Good Reading : September 2007
SEPTEMBER 2007 ı goodreading 21 Hugh Mackay’s reputation as Australia’s foremost social analyst was cemented with his 1993 book Reinventing Australia:The mind and mood of Australia in the 90s. Now, four- teen years on, Mackay is publishing his follow-up book Advance Australia … Where? which looks at how we’ve changed in the intervening period, why we’ve changed, and what’s likely to happen next. According to Mackay, Australians have spent the last dozen or so years in a state of withdrawal and denial he calls the ‘Dreamy’ period. Playing devil’s advocate, I say, with a laugh: ‘You describe us as the most mate- rialistic people ever, disengaged from the wider world, obsessed with ourselves and our narrow lives, suspicious of anything or anyone deemed unAustralian, xeno- phobic, mindlessly communicating via technology yet never reflecting meaning- fully on what we’ve just read or seen, and narcissistic. Are we really so bad?’ ‘That’s a serious overinterpretation!’ responds Mackay. ‘A couple of the items on that list are accurate descriptions of how we are now or have been, but most are the dangers we have to avoid. And I don’t think we’re going to fall into all those traps at all – I’m very optimistic about Australia.The Dreamy period has been odd – mostly to do with the combination of overload: too much reform, too many changes too quickly on too many fronts, plus political leader- ship and a kind of cultural episode that favoured materialism. [Mackay calls this the ‘Kaleidoscope Nation’.] I think our response to all that was to lose sight of what we were becoming. If you look at us over the whole of the last quarter century, we’ve really created the sort of society that many Australians dreamed of, and then, under the pressure of some of the things I mentioned, we somehow lost that dream.We no longer dream of egalitarianism, we now seem to be accepting that there’s a wider gap between top and bot- tom than we’ve ever had before. So it’s been an unfortunate period, but the note of hope at the end of the book is that we do seem be coming out of this, we do seem to be re- engaging, and I think that’s going to be very good news for us.The re-engagement has been triggered by water, the drought, with its implica- tions for the whole planetary issue of global warming. It’s an unexpected trigger. If you’d asked me three years ago,What’s going to pull us out of this Dreamy period? I think I would have said, Oh well, it might be a bird flu epidemic, or a terrorist attack, or a collapse in the resources boom – but it’s not any of those things.’ Mackay is particularly optimistic about the younger generations, who, he says, have been treated unfairly by the press and even by Generation X. ‘They are the product of the period that made them.They take materialism in their stride, but why wouldn’t they? Anyone under the age of thirty has grown up in the most materialistic period of our cultural evolution. Of course they expect Brand X and Brand Y, but I don’t think it defines them, the way it defines true materialists. I think they say, I want all that stuff but I know there’s more to life than that.They are the ones leading the charge on the question of spirituality, the meaning of life; they’d like to get life into a better balance, a better perspective.’ Two things about the younger generations make him optimistic: their tribalism – ‘they do really look out for ch other, they’ve got more of a nse of being connected than we ve’ – and their flexibility – ‘they e so nimble, so much the prod- ct of this period of tumult; they were born into a moving kalei- doscope, so they don’t expect the patterns to be stable. And that’s not bad.We might yearn for the patterns to be stable, but they en think about that, they are always saying,What else is there?’ There’s hope for us oldies, too.When I mention the ageing of the population and the fact that it looks as though retirement is on its way out, he responds: ‘I think the term “tribal elder” is going to come to mean something really significant in our culture in the future. Because, as you say, they’re going to be engaged, switched on, well-educated, many of them still quite affluent, not experiencing what previous generations have experienced, a sort of decline into poverty with old age.They’re going to demand to be heard. Many of them will still be working part-time well into their seventies. A different world.We’ve grown up in a culture where old people became invisible.Well, this generation isn’t going to be invisible.They’re going to be rowdy!’ I hope, for everyone’s sake, that he’s right on all fronts. But I’m comforted by the fact that Hugh Mackay usually is. Advance Australia … Where? by Hugh Mackay is published this month by Hachette Australia, rrp $35.00 australians Social researcher and commentator HUGH MACKAY has been examining Australians and their way of life for many decades now. He talks to ALISON PRESSLEY about his new book out this month, Advance Australia … Where? up close awake!