How much progress has there been in Australia since 1950?

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.








Join the discussion 40 Comments

  • Neville says:

    Most Aussies are much better off today than they were in 1950. They are healthier, wealthier and holiday and travel overseas more often now than 1950’s Aussies would have thought possible.

    Here is the data from the ABS for our life expectancy today compared to earlier generations. While Aboriginal Aussies lag by about 10 years they still live longer than Indonesians and Papua New Guineans. I’d bet that most Aboriginals who live in cities and towns would live longer lives than the people who live in remote communities. How to fix this is a serious problem as these places can be very dangerous for both the very young and elderly residents.

  • spangled drongo says:

    This is possibly more applicable to this thread than the last:

    Don, we are but babies yet:

    But progress is a very subjective concept. Filling the country with people is not my idea of progress and I still think I would have enjoyed life a lot more if I had been born a century earlier.

    I spend around 4 hours a day data logging native wildlife and checking the reasons for their demise and our future is becoming increasingly, overwhelmingly feral. And while we could turn this around easily by simply putting less value on ferals and more on natives, miles of red and green nanny-regs won’t allow it. Some authorities are aware of what’s happening and make small changes which have amazing effects but generally even the people in my natural history group are blind to the problem.

    The blitherers are running the asylum and they are incapable of seeing the real world.

    Quality time beats quantity time every time.

    • margaret says:

      “This is possibly more applicable to this thread” also.

      “One of his (Trump’s) messages is that his white working- and middle-class supporters are doing poorly not because they lack either merit or luck, but because the cards have been stacked against them by cheats and crooks (from whom, of course, he excludes himself). The message is that if the deck is rearranged by the Forty-Fifth President of the United States — who is, after all, a casino operator from way back — then luck and merit will once again be allowed to play their proper respective roles in human affairs.”

      • spangled drongo says:

        Check my reply on the other thread, marg.

        You’re just too silly to get that globalism often financially swamps individual merit but merit always wins through.

        As a farm boy with no advantages, I managed just fine.

        Also if you don’t consume as much as you earn, you get wealthy.

        It’s only the Marxists that think merit can be disregarded in favour of equality.

        They didn’t get very far with that stupidity.

        Remember, margluv, if you’re free you’re not equal and if you’re equal, you’re not free.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Marg, ever checked how the real world [as in the birds and the bees and the wild bush trees] go with meritocracy?

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    I think you overstate the case. Remember what we had.

    Hurricane lamps for when the lights went out (frequently).
    Coal for fires to keep us warm.
    Ice blocks delivered to our door.
    Home-made ice cream.
    One type of milk (in billy cans).
    Two types of beer (old and new).
    Radio serials.
    A life untroubled by telephones, TV, or the price of petrol.

    • spangled drongo says:

      The young people today have almost no idea of the real world.

      The minute they leave virtual reality at home they are looking at their phones and/or “tuned in” via earphones.

      A virtual existence is not progress.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Modern “progress” that equates with govt handout welfare is destroying the old, established rules of economic common sense:

  • margaret says:

    Don on women and feminists.

    “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.”

    Even your extended family are perfect.

    Spangled! How’s the cheese and kisses!

    The 1940’s – well the first half was WWII (for those who remember their loved ones serving) and the second half was trying to come to terms with its effects on families and society.

    • spangled drongo says:

      “Spangled! How’s the cheese and kisses!”

      If that’s a genuine question, marg, [like not your idea of a joke as in no question mark] she’s OK now, thanks. Just had a mastectomy so I’m doing the housework but is recovering.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Margaret, note that I said, ‘I think’. My observation is that there is much more ‘partnership’ in relationships now than was the case seventy years ago, and much less patriarchy (within the relationship). But I could be wrong.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    There’s an interesting counter view of ‘progress since 1967 at

    The writer asks whether we are more ethical than was the case then, and says Yes and No.

    • margaret says:

      Interesting, despite small print I kept reading. He didn’t mention any technological runaway advances like smartphones, social media or artificial intelligence. It was very dense, as fifty years compressed – it gave his individual viewpoint as well as an overview of Australian society. The Sixties arrival/upheaval in America and (in a more microcosm way) in the UK, didn’t get underway here in Australia until the seventies.
      Any of us over fifty could write our own version of the last fifty years and every single one would be different – with a few common threads involving who led the country at the time, what war we were currently fighting, which job/career influenced our living standard and who we loved and procreated (or not) with.

      • margaret says:

        Ethics, well some people have them, some people don’t and most people fail to practise their ethical stance at some points of their lives.

    • spangled drongo says:

      Interesting, Don, but I thought Hasbeen’s comment summed it up pretty well.

      Marg, re meritocracy, here are some thoughts on the prominence female composers might achieve if only their male counterparts’ output could be suppressed:

    • margaret says:

      A red herring?

      • margaret says:

        Or, a deflection … immediately followed by an off-topic thread that sucks any oxygen.
        I am of the impression that ‘climate change’ is pretty much the obsession of this blog. Which is fine – why not just concentrate on it solely?

        • Don Aitkin says:

          There are other websites devoted to climate change, Margaret. This one isn’t. But I happen to think that that the ‘climate change’ issue is fundamentally new, pernicious and important, which is why I write about it and continue to find it interesting. Some readers think it had a predecessor in Eugenics, which may be true. This theme is not about climate change, and nor will next week’s (music). I use the Off-Topic Thread to allow others to write about what they like, and some keep on about climate change. That is their privilege. I use it myself on occasion for the same reason, as yesterday.

          • margaret says:

            Democracy through a different lens.


            When I watched The House last night, on “my” ABC (on which I watch selected programs but am sometimes/often critical of), I became very annoyed with the silly Westminster system that our parliament conducts.
            The politicians seem to have a jolly old time, running to the ringing of bells like schoolboys to class, the women have to operate in its confines which were designed for men, The Whip is like a boarding house mistress/master, and the staff who look after every little need of their masters have a job for life.

          • margaret says:

            Well I’m not going to search the connection between eugenics and climate change because it sounds like something requiring me to don a tin hat.

            We all like to waste our energies on different things.

  • Mike says:

    Don laments the proliferation of the increasingly visual sphere at the expense of reading. While those changes are definitely underway as evidenced by disappearing bookshops and thinner newspapers the outcome isn’t entirely bad. Not everyone has Dons auditory skills and for those of us who relate visually social media has enabled us to participate in public discourse.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    ” know why tripitaka finally exited this boys club.”

    Of course you do. Her philosophy got torn to shreds. The old white men argued back, and and she went off in a sulk.

    • margaret says:

      Enjoy putting the boot in don’t you Bryan? I’m impervious – if I do a tripitaka it won’t be because of you. Have you ever wondered why some of the women who obviously read the blog rarely comment? No of course you haven’t Bryan with a ‘y’.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        margaret, if a silly woman wants to make silly comments about a whole class of people (old white men, to be specific), then she better be prepared to take her bruises like anyone else, not lift her skirts and flounce off in a huff.

        Apparently she couldn’t survive catallaxy, either.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        … and I am not responsible for my parents, and a cheap shot is really beneath you.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    An email correspondent writes: ‘My parents got their first refrigerator when I bought a gas-operated one through my work (a pound a week from my pay) to replace their ice chest. Before that we had a Coolgardie safe.

    On homelessless, there were many Depression victims living in the Dudley Flats area where the Yarra River had been diverted by the Coode Canal. “Guests of the Japanese government” in Changi reported that they were being housed in conditions like Melbourne’s Dudley Flats. Their captors did not recognise the irony of course.

    On divorce, “Murphy’s Law” was supposed to change the scene to lawyer-free mutual separation after 12 months. Like the more recent NBN and energy fiascos, it was an exercise in anti-progress.’

    And on Sport, we have made great progress, but other nations that weren’t in the frame back in 1950 have made greater progress. Look at the names of the world’s best women tennis players nowadays. The dominant nations back in 1950 struggle against the newcomers today.’

    I enjoyed that slice of past life. I remember my boyhood job of bringing in the milk in the enabled billycan we used, being careful not to spill any, because my father would scoop the cream off for his winter porridge.

  • dlb says:

    I see Dick Smith is voicing his concerns on the disparity of wealth in Australia and other issues such as housing affordability, and lays some of the blame at extraordinary high immigration levels.

    He says the richest 1% in Australia now have in total, the same amount as the poorest 70%. He says immigration rates soared to over 200K when the Howard Govt came in and successive Governments have done nothing to rein it back to the long term average of 70K per annum. Dick also thinks the highest tax bracket should be lifted back to 45c in the dollar, the same when he was making his money. He considers high immigration rates only advantage the wealthy.

    Dick thinks Pauline Hanson is the only politician with the nerve to take on this issue. He thinks it is something the larger parties should also address and is spending 1 million of his own money to highlight the issue.

    Good luck to him on this, he has my support.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    There is a massive, massive, divide between the politicians and academic ‘elite’, and the people on this issue. Whenever there appears something extolling the virtues of immigration, creation of ‘sustainable’ cities (aka densification), ‘big Australia’, or the like, the overwhelming response is negative. The people hate it, and the politicians remain stone deaf.

    • dlb says:

      I suppose all is well within the New Establishment i.e. those educated types with good and secure incomes such as politicians, academics, public servants and those in big business. This demographic has done well out of economic growth. All needed now to make Australia the perfect society is to have the masses embrace gender equality, remove casual racism and get rid of coal.

  • BoyfromTotteham says:

    Apparently Wayne Swan and one of his UK Labour buddies were at the National Press Club today softening up the listeners ( and a few ALP voters at the next Federal election I guess) with a speech along the lines of ‘inequality caused the GFC’ – what bollocks. Now what is the LNP doing to prepare the ground for their re-election – nada as far as I can tell. Bollocks versus silence – not much choice, is there?

  • Paul Wright says:

    Hi Don, I was reminded of this comment made by my head of department when I first started teaching. He said, “Not all change is progress, and the fastest progress is downhill”!

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