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Mixed picture for Australian economy

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The full economic impact of the coronavirus lockdowns will not be fully felt until the end of the year, but it will be devastating. The Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, is already estimating that the effective employment rate is 13.3 per cent; it may be headed for as high as 20 per cent. It raises a question, not just in Australia, but in many developed countries. Will there be a significant middle class left after such economic destruction?

Main image: Blue piggybank wearing facemask (Getty images/ bob_bosewell)

In Australia, the picture is mixed. It is stating the obvious to say that the harm done to small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) will greatly reduce employment and wealth creation. Typically, Australia loses annually about 300,000 businesses, or one in eight. This year, and into 2021, that figure is expected to rise to 450,000, significantly reducing the number of people employed in the private sector.

Yet there is another side to the equation: the large accumulation of wealth in superannuation funds in Australia. According to the OECD, assets in Australia’s retirement vehicles equate with 135 per cent of GDP. That is about the same as in America — in that country the assets are far more concentrated in the hands of the top one per cent — and it ranks, globally, only behind Denmark, the Netherlands and Iceland (in New Zealand the level is 27.4 per cent).

It means that the middle classes in Australia are, to some extent, investors as well as income earners and tax payers — in much the same way that unions went from being principally defenders of workers’ rights and conditions to financial managers of the industry super funds.

It is true that superannuants, aside from the recent exemptions, have to wait until they are older before they can benefit from their investments. But it is a form of system-wide spreading of wealth that strengthens the middle class and provides an important economic buffer. With the assets approximately doubling every decade, it will progressively take pressure off the government to fund the aged pension, making it more feasible to provide a better financial safety net for those on lower, or no, incomes.

Yet if there is some financial protection for the existing middle class, the crisis points to some darker questions about what work opportunities will face younger workers, many of whose livelihoods have been decimated by the shut downs. For one thing, as has been extensively documented, the so-called ‘gig’ economy is set up expressly to profit from avoiding obligations to workers, such as superannuation and annual leave.


'Monoculture is implicit in the very idea of globalisation: only one world economy and one market.'


Such casualisation of the work force will be only one obstacle. The bigger problem is the emergence of global industry monocultures. For about four decades, there has been rapid growth of the finance sector, a process called ‘financialisation’. It has occurred at the expense of real economic growth and has made the finance sector de facto rulers, especially for those who happen to have a mortgage or credit card debts.

That same progression, from industry sector to intrusive power structure, now seems to be unfolding in the health sector. How industries develop necessarily shapes society, and in the post-industrial era we are witnessing rule by monocultures in which ‘only one thing matters’: whether it be converting society into no more than transactions (finance), or believing that everything is reducible to 1s and 0s (information technology and artificial intelligence).

In what has been described as the anthroposphere, non-natural worlds, monocultures are emerging everywhere. It is the norm in agriculture, where it is doing great harm to the environment. In the digital economy only one company dominates internet search, one company dominates social media and one company dominates online shopping. There has been a creeping concentration of power in nearly every global industry such that almost all are either controlled by monopolies or oligopolies that collude with each other. Monoculture is implicit in the very idea of globalisation: only one world economy and one market. The growing intolerance of different views — permitting only one thing to be said about social or scientific issues — is a further ripple effect.

Younger workers will face daunting challenges in these deeply inequitable and oppressive monocultures. The after effects of the lockdowns will be bad enough as industries are hollowed because SMEs are forced to close. But even greater difficulties lie ahead.



David JamesDavid James is the managing editor of businessadvantagepng.com. He has a PhD in English literature and is author of the musical comedy The Bard Bites Back, which is about Shakespeare's ghost.

Main image: Blue piggybank wearing facemask (Getty images/ bob_bosewell)


Topic tags: David James, COVID-19, economics, Australia, middle class, superannuation



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Existing comments

David, I am a retiree who experienced several recessions during my working life . I have children and grandchildren who are looking forward to a rewarding life. Your prognosis for the future makes chilling reading indeed. I suspect that social cohesion is going to be the biggest casualty as those who loose out from this pandemic and economic depression revolt against the gross inequality of society.We are already seeing the rise of extremist groups and naked nationalism such as exhibited by our so called leaders,Trump, Johnston and some politicians in Eastern Europe. While I hope we do not see the chaos that developed in Europe in the 1920's and 30's and led to World War II, the risks are certainly there. The elephant in the room is environmental destruction which you touched on and climate change. Unless we address these issues with the same determination as we are trying to deal with COVID-19 , then the outlook for the human race is bleak indeed.

Gavin O'Brien | 24 July 2020