The brutal new class division appearing in Australia

This is not a new division at all. There have always been those who inherited significantly and those who did not. And being a "not" is far from a life sentence. Those who pass down wealth often started off poor themselves. I did. Nobody ever gave me a penny -- or even a cent for that matter. I earned it all.

And I remember that. I now provide heavily discounted rental accommodation to five people and give half my disposable income to a charitable education cause. So the rigid class lines described below are a myth. There are such lines but they are not all due to inheritance and are not fixed or permanent. And inherited wealth is often squandered anyway, which makes it very impermanent. It is squandering that I find contemptible

Inheritocracy – a term recently heard. Our lucky country is careering towards a great generational divide; a landed gentry of property owners on one side and renters on the other. A brutal new class division, flippant about educational attainment as the great equaliser. Rules are upended in the new order; degree holders may well be losing out. Indeed, among certain writers it’s now de rigueur to put “renter” in your social media bio. Blazing contempt and coolness, the brazen political stance of the othered. But as a nation we’re heading into uncharted waters, as resentments grow and younger voters cleave to whatever political party can do something about this vexed housing situation. If it can. The challenges are immense, the population restive.

That silky game of inheritocracy is playing out all around me. In one corner, a succession of friends and acquaintances stepping into enormous wealth as their parents pass away and family dwellings are inherited. The talk is of clearing parents’ houses for sale, upsizing into better places, holiday homes on the coast, paying off mortgages, extensive travel. They’re living their best lives, free of the corrosiveness of money worries. That’s a heady liberation. And during a cost-of-living crisis, no less.

In another corner, the dumping of building waste in a local car park. A council man clearing it up tells me people can’t afford the tipping fees anymore, so they drive all over the city to find car parks and secluded roads without CCTV to deposit their waste, which sometimes contains asbestos. A tiny snapshot of the other side. Of despairing Australians forgoing three solid meals a day because they can’t afford it. Of putting off the doctor visit because it’s too expensive. Of holidays as a distant memory. And many younger Australians work within a new order of employment – they’re immersed in all the stresses and indignities of the gig economy; the sheer, craven callousness of a system not on their side.

The stark reality: vast numbers cannot afford to live the life their parents had. For a 34-year-old in 1990, the average mortage in Australia was roughly three times their yearly wage – now it’s eight times. Many have given up on that great Australian dream of home ownership, a situation likely to reverberate through the generations. It’ll never happen for them now, nor, quite possibly, their children. Thus disadvantage rolls down through the years. What is bequeathed is all the uncertainties of the rental market – and a fundamental stress in life is instability. When it comes to property, we want to feel safe, in our own place, in a dwelling no one is going to take away from us. In the lucky country, the Great Australian Dream is now denied to a vast tranche of the unlucky.

NSW Treasurer Daniel Mookhey has warned that if we don’t act sharpish on housing affordability then Sydney may well be heading down the path of San Francisco, where you can see middle-class workers in suits and ties lining up for food banks and living in homeless shelters. The natural order of things, upended. The consequence of an obscene property market. Mookhey believes there’s only a five- to 10-year window to act.

“How one grudges the life and energy and spirit that money steals from one,” writer Katherine Mansfield wrote during a stretch of poverty. “I long to spend and have a horror of spending: money has corrupted me these last years.” The dream, for all of us, is to not be held hostage by a lack of money. To be free of the endless scrabble to obtain it, because how exhausting, stressful, consuming that is. What an extraordinary moment in time in Australia. We’re heading towards a new class order. It’s called a “propertocracy”, and it’s a tragedy for our nation.


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