Is Australia's housing boom rooted in social anxiety?
I came across this article (https://bit.ly/2RBTqiN) recently, and the title made me laugh. I live in the outer suburbs of a medium-sized city, with new housing going up all around me. Thankfully, most of my associates don’t boast about their home décor, but I’ve definitely been to events where nothing much else was talked about.
But I’m not writing this to be nasty. Instead, I am curious about what’s going on more broadly socially that has led to this behavior. We’ve had reality TV shows about housing for about a decade, and they certainly feed into the hype. However, such shows would not thrive if there wasn’t an appetite for them.
I suspect that it’s actually reflecting an intensifying desire to turn inwards on behalf of many Australians. In a world that is faster moving and more diverse than ever, it can be hard to find space to just “be”. And as our poorly designed cities get denser and noisier, the only place we have any control over our surroundings are in our houses.
That’s definitely a possible cause. Beyond that, though, this feeling of a lack of control goes further. Many of us don’t know our neighbours, and have falling levels of trust in various institutions. And because so many of us are so financially stretched (Australia’s household debt levels relative to income ranks with the world’s highest), we don’t have much time to engage with volunteer and community work. And why are we under financial pressure? Well, because we collectively believe that “doing well” means owning your house.
I use that expression “doing well” on purpose, because it points to a collective anxiety to keep up with the Jones’s. We seek validation in what others think of us, and less in what we think of ourselves. And why is this?
Well, I think it stems from both social and economic changes. Over the past few decades, Australians have gradually become less conformist and less religious. Habits, behaviours and customs that used to be widely understood have faded. Traditional markers of status have faded as well – being from a pioneer family or longstanding family in an area matters far less than it used to.
Then we have the economic changes having an impact too. There has always been a gap between different types of work, but in a global economy, that gap is getting far wider…and is becoming geographically concentrated. Many of us have to work harder just to make ends meet, let alone “get ahead”, as the costs of essential services rise inexorably.
This is feeding through to our education system, with pernicious effects. Likewise, because of the cultural focus upon material goods and social status, young people avoid manual trades…and so we have skill shortages in most of our manual trades. Ironically, skilled tradespeople have generally done very well out of the housing and construction boom.
Beyond of all these reasons, however, I think that there is a hidden one. I think that many people don’t realise it, but I think they are seeking creative validation. Media, art, music and the like is now available much more cheaply than it was in the analogue era, and has generally suffered a corresponding fall in economic value – as well as in cultural value.
Aside from their families, the only other people whose views they have to consider are those involved in building the structure, the related authorities, and (possibly) the neighbours. In terms of decorating, people get ongoing creative control over such projects for years to come. Building a dwelling has the added bonus of entertaining friends and the like.
So owning a dwelling may be deeply satisfying on a number of fronts. First of all, unlike someone making a living from creative work, a homeowner does not have to worry about their renovating efforts being broadly accepted and reviewed….or worse, forgotten. Secondly, a private dwelling’s interior (usually) does not have to follow any particular style. Thirdly, it does allow the display of personality aspects, both to the occupants…and to any guests who may visit.
And why is this drive so deep? Well, it’s just occurred to me that it might stem from our Enlightenment-era foundations. Unlike the United States, we have generally had authority figures making decisions on our behalf from early on in our settlement. In the 1870’s, compulsory education was introduced and was well in place by 1908. Building and safety regulations came into place at around the same time. Improvements in transport and communication have shrunk the world, but now, more than ever, we have rules to obey.
As such, at a very fundamental level, the stories many Australians tell to us about us have distinct boundaries set by existing authorities. With centralised education and media, much of it has been top-down, which is why much of it doesn’t ring true…and why it lacks a diversity of voices.
I think we are looking for stories that link our past to our present, but it’s getting harder to do as the nation becomes more diverse. Understandably, many recent immigrants don’t relate to Waltzing Matilda, The Man From Snowy River, or the Sentimental Bloke. Likewise, what chance does the average urban dweller have to relate to the hardships of the pioneering days, or to our Indigenous prehistory?
It’s this lack of stories that is causing us anxiety in a world where everything keeps swirling around. And that – in turn – keeps us obsessed with our castles. We want them to reflect our hopes and to tell our own, individual, stories. When we ask guests what they think of features, we actually want validation of the story we have told ourselves about who we are. As such, we respond well when guests say nice things, and feel sad or angry when they don’t.
What do you think?