In towns and cities across Australia, one gets the sense that many people are just barely hanging on.
You see it on their faces, hear it in their voices, and sometimes even fear the consequences of it via spontaneous outbursts of public incivility over things that, decades ago, one would not have expected to cause any disturbance of the peace.
You see it on the street in the menacing – or at least defensive – looks people give one another, and even more in traffic, where people feel emboldened by their relative anonymity to behave with pointless recklessness and breathtaking selfishness.
Why is this happening?
When people open up after just a few gentle questions – and it’s surprising how much they want to – many report symptoms including depression, constant anxiety, sleep difficulties, exhaustion, racing thoughts, feelings of helplessness, diminished libido, appetite disturbances and frequent infections. These are all symptoms of chronic stress. What is making us so stressed?
In 2018, money and work were the top two sources of stress, according to the American Psychological Association. It’s likely that it’s not so different in Australia, where so many of us are subject to “work-family conflict” – that situation where the demands of the world of work are incompatible with the demands of family and social bonds. You can’t properly satisfy both, whether you’re experiencing overwork in a competitive workplace or insufficient work and insufficient income in the ever-growing, ever-threatening sideshow that is the gig economy.
Put simply, the world of work is making us sick.
Many of those in full-time permanent employment are now expected to work staggering hours, frequently without commensurate remuneration. They are expected to be contactable 24/7, to meet arbitrary targets eternally renewed. They are subjected to faddish managerial practices and to feral managers empowered by an amoral ethos that blindly ignores all but the pursuit of a few narrow metrics. People at this end of the workforce often feel they’re toiling in white collar sweatshops.
Then there are those working far too few hours for their own good. These are not merely the much-maligned unemployed. There is also that huge class of persons you seldom hear discussed by politicians on either side of politics but whom you see everywhere: on trains, buses, trams, walking the streets or perhaps looking in the mirror as you shave or apply your makeup. They are the involuntarily underemployed: the people drowning in the gig economy who want more work, more hours, but can’t get them.
They’re trying to pay for or pay off an education. They’re trying to save for a deposit on a place of their own so that they’re not forever hostage to the whims of investors. They’re trying to pay for increasingly expensive health insurance. But mostly they’re just trying to put food on the table for their kids, to pay their exponentially increasing gas, electricity and phone bills, and to replace clothes and simple everyday items as these submit to the inexorable consequences of built-in obsolescence.
Though they’re not called unemployed by the government, at the extremes they often live very similar lives to the unemployed or fear that they soon will, their heads bobbing up and down in a sea of global economic insecurity generated by forces over which they have no control. Adding the percentage of involuntarily underemployed to the percentage of involuntarily unemployed, somewhere between 20% and 25% of the Australian workforce suffer chronic stress due to insufficient work.
And it’s the knowledge of this, not necessarily of the statistic, but of the difficulty of finding adequately paid employment, that makes those who do have a full-time job so fearful of losing the one they have, even if they absolutely hate it.
Both the overworked and the underworked members of the workforce are the victims of a level of anxiety and stress probably not felt in this country since the end of the second world war. The solutions to these problems are going to require reasoned analysis by a variety of experts in multiple fields and far-sighted political commitment beyond any given electoral cycle, solutions that eschew sensationalist party-political point-scoring.
But nothing’s going to change if we don’t start talking about it.
• Elliot Perlman is an Australian author. This is an edited version of a speech given at the Australian Booksellers Association Conference 2019 at Pullman Melbourne on the Park, on 24 June.
• Elliot Perlman’s new novel, Maybe the Horse Will Talk, is out through Penguin Random House Australia in October