrard titled Class in Australia, which dissects the topic and looks at how social class can be a barrier.

And first up, he wants Australians to improve how they discuss the realities of class.

Bogans, hipsters and class

The term 'bogan' immediately conjures up the image of a very specific Australian — likely involving a singlet, cigarettes and a mullet.

So too with 'hipster' — tight black jeans, a soy latte and smashed avocado on toast are probably involved.

But Professor Threadgold has researched the usage of these terms and says they're problematic substitutes for talking about class.

"These are ways that class is represented and spoken about in the public sphere, without really talking about class … 'Bogan' has tended to stand in for vulgar working class tastes and 'hipster' for ironic middle class consumer cultures," he says.

"What's interesting is that the hipster is often [portrayed] as a quite ironic, almost playful figure, while the bogan tends to elicit much more denigration.

"The bogan is seen as doing things wrong."

He says the bogan has "become a representation of cultural aspects of class, particularly around taste. And then, by using this figure, you don't need to say 'working class people are this' you can invoke 'the bogan.'"

In this way, he says working class people can be maligned in the media and everyday conversations, and the realities of their lives are often obscured.

So just how big are Australia's class divides? Very big, according to Professor Threadgold and other research.

A widening gap between rich and poor

The book lays out a stark picture of inequality and disadvantage in Australia.

"According to measures of inequality, the rich/poor gap is widening, returning to the heights of the 1920s. Education is getting more expensive, while social welfare is increasingly difficult to access," the co-editors write.

"The reality for anyone who is not from a privileged, well-connected background is exclusion from the housing market and the prospect of insecure work."

Although there are many "distinctive experiences of disadvantage and inequality — gender, race, Indigeneity, sexuality, ability, age", talking about class can "make inequality a public issue anchored in economic structures and social/cultural institutions."

And research suggests that Australia is much more unequal than many people may realise.

According to one analysis from the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) and the University of New South Wales, before the pandemic, the incomes of those in the top 20 per cent were six times higher than those in the lowest 20 per cent.

When it came to average wealth, the numbers were even more stark, with the top 20 per cent ($3,255,000) having 90 times that of the lowest 20 per cent ($36,000).

Cassandra Goldie, the CEO of ACOSS, says: "In a wealthy country like Australia, the dominant perception is everybody's doing well … but there are large numbers of people who are living on very low and modest incomes."

"Unless we get some major changes to policy directions here, we will see an increasingly divided society, both in terms of income adequacy, and in terms of wealth behind you," she adds.

Class and the pandemic

Dr Goldie says that COVID-19 affected well-off and less-well-off Australians in dramatically different ways.

"We've had two very different experiences of this pandemic," she says.

Dr Goldie points out that many people from lower socio-economic areas "were required to go out and continue to do frontline, low-paid casual work," instead of being able to work from home.

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In addition, these Australians "[sometimes] live in overcrowded housing, often with many people living in one home, and are much less able to self isolate."

"So therefore [such groups] were much more heavily exposed to the consequences of the virus."

One report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that in the first year of the pandemic, people living in the lowest socio-economic areas had COVID-19 mortality rates 2.6 times higher than for people living in the highest socio-economic areas.

And a separate analysis by ACOSS and the University of New South Wales found poverty and inequality actually reduced early in the pandemic due to crisis support payments, but then spiked later in the pandemic as these supports were rolled back.

"The kinds of policies introduced [in 2020] helped to close gaps … but then this unravelled," Dr Goldie says.

Class in politics

Professor Threadgold says despite class being an important issue, it rarely features in our political debates.

"When you do hear political leaders talk about class, they tend to reverse it," he says.

"So if an argument is made for something like taxing billionaires, or having some kind of shared wealth, then all of a sudden, it's a class war against the rich. And that's really the only time you hear [about class in politics]."

Professor Steve Threadgold says many representations of Jacqui Lambie "tend to be parodies."(ABC News: Henry Zwartz)
Professor Threadgold cites one elected individual as having a distinct voice in the political realm: Tasmanian independent senator Jacqui Lambie.

"She's a very rare instance of someone from a relatively disadvantaged background with a voice in the Australian public sphere … She is a person that seems to speak often about the views of the disadvantaged, and she's experienced that herself."

But Professor Threadgold says "beyond when she gets to speak for herself, much of the writing and talking and representations of her tend to be parodies."

Political change

Dr Goldie says, while there are many issues around inequality to be dealt with, there is one significant area that needs to be addressed.

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"[One] important focus, we believe, is over our revenue base," she says, questioning the federal government's "eye-watering tax cuts."

"There's the 'stage 3 [tax cuts],' which are $16 billion per annum, that will mostly be going to people on higher incomes, mostly men, who already have enough and don't need any more relief," she says.

"[Meanwhile] there's a refusal to look at tax reforms that actually will tackle these serious inequalities and secure a more adequate revenue base for the kind of critical services like health and education — which are some of the key drivers to ensuring a more equal and balanced and fair society."

"I think the community does generally understand that we have real choices here [around policies]. The wealth that we have accumulated is being increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer people — that's not good for anybody."

So why consider class?

Professor Threadgold says a better understanding of class means inequality and disadvantage in Australia could be better addressed.

"If someone doesn't do well at school, or loses their job, or is in poverty, often they're blamed as an individual: they're lazy, they don't work hard enough or they made all the wrong choices," he says.

"But what we find is [when considering] class, those kinds of things, those kinds of inequalities, are much more systematic."

He says: "If we can think about these things on a more systematic basis, the public will be better informed about what's going on."

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