From Closing Off Major Arterials to the Lice Treatment – Our Evolving Sense of Money

Today’s Preston Institute blog comes from a guest blogger – Nicola, who describes herself as a political staffer from Melbourne, mother of one, 30 next year. I introduce her as a blogger who delivers us a thought provoking view of our current perception of money.

I have to announce that I am not rich. I am not even comfortable. Neither am I impoverished, though I’m occasionally skint. I’m less so the older I get. A decade ago some meals were comprised entirely of rice, and petrol tanks had an awkward habit of emptying suddenly on major arterials, creating a rear-vision horror of frustrated drivers very unhappy at my unscheduled closure of the left-hand lane. In retail and hospitality our fellow workers held the casual-labour begging bowl to our Beadles, plaintively asking for more work please, sir.

I’m not personally complaining about this. In my undeniably middle-class family the 18 to 20-something years were spent in tertiary study and casual work; in depressed rentals and dead-end relationships – but we were never near collapse. It was our home-grown back-packing European Spring break, but confined to Melbourne. And if we could scrape together enough fare to get back home, there was always a home-cooked meal. If we’d been living like this indefinitely it would be much more depressing, and many do. The man who is dead at 76 years old,  bashed to death on a Sydney train last week while sheltering from the cold at 3am, had presumably not graduated from a miserable treadmill of worthless jobs, exploitation and disenfranchisement. The middle-class, however, will accept their apprenticeship on the understanding it isn’t terminal.

What fascinates me about money is the individual’s evolving attitude. As children we have no concept of money, or the cost of things comparative to the labour exerted earning the stuff. Our appreciation of money on first developing our independence usually gives way to a complacency about others’ hardship, if we are lucky enough to become comfortable in further years. And it fascinates me too that these imbalances are still vociferously denied as having any bearing on class – at least the second filthiest C-word around.

Back 4 decades, in the days when money didn’t come from a card, a computer or a phone, My Dad Graham (you’d like him) was among a junior crew of academics, one day seen chatting in a cluster, anxiously awaiting the outcome of union discussions on a possible strike. Their money came only as coloured paper, painstakingly withdrawn over a counter at your local branch; or in a cheque, even then a laughably arcane exchange of currency. Amazingly he still prefers cheques.

Overhearing them from a separated office a senior-associate-dean-or-other, 20 years the senior, surprised the young’uns with a shriek. ‘Oh bloody hell, I didn’t even think!’ Walking out he was brandishing his own cheque book, a real life George Bailey, James Stewart’s heroic Bedford Falls banker from It’s A Wonderful Life, the picture of generosity.  ‘I forgot about you guys. Things WOULD be difficult eh? What do you need to tide you over?’ My Dad Graham promised to remember this kindness and not succumb to the amnesia of upward mobility.

Back in the present, I have a favourite student who broke a piece of my heart away when he told me he couldn’t go to university because his Mum couldn’t afford to keep him once he’d passed 18, and his only option was the workforce. With his scores, brightness and grit to breeze through year 12 I looked forward to sharing in the highlights of his academic career. Horrified as I was to hear of his mother’s lack of appreciation of his tertiary opportunities, I also sympathized with her position: if you haven’t got the cash you’re near breaking point. For a single mother with no qualifications and two teenage children, a text-book working class family living in a regional area, money was never going to transform into ‘easy’ for her. While I don’t want to get into the more complicated categorization of society into sub-sets of cashed up bogans; cultural elite with cash-flow issues; and the cultural in-elite with generational cash-flow issues, there are some people forced to make poor choices for simple lack of money. The cold reality of the boy’s situation stuck with me. Especially as it’s a contrary choice to make: university will afford the kid greater opportunity in the long run, adding greater mobility to him than to me, considering our relative positions in life and fortune.

Now with a child of my own, and at no real risk of sinking into destitution, I wince slightly at every minor cost levied on my daughter’s school extras. A uniform, a swimming program, a school barbecue, a lice treatment (without which she would have been prohibited from attending school), school shoes, shoe polish, matching socks – there really are hundreds of expenses. I don’t personally resent the costs, I only worry about the expectation there is that every family can absorb costs like these. But further there are costs we are all expected to absorb no matter whether we’re breeders. And every time a user-pays model is introduced there is someone going without, and possibly not functioning as they should. Politicians bleat a great deal about costs and expenses, and set against the carbon tax it’s become an obsession, but more immediately our society is being characterized by a consumer model where the base offering is sub-standard, and value begins where the dollar changes hands.

When I contrast my father’s struggle-era with current day I notice a generational change in attitude to cash and ‘having things’, probably owing a great deal to that improvement in the technology of money delivery. There is now little social acceptance of a lack of immediate money. Everyone should have a credit line, everyone should have savings, being able to absorb unexpected cost is a sign of maturity. My Dad Graham, a full-time professional, in cohort with others, was rescued without question by a colleague, when today to even offer to pay someone’s salary during industrial action would be seen as patronising, meddling and maybe a breach of privacy.

I hope that favoured student gets to university, and that he finds some financial security in the long run. I’m guessing that his hardship will last a bit longer than mine did, and be more than the difference between a three-course meal or a working car, and being reported on radio as the morning’s traffic hold-up. And I hope that someday there’s another George Bailey to save him.

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One thought on “From Closing Off Major Arterials to the Lice Treatment – Our Evolving Sense of Money

  1. Excellent post!

    Although very American-centric, the thoughts on ‘Being Poor’ have always struck m, especially some of the comments:

    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/03/being-poor/

    Interestingly, being poor, for me, was not understand why my Mum always said ‘no’ to after school activities (like dance classes or ‘physie’ or little athletics or piano lessons or saturday morning netball) and me thinking how horrible she was to make my sister and I so excluded when all the other kids were doing it, when she actually meant “we can’t afford it” but had too much pride to say so to her daughters – preferring to wear her daughter’s ire than let them know the truth.

    Oh, and when it comes to applying for university scholarships, they prefer kids with good grades *and* extra curricular activities over kids with great grades and nothing else to show.

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