Don Aitkin's What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australia is a remarkably good book.
For the benefit of international readers, Don Aitkin is a very senior academic, an historian and political economist. From his beginnings at the University of New England, he became Professor of Politics at Macquarie University in the 1970s, and then Professor of Political Science in the Research School of Social Sciences in the ANU. In 1988 he was appointed the foundation Chairman of the Australian Research Council, and it was from this post that he joined the University of Canberra in 1991 as VC.
Don was born on 4 August 1937. His did his initial schooling in Canberra, where he was in the same class as and a friend with Max Ellis, son of Ulrich Ellis. At twelve, he came to Uralla when his father accepted a teaching appointment there, enrolling in second year at Armidale High School. He felt isolated and missed his Canberra friends.
Don did the Leaving Certificate, the precursor of the High School Certificate, at Armidale High in 1953. Fifty years later, he went back for a reunion of the class of 53. This led him to think of an article that became a book, looking at change in Australia since the Second World War through the prism set by the experiences and attitudes of the class of 53.
Don is a very skilled writer. His two early books on the NSW Country Party have strongly influenced my own writing, although my focus is a little different. Don focused on the Party, whereas I came to see the Party as a part of what I called the broader regional movements including the New State movements.
His introduction provides an overview to the whole book. This is followed by a snapshot of Australia and Armidale at the time the book starts.
I found this valuable because it provides a benchmark against which to measure change. It is also, I think, a useful technique to use in general histories. Don also uses overviews to set a context for his deeper and more personal analysis.
Lives in Two Halves
In many ways, the lives of the class of 1953 break into two halves.
The first half begins with a conservative, regulated, socially constricted society. Yet this was also a world of low unemployment (2 per cent was considered a Government breaker), of economic security and opportunity.
The second half is a word of change, of de-regulation, of downsizing, the end of permanent jobs. It was also a world of greater social freedoms, of advancements in a whole range of fields, of substantial increases in wealth. The class of 53 would generally not go back to the old world, but it is clear that by the end of the period under study a sense of unease had developed, along with a deep weariness at the pace of change.
One of Don's points is the remarkable capacity of Australia to accept social change, including especially the presence of so many migrants. Here he uses Canada as an equivalent benchmark, arguing that only Australia and Canada among developed countries went through such large social change, a remodeling of society, although the relative scale was greater in Australia.
He suggests that one reason Australia was able to absorb so many migrants from different backgrounds lay in the national consensus welcoming migration.
The term New Australian is no longer used and might today be seen as very suspect. The point, however, is that the term applied to all new migrants. They were new, but were also seen as Australian, at least Australians to be.
Today, the term Australian is applied only to citizens. There is no modern equivalent to New Australians, a term that applied regardless of formal citizenship.
Changes in the World of Work
While Don's view of the changes that have taken place in Australia is generally positive, he also recognises the negatives. Here his chapter on the world of work provides a quite penetrating picture of the changes that have taken place.
It is men, rather than women, who have been the notable casualties in the transformation of work. It is certainly the case that nearly 30 per cent of men aged 25 and more cannot find full time work, while part-time work has to some extent been colonised by women and the young (p121).
No one would deny, I think, that the position of women has improved enormously. The women in the class of 53 had far fewer opportunities open to them than their equivalents today. I also suspect, although this one is less certain, that few would want to go back to some of the hard physical labour that still existed in the 1950s before machines reduced the load.
All this said, the working world today is in some ways less pleasant, less secure, harder, than it was when the class of 53 began work.
Working hours have increased. The once stereotypical easy going casual Australian has been replaced by a far more competitive and driven person.
To my mind, and I have monitored this quite closely, actual working hours have not increased as much as people think. What has happened is that somewhat longer working hours have combined with longer travel time to get to work. Then, most recently, the new communications technologies have led to an invasion by work into previous domestic space. We all know the people unable to put their blackberries aside.
Increased working hours have been associated with another trend. Don puts it this way: “for one overwhelming change to the world of work in the second half of the twentieth century was the end of security of tenure” (p101).
I do not think that the importance of this can be overstated. During a period of rapid change, jobs vanished, new one appeared. Again to quote Don: “one sad rule is that the people displaced are hardly ever the people who gain the new jobs” (p102).
The casualisation of work, the rise of contractors, the loss of jobs, have all combined to create a pervasive sense of uncertainty. Incomes have increased, driven in part by the rise of two income families, but this has come at a cost.
Professions and Professionalisation
Another feature of the world of work has been the parallel rise and fall of the professions.
Professions and sub-professions have proliferated. There are now more professions and professionals than at any previous time in human history. Yet the prestige of the professions has declined in parallel. The social cachet once associated with being a professional has largely gone.
In some ways the saddest group in the class of 53 were the school teachers. Saddest is my word, not theirs. They loved their work, yet most seem to have taken early retirement. The issue was not money, although teachers' salaries have declined in relative terms and are unlikely to recover. Rather, the fun went out of it as they coped with increasing rules and complexities.
The teachers were not alone. The same pattern occurred across other professional groups and for the same reasons. In a sense, the class of 53 were lucky in that they were on old style super schemes, making it easier for them to exit. The loss to the community from early retirement, from people opting out even while working, is one of the unseen costs of social change.
Rise of New Concepts
Throughout the book, Don traces the rise of new concepts.
In 1951, economy was something that households and individuals practiced. Fifty years later it was one of three great collectives. Again to quote Don:
'society' describes us as individuals, families and organisations; 'polity' refers to us as citizens, voters and democrats; and 'economy' includes us as workers, spenders and investors (p41).
One of the words that Don looks at is 'choice'. Today, the concept of choice has become a central justification for many measures: people must have choice.
This concept did not exist, or did not exist in the same form, in 1953. Then Governments were simply trying to provide a basic common standard of service. Then, too, the range of options open to people was less. Whether the emphasis on choice has in fact delivered better results is, to my mind, open to question.
Another word Don mentions is 'compliance', indeed a very popular word today. In the professions, for example, he suggests that compliance has in fact replaced the old concept of professional independence.
He also suggests, and I found this interesting, that there has been a direct link between withdrawal of Governments from activities (another feature of the last fifty years) and the rise of compliance. As Governments withdrew, they placed greater emphasis on compliance as a way of still enforcing their position.
What Happened to the Dream?
The last chapter in the book is entitled what happened to the dream?
While Don is positive about many of the changes that have taken to place – he regards the expansion of education as the greatest single achievement - , he also points to the way that the old social compact that used to underpin Australian has gone without anything coming in its place.
He suggests, and I agree, that we need a national conversation about the ideals that should underpin the way Australia works.
New England Issues
While Don uses the class of 53 as a prism through which to tease out national trends, in another sense the whole book is also about New England.
At the time the class of 53 completed their schooling, the proportion of the Australian population completing secondary school was still quite small, the proportion going on to university smaller still. Don makes the point that those doing the Leaving Certificate in 1953 were not necessarily the brightest. They were there because their parents chose that they should be there.
Fights for improved education form one of themes in New England’s history. Yet it is also true that there was a degree of suspicion about education and especially tertiary education.
In an appendix (p261ff), Don lists the class, where they came from, what they became. I haven’t analysed the patterns fully yet, but certain things stand out.
Reflecting Armidale’s role as an educational centre, some of those in the class came from educational or professional backgrounds. However, many of those who went on to further education were the first in their families to do so. As education expanded, it drew in more and more such students.
Only a relatively small proportion of the class remained in New England, fewer still in Armidale. Education provided a vehicle for social mobility; the class went in all directions, depending on their careers. The importance of teaching as an occupational group reflects not just the expansion in education that was now underway, but also the importance of teaching as a path for social advancement.
In some ways, the expansion in education was a two edged sword, for the absence of certain types of jobs in New England made emigration inevitable. This pattern was accentuated by the changes to the world of work that the Don talks about.
From the 1970s on, one local manifestation of the broader structural changes taking place in the Australian economy was an occupational hollowing as certain types of jobs were reduced or even vanished entirely. A number of the class of 53 experienced this type of effect.
The patterns of structural change varied to some extent across New England depending on the local economic base. However, that’s a matter for later analysis.
 Don Aitkin, What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005
 Max Ellis personal communication