I have been thinking about this topic for some time, and foreshadowed this essay last week. ‘Progress’ is one of those protean words, changing its meaning according to the needs of the user. It comes from the Latin, pro meaning forward, and grado meaning stepping, walking, going. So, there is thought to be progress when things go forward. My Shorter Oxford gives its sense for this essay as ‘continuous improvement’. And at once there is some reservation, for ‘improvement’ in a human life and in social life is rarely continuous. There are usually steps backward as well as forward. And forward to where, one might ask? In what follows I set out a few of my own thoughts, recognising that there are many alternatives, and others may have a different focus.
I chose 1950 as a beginning point for inspecting ‘progress’ because it was the time of my secondary schooling, and my much greater awareness of the world. Also, I used that starting point in my analysis of the reshaping of Australia after the second world war (What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia, Allen & Unwin 2005).
What should count as progress? What you nominate says something about where you are in society, and your current problems. I thought one way to avoid some of the bias in all this is to use something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, about which I have written before.
Despite the criticism of Maslow’s pyramid, there seems a good deal of common sense in the notion that physiological needs have to come first. Food, water, clothing and shelter are basic. By and large, Australians are not short of any of the first three, unless they are alone and without human support. Australian productivity of water and food has been extraordinary in the past seventy years, while clothing is now cheap indeed. Security, both internal and external, is no less basic. We are no less secure externally than we were seventy years ago, while crime rates in general are either static or falling slowly.
Shelter is more problematic. When I was young there was a critical shortage of accommodation, caused by an expanding population in the context of a housing stock that had not been materially added to since the 1920s, because of the depression of the 1930s and the focus on military needs during the war. It was common for marriages to be postponed until a flat became available, or for the young marrieds to be living with one set of parents. That situation changed in the 1960s, when housing became more available. Today we have ‘homelessness’, some of which is reminiscent of the conditions of seventy years ago (people living with friends, on couches, even in cars, because they can’t find anywhere to live). There is an endemic housing shortage, with two main causes: our population keeps growing through immigration, while land in cities has become very expensive, mostly because governments everywhere see selling public land as a major income source. We seem to have a shortage of about 350,000 housing units every year, despite the great activity in housing construction.
But some of it is new: domestic violence causing the break-up of a home, divorce (hardly known in 1950) having a similar outcome, young people leaving home and finding the going tough, but not wanting to return. We could add much greater autonomy for young people, and much greater income for nearly all, even the poor, relative to 1950. We don’t have answers for it. There is not the same sense of community that there was in 1950. Few have beggars, as well as street people. Australia is three times bigger, on the way to 25 million, compared with the eight million in 1950.
Are we really wealthier? Yes. There are many ways of measuring the rise in wealth, and they show Australia, in terms of gross domestic product per capita, as about three times wealthier than was the case in the middle of the 20th century. Is the wealth more or less evenly shared? A useful Treasury paper suggests that not much has happened in the last hundred years — that is, there were and still are the rich, middle-income people and those poorly of; all three groups have grown richer over time. At the moment the rich are doing rather better than everyone else. A lot depends on what you define as income, and Australia sits in the middle of the OECD countries in terms of inequality of income. I have written about that before, and will not pursue the theme here, other than to say that there seems no great desire in our country to follow the example of the Scandinavian countries, which have lower gini coefficients (less inequality), much higher income taxation levels, and rather more of a cradle-to-grave welfare system.
We live longer lives now and no one suggests that this not progress, though most of us would probably rather have our extra years between 20 and 40 than at the end of life. In 1885, as I noted in an earlier essay, a boy baby on average could expect 45 years of life, and girl baby rather more. My age cohort’s gift was 65 (boys) and 67 (girls). A year or so ago the expectancy was 80 (boys) and 85 (girls). Yes, the ageing of the population comes with its problems, but no one is offering to shorten their lives in the public interest.
It is easy to see the greater wealth of Australians, in a negative way, for example, as productive of obesity and our falling performance in world sport, speaking most generally. But it has also led to a remarkable growth in creativity. Music education has flourished, and along with it a great expansion of organised music. Australia now possesses more than 500 choirs, 140 orchestras and well over a hundred brass bands. Australian rock groups and pop groups have done well internationally as well as at home. For fifty years publishing flourished, until the advent of the computer and the smart phone pushed people into what is an increasingly visual world, and reading ceased to be so important. I don’t regard that change as progress.
When I was at school, nearly everyone left at fifteen, if they had not left earlier. Today, around two thirds of all nineteen year olds are in higher education, and a substantial number more are in technical education. Educating everyone was seen in the 19th century as the cure-all for social problems. Like adult franchise, another imagined 19th century cure for social ills, the great advance in education has left some wondering about its virtues. I have mixed feelings myself, but I will say that the great expansion of education has been mostly to the good. Most people today will spend from age five to age twenty-five in more or less continuous education, and there will be other brief concentrations on new learning ahead of them. There is so much to learn, and so much is added every year.
One major improvement has been in the status of women, who now dominate the high achievers in universities and at school, can lead fully professional lives, and do their best to pull together love, family and work. They still probably do the major share of household work in marriages, though that is not the case, I think, in my extended family. Some feminists will say that nothing has changed. That seems complete rubbish to me, and (I would think) to anyone who can remember what it was like in the 1940s. But it is true that ‘real equality’ between men and women has not occurred. I doubt that it will ever occur, and am not sure I want the armed forces to be equally divided between men and women.
Much the same can be said about the improvement in the condition so our indigenous people. There are perhaps 700,000 of them, of whom half a million live in our cities, most absorbed into the mainstream of Australian life. Tens of thousands have emerged as graduates from universities, and live and work alongside ‘white’ Australians. Those in the remote settlements get most of the attention in the media. Again, we have no real answers as to what should happen there. In general there is no great satisfaction with either the present or the prospects for the future. But what has happened since 1950 is remarkable. I do not think the addition of words to our Constitution will have any positive effect at all.
Does all this count as ‘progress’? I think it does. It does not mean, however, that paradise has arrived. We need to go on building a compassionate society, in which each of us, consistent with our talents and ability, helps those around us who need help, while doing our best not to need help from others.
But I do think we have come a long way since 1950, and I am proud of the work of my generation, in work from about 1955 to 2005. My children, aged from 57 to 35, and my grandchildren, aged from 29 to 3, will no doubt wonder we haven’t done more in this area or that one. Doing something about it is their responsibility. I wish them well in discharging it.