News National The great Australian dream: What happened?

The great Australian dream: What happened?

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For Max D’Andrea, Australia was the golden country. In his small high school in Rome during the 1960s, he listened to his teachers talk about the wonders of a fertile land, brimming with opportunity and unblemished by centuries of European history. But as a boy Max never imagined he might one day call it home.

After graduating from high school he struggled to find work. He travelled a bit and found jobs here and there, but by age 24 he was unemployed and unsure where life was headed. Around that time he remembered the shimmering impression left in his memory by the land down under, a frontier country filled with fresh air and exotic animals, an undeveloped place “where anything could still happen”.

“So I bought a ticket and got here,” he recalls. Initially it was a holiday, but the “open spirit” of the locals, the “delicious food” and the safe, smooth roads quickly turned it into much more – his new home. Four years later, at the age of 28, Max celebrated becoming a citizen.

Around the same time that he signed his citizenship papers, Max and his partner bought their first home. It was a two-bedroom flat in St Kilda East, a tram ride from central Melbourne. It cost $18,000. With plentiful work, he was living the great Australian dream.

But thirty-five years later, Max and generations that followed him would be living in a very different world to the one promised in the prosperous decades after World War II.

That was then

The great Australian dream is comprised of a few sub dreams. The desire for security and home ownership is central to it, as is stable, full-time work and a comfortable retirement. Roll those three things together and you’ve got the holy trinity of the good life, at least as it was known in the second half of the 20th century in Australia.

But with Australian housing now among the most expensive in the world and job security declining as the national economy restructures away from labour-intensive industries like manufacturing, these touchstones are fracturing. The dream as Max knew it has disintegrated.

Dr Fiona Allon, a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Sydney, said the notion of the great Australian dream took hold after World War II when people started to see the inner city as “a place of danger, work and fear”.

“It was considered the place where people went to work, and where it was difficult to find fresh air,” she says. As a result, a contrast emerged between the dark and sooty city and the light-filled space of the suburbs.

Dr Allon said that politicians began to talk about home ownership as “the ideal way of living” and encouraged Australians to flock to the suburbs by building better and more accessible public transport. In addition, the prosperity of the post-war period saw the emergence of consumerism, and people purchased cars, which aided access to the inner city suburbs.

“When you bought a piece of Australian land you were demonstrating that you had a stake in the country in a very literal way,” she said.

Excavation of Domain carpark, Woolloomooloo, NSW, circa 1956. Photo: National Library of Australia – Flickr Commons

For others, inner city life was all they knew. Dr Tony Birch, an academic and novelist whose books are based on his experiences growing up in inner Melbourne during the 1960s, has lived in the city all of his life. Calling the inner city “dangerous” was a matter of opinion, he said, but he acknowledges “it was a tough place to live”, which served to enhance the appeal of suburbs further away from the CBD.

“People had less money, services weren’t as strong, and people often made their living from sub-legal services such as sly grog, gambling, prostitution and street bookmaking,” he said.

Born and bred in the suburbs of Carlton and Fitzroy, adjacent to the Melbourne CBD, he witnessed the gentrification of the inner suburbs, which turned traditionally working-class areas into pockets of white-collar wealth.

Dr Birch said the real issue with the “so-called Australian Dream is its reliance on a notion of the quarter acre block, or the single family dwelling”, which is increasingly unattainable for young people.

“When I grew up in Fitzroy in 1966, there were 30,000 people, and that population today has dropped by at least one third.  Back then, much bigger families were living in smaller spaces.”

Others suggest the great Australian dream has it roots in the period shortly following settlement in the early 1800s. Tony Nicholson, executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, said it could be a “relic” of the colonial era when settlers, including ex-convicts, were given land by the government to work productively.

He said that in colonial times, people didn’t want to live like they had in the UK. “People just didn’t want to depend on charity. I think that’s where the Australian dream began. It was very much to do with being able to secure welfare by being employed in decent work,” he said.

Nicholson said post-World War II immigration had more than a walk-on role in the development of notions about life in Australia. People who came to Australia could get a decent job, could expect “to own a house and build a good life for themselves and their family.”

Doing as the Australians did

That’s what appealed to Max D’Andrea. Before arriving in Australia he didn’t think much about owning a home. Everyone in Italy rented. To him that seemed like the normal order of things. But his Australian friends bought their first homes in their 20s. It did not seem like a materialistic boast or an indulgence. It appeared to be embedded in the culture – a right, almost.

“It was so easy,” he said about buying his first apartment. “We saved nothing. Paying the house off was no great burden. We managed to have a holiday each year and look after two kids by then, and all on one salary.”

“I came to the point where I wanted my own home, a place where you don’t have to pay rent. Something that is your own thing, secured, and where you can be with your children,” said Max, who worked as a photographer.

But when illness struck in 2003, Max lost his real estate photography business and with it his main source of income. He and his wife Sylvie used credit cards to pay bills and to live, and the promise of a comfortable retirement began to fall apart.

Eventually, Max said the family finances spiralled out of control. It won’t be long now before they’ll have to sell their house to repay creditors.

“The illness caught me off guard. Before that, I was successful. Now I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he says.

Reimagining the future

For Max and many others, Australia is no longer a place where a life of honest toil leads, in most cases, to a sunny and comfortable retirement. For growing number of young people, home ownership is out of reach. In this series of articles, The New Daily will examine what has happened to the great Australian dream.

Over five articles, we’ll look at the forces now at play in the property market which are putting home ownership out of reach for ever-greater numbers of people.

Then we will look at the labour market and how it is restructuring as old industries wither and new ones arise. We’ll ask what has happened to hopes of a stable, financially comfortable retirement – why is it becoming harder to achieve for a greater number of people?

And finally we ask, what does a 21st century version of the great Australian dream look like?

TUESDAY: Part Two – Waking up from the dream of a stable, long-term employment.

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