Living in the hothouse

Western governments have been sacrificing the happiness and wellbeing of their citizens for decades on the altar of macroeconomic growth, and it’s finally caught up with us.

The rise of the far-right is emblematic of a ground swell of dissatisfaction, disenfranchisement and distrust in the establishment government. But this fear and disillusionment does not truly find its home in innate feelings of racism, rather xenophobia is a symptom of broader cultural anxiety and a lack of financial security.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the unwillingness of so called “millennials” to buckle down and buy a home, for example. It is a bizarre argument that seems to challenge all sensible notions of fiscal responsibility and the realities of young Australian families today. But this is in actual fact simply the latest instalment in a much larger trend that has been backing families into a debt corner for decades. It is costing them not only their blood sweat and tears but their happiness, mental health, relationships and stability of their families.

These are upper-middle to lower earning Australians and they are living under siege.

In most cases they simply cannot afford appropriate housing. They are not lazy, they are not building a cubby made of avocados to live in, they are facing financial pressures that previous generations simply did not have to contend with.

To buy a home in today’s market will cost a Sydneysider around 12.2 times the average annual middle income. Compare that to 3.7 times average wages in 1975. In material terms, that is an enormous difference and by its very nature prices many hard working young families out of the housing market. For many it’s just not fiscally responsible or even possible to commit themselves to the kind of debt that home ownership requires in today’s market.

Even if they wanted to, they’d have to save a deposit equivalent to between one and three year’s annual salary. All this while often coping with high rental prices.

This is just math. We have a generation who have become accustomed to housing insecurity as a reality of their everyday lives.

Then, consider the discussion around childcare rebates. Government rhetoric focuses on productivity, getting women back into the workforce. The conversation is one about Gross Domestic Product, productivity metrics, workforce participation statistics.

How is it a conversation about the care of our nation’s youngest and most vulnerable children has been reduced to an accountant’s analysis of the country’s top line?

Childcare is about the care of our children. This conversation should be focused on what is best for children. Early childhood education, which is consistently shown crucial in the future academic and social success of young kids. Childcare should be about what is best for families. Although, as with all government initiatives, it costs money, childcare is a social policy, not an economic one. So why are our conversations about it always framed as financial discussions?

And make no make no mistake: childcare is expensive. The government subsidises three days a week up to a 50 percent rebate depending on eligibility. The remaining two days, assuming you work full time, are at full cost. A single day in a Sydney childcare costs between $90-170. That means, even at the lowest end, childcare is setting a family back $315 every week.

The Australian government has the lowest expenditure on early childhood education institutions as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product of any OECD country.

This cost is falling on parents of children under the age of five. These are the youngest and most financially vulnerable families and the children that research shows need the most attention and support. And these are currently, commonly your millennials. Family bonding is vital for this group of children, but parents are often forced by the extreme inflation in lifestyle costs to work long hours, often dropping them off at 7.30am and picking up at 6pm.

It is having several knock on effects. Parents are feeling less confident in parenting their own children. Kids are increasingly being raised by institutions instead of families, but what are they to do? The cost of servicing a mortgage is often equivalent to the average pre-tax income of an average wage earner. To keep the lights on and food on the table, sacrifices have to be made. And our children are making them.

Beyond this obvious initial impact lies a wasteland of social fallout.

Research shows that internationally some of the best adjusted and best performing children don’t start school until the age of seven. Meanwhile children in Australia are increasingly entering primary school in the four-year-old bracket. Studies show time and again this is not the best situation for the vast majority of children who suffer social difficulties and setbacks in their learning further down the line.

Families are forced to make these choices, sometimes knowingly, sometimes convincing themselves it is the right thing to do for “their child” because of the enormity of the financial pressures of daycare as compared to public schooling.

At the same time, these children are also suffering from a literal chronic lack of sleep. For their brains to function at optimum levels toddlers need up to 14 hours sleep in a 24 hour period, pre-schoolers up to 13 hours and school aged kids as much as 11. Their brains are working so hard. But if your child is attending before school care or daycare from 7.30am and coming home at 6pm adding in commutes, dinner, often homework, perhaps an activity, bath time and bed – that window for quality sleep is getting smaller and smaller. It doesn’t take a genius to work out many kids are only getting nine hours of sleep or less per night. There’s no way around it in our current lifestyles. Children are often woken in the morning by their parents because they simply have to get them fed and dressed and back to before school care.

Beyond “performance” concerns, research shows lack of sleep has a detrimental effect on children’s emotional and mental health.

In line with Australia’s broader policy shift towards “on paper” performance over quality of life, education systems are increasingly skewed towards test performance and filling all available time with performance-based activities. Australia is witnessing a boom in the “hothouse” child with parents drilling pre-school aged children to learn to read and write, for example, before they get to school. Early on-paper performance is king despite research showing gains to be short-term or even detrimental to the child’s future academic performance and overall wellbeing.

It is also a result of parents spending less time with their kids – they have never learnt how to play with their children, they don’t know how to parent without a class to fill the weekend hours, for example.

And that brings us to the next problem. Many Baby Boomer critics say Gen Y need to stop being so fussy about the areas where they are willing to live – move further afield to where the house prices are more in line with their budgets. But with parents already struggling to find hours in the day to spend with their young children, asking them to move further out is tantamount to asking them to sacrifice that precious little time they have left at the beginning and end of each day.

The alternative, of course, is for young professionals to put off having children into their late 30s and early 40s when they can possibly have accumulated the wealth needed to purchase a family-appropriate home. This is asking those same people to potentially risk never having a family at all in the face of age-related infertility.

For many, this is simply no choice at all.

These are pressures that are only increasing over time. From toddlers putting in a 50 hour-week at long daycare to retirees forced to “bail out” their adult children who simply cannot afford to live, it’s effecting everyone.

And the result of this comprehensive lifestyle stress is a reduced empathy for the suffering of others.

The research draws a straight line between feelings of financial insecurity, less time connecting with your family and social group, and becoming more self-involved, insular and less empathetic.

This is what we are witnessing in Western democracies at the moment. The rise of far-right xenophobia is a result of lifestyle stresses and our decreased ability to empathize whilst living under incredible pressure.

What Australia needs – what the world needs – is to re-examine policy priorities. We need a refocus on relationships, balance and lifestyle satisfaction. If you could choose, would you pick money or happiness?

We can.

RACHAEL BOLTON

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