This article appeared in the Weekend Australian Review Section 23-24September 1995 p1-2
The Working Rich
They earn more than $100,000 a year and many of them have huge influence to boot. These people may wince at the overclass label but, as Elisabeth Wynhausen reports, they are the new guard of a society where money comes first, daylight second and egalitarianism isn't even on the screen.
The lighting was subdued. The decor was subdued. The voice of the speaker was subdued as he said dull, sensible things about risk management, a subject that has acquired more allure since the collapse of the Barings. The 40 or so participants – bank executives, lawyers and wunderkinder immersed in the arcane world of derivatives trading – were at a conference for which they or their employers had shelled out $895 for a day (more than the average Australian earns in a week).
Men and women alike were in dark suits. The men wore white shirts. The women wore conservative black pumps. One's head turned at a run in a stocking or a loud voice. Though the audience looked as if it shared the one corporate identity, the outward caution was deceptive. "There are a lot of people on six figures here," said Mark Cupples, a big, square-jawed man of 37, who is the manager of treasury accounting for the Metway Bank in Brisbane.
But it surprised him to learn that with a household income "a bit" over $100,000 a year, he and his wife are bracketed with the top five who said. "It doesn't sort of strike you," he said, "the people you know are in the same boat."
What we seem to be witnessing is the emergence of a new affluent class of professionals – members of an internationally recognisable elite found in clusters in investment banking, corporate law, communications, information technology, the media and the upper strata of the service sector (in the lucrative, expanding nexus between government and dusty).
They drive BMW's and Mercs. They think of flying business class as a concession to hard times. They wear Ralph Lauren shirts and Armani suits and lap their mesclun salads from Versace plates. The 30-something DINKS (double income, no kids) have personal trainers, the two-income couples with children talk about the private-school fees in pre-tax dollars, telling you that it cost $45,000 a year to send the children to school. That's more than the average Australian male earns in a year.
But when asked about belonging to an elite, its members react as if the very idea is ridiculous. "If I lose my job I don't have anything," says a television producer who earns more than $100,000 a year.
"Where always in overdraft," says the working wife of a media executive whose household income must be above $250,000.
"Where really SIMPS – single income, mortgage poor," proclaims Lend Lease's Chris Zwolinski, who is at a lunch of the Trans-Tasman Business Circle, held in a banqueting room at Sydney's Hilton Hotel. Such occasions are the hallmark of the new elite, inclined to network instead of whiling away the hours in clubs so hushed that the rustle of new money resounds like a rifle shot.
That even as the old establishment is fading into the woodwork of the Melbourne Club, the country seems to be more stratified than it was a decade ago. Financial deregulation created shoals of new money millionaires; meanwhile, in the late 80s, the inexorable globalisation of the marketplace was driving up the salaries of the most senior executives in the flourishing finance sector just as the real wages of employees were going down.
Some of the shifts have long been in the wind. Several years ago this newspaper's personal finance editor, John Kavanagh, wrote that the Business Review Weekly rich list, launched in 1983, had "an immediate impact on the way we think about wealth and its formation in Australia. It showed that most of the wealth was made, not inherited and that many of the great fortunes had been built by postwar immigrants."
The the Labor government didn't invent new money, financial deregulation gave it quite a fillip. Indeed, the endless social and economic upheaval over which Labor presided has helped produce and information-rich elite, a class of experts in a country that craves expertise as a balm to its sense of cultural insecurity.
Financial success is the common do nominator of the new professional class, but it's more prominent members may define themselves not by wealth but by access and influence – and influence may be it's ultimate currency. "I wouldn't take a job that didn't have a huge public policy component, however much it paid," says Susan Ryan, a former Labor government minister who now heads the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia. "It wouldn't interest me if there was no opportunity to influence the course of events."
In a Harper's magazine essay adapted from his book The Next American Nation, which has just been published in the United States, author Michael Lind coined the term "the over-class" for the college-educated managerial-professional elite that has come to be the dominant social group in that nation. Perhaps because he was describing the bankers, consultants, lobbyists, television executives and economists who belong to a transnational species as identifiable in downtown Caracas as in Manchester or Melbourne, the idea of the overcoats caught on.
Newsweek said it explained what had happened to all those yuppies. The Sunday Times suggested that Britain, too, was witnessing the emergence of a "new superclass of wealthy professionals" that influences public policy. In the US and the United Kingdom, of course, a pedigree and connections may still determine membership of the elite.
In this country, in contrast, the rise of a first-generation elite, the institutionalisation of the Labor government and the final ascent of the Catholics combine to give the people who now have the money, the power and the influence the sense that they're still coming up from under."I'm a bit shocked to find myself defined as overclass," says Ryan. "I've always thought of myself as a worker."
"As the first generation to go to university, as migrants, as women who have only just made it into the club, it's hard to think of ourselves as the oppressors, which is what overclass implies," says Sydney film and television producer Sandra Levy, rejecting the expression.
But there has been a changing of the guard; members of the new elite exert increasing influence over a society from which they are insulated by an income that allows a style of life most Australians would regard as lavish.
Figures from Sydney economist Phil Raskall show that in the 15 years to 1992-93 the wealthiest fifth of the population managed to increase the gap between themselves and the poorest fifth by almost 50 per cent.
Though members of the new elite insist they are middle class, to entrench their advantages they send the children to private schools to give them the connections central to the armoury of privilege.
"We wanted to give the kids a network they can use for the rest of their lives," says Craig Carland, 44, a senior executive for the Commonwealth Bank, whose children went to private schools even though they live in Neutral Bay, on Sydney's lower north shore, close to some of the best State schools.
The Prime Minister also sends his children to private schools, of course. It may even be that he is the standard-bearer of the new elite. It was the PM, after all, who purchased a big old house for more than $2 million in Queen Street, Woollahra, the geographical correlative of an Armani suit or a Ferragamo tie (a label that bestows an aura of class and taste), if not nirvana itself for members of the new elite, inclined to live in enclaves that offer the discreet assurance that they are among their own, in neighbourhoods where even the nannies have gone to good schools.
Last April, Australian National University economist Professor Bob Gregory and research assistant Boyd Hunter released a study showing that such a chasm had opened between rich and poor neighbourhoods in the 15 years to 1991 that household income in the top 5 per cent of neighbourhoods had risen by chance by the same 23 per cent that household income in the poorest neighbourhoods had dropped.
The figures signal a fundamental shift in the social structure of this country. Not only has the been a reversal of the equality on which we pride ourselves; it almost looks as if we're wordlessly abandoning the high ideal of equality that typified the best of Australian life.
Of course, income distribution was never as flat as the myths of egalitarianism suggest. But less than a generation ago the former paradise of the working man could boast that the place was fairer than most.
A shadow of the old egalitarianism remains, however, to colour self-deception. While in the US the working poor proclaim themselves middle class, here it's the working rich.
Thirty-seven-year-old Sydney man Bill Dekker and his wife have an income well about $120,000 a year but it confound seem to be identified as the new elite."I'm comfortable but I don't think I live well," says Dekker, sales manager for Pacific Star, which sells telecommunications facilities. Fourth in line in the company, Dekker is the ultimate self-made man. His father died when he was six. His mother scraped by on the pension but raised five children in the NSW country town of Mittagong. Before he was 12, he recalls, he was getting up at 1 am each day to work on a milk run.
He went to work as soon as he left school but spent nine years studying at college at night, qualifying in both electrical engineering and advanced management. "I think anybody can do well if they have the right attitude in life," says Dekker, explaining his success in the formulas from motivational seminars. "Half the people you talk to, you ask them where they want to go [in life] and they don't have any idea."
His sense of making it on his own seems to typify members of the elite, even if they had less obvious hurdles to surmount. Ask David Weekes, the managing director of a medium-sized advertising agency, if he is self-made and he pauses for a moment before revealing that he is related to the Wentworths- as close as Australia gets to a fifth-generation gentry. With W. C. Wentworth on one side of the family and journalist Mungo McCallum on another, Weekes, who grew up in Vaucluse and went to school at Cranbrook, has the background that used to be called privileged. He even looks the part.
When we meet, amid a sea of dark suits at the Trans-Tasman business lunch in Sydney, Weekes, 48, a fair-haired amiable man, is wearing his favourite tie, from the Karen Country Club in Nairobi, a souvenir of a trip to Africa.
This out-of-the-way club apart, he belongs to the Sydney Cricket Ground and the Royal Sydney Golf Club, the domain of the old upper crust. But Weekes doesn't believe his background gave him an advantage, he reveals, quoting a conversation with a foreign-born taxidriver who suggested that his passenger, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, couldn't understand the pleasure of making his own way in life.
Not at all, said Weekes, the son of the advertising man who composed such famous jingles as "happy little Vegemite" and "snap, crackle, pop". From the day he left school, he told the taxi driver, there had been enormous pressure on him to measure up.
That sense of having to achieve exemplifies and elite that judges itself, and expects to be judged, on merit. "I feel I have to continue to earn my stripes all the time," says the Commonwealth Bank's Craig Carland.
His wife works as a secretary. The household income is "somewhat more" than $120,000 a year. "I appreciate that I'm comfortable. I have to remind my children, though." From a poor family in what he describes as the "depressed industrial suburb" of Sunshine, on the outskirts of Melbourne, Carland joined a bank On leaving school and did a bachelor of business degree. "I'm conscious that you can do this in Australia – work your way up to a comfortable position."
That he grew up at a time when there was a comparative absence of barriers to advancement, the fact that he is self-made shapes his sense of what he owes society. "I feel I am capable of giving to charity and I do," he says, asked about his sense of obligation. "But I've earned everything I have-– I haven't inherited anything, ever. I don't know anybody who's got a significant inheritance."
The stronger the emphasis on individual achievement, of course, the less it follows that society must do what it can to equalise opportunity. "Class words are so old-fashion now," says Weekes. "You create your class through your efforts."
In the US, Lind, in his invocation of the overclass, a term that mocks at the pretence that there is no class (except the underclass) in that country, suggests that it's privileged members maintain the fiction that they got where they are by merit. Lind contends that it lets them fling off the sense of obligation to society that characterised the old ruling classes.
Instead, ranking Republicans and Democrats alike sign off on ever more regressive taxation, while the nation, like some two-bit banana republic, becomes the ultimate exemplar of private affluence and public squalor.
Traditional inequalities are reasserting themselves throughout the industrialised world. In Australia there is enough sensitivity about the growing income gap for the Prime Minister to have minimised it, in what might be called his "oligarchy speech", at the National Press Club in August.
In this country, unlike the US, he said, "the rich are not yet building private roads for themselves, or employing private police forces and establishing, for all intents and purposes, a new species of feudalism. They have not had a government in the past 10 years willing to encourage the growth of an exclusive...oligarchy and an underclass condemned to permanent and increasing impoverishment."
But are we heading in that direction? "What we saw in the 1980s was a definite increase in the inequality of income," says Professor Ann Harding from the University of Canberra's National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling. "And it's due to the top 10 per cent. That's where all the action has been."
The same thought may have struck the wage slaves following the case of sacked Coles Myer director Philip Bowman, whose package, reported to the Victorian Supreme Court, included a base salary of $700,000, rent-free accommodation in a house valued at several million, the use of a Mercedes-Benz series 420 and, after a few months in the job, a termination package paid out at $1.3 million (an amoun Bowman disputes, claiming it should be 2.2 million).
But the skyrocketing salaries of other senior executives may be no reflection of performance. "There's a very weak relationship between profitability and the pay of the chief executive," says Dr Thorsten Strombeck from the department of economics at Curtin University in Canberra, who looked at the 500 largest companies in the country. It seems senior executives may be exempt from the expectation pay claims are linked to productivity agreements.
Meanwhile average earnings for all employees have gone up 8..7 per cent in real terms since March 1983, a fact that fails to inhibit the frequent round of calls for wage restraint, the drumbeat behind the incessant talk about the state of the economy that has orchestrated the rise of the new elite.
The spear carriers of the overclass, the commentators whose own salaries are forgotten in the never-ending insistence that Australians have to tighten their belts, have never ceased complaining about the pace of labour-market reform. Only the other month, this newspaper's economics editor, Alan Wood, alleged that "Labor has been unable to reinvent itself in a way that breaks its dependence on the unions.
"A superior model is plainly on display across the Tasman," wrote Wood, failing to mention that the other thing on display across the Tasman was the income gap, growing faster than in any other nation in the industrialised world.
In fact, it looks as if the past decade, an era of constant social and economic reorganisation, has ended up most benefiting those who continue to call for change, even as they remake the world in their image, if seldom as successfully as the economists who've pressured the government to deregulate public enterprises, located the capital for the privatised companies and then, wonder of wonders, invested in them.
There isn't a one-to-one correlation between income and influence, of course. The salaries of respected artists, university professors and, for instance, general practitioners no longer reflect what one might imagine to be their standing in the community. But the "market", ie, money, dominates in so many spheres of life nowadays that it erodes social and cultural measures of value.
"Do we really need free public libraries and museums?" P. P. McGuinness asked in a recent column. McGuinness, who gets a salary package rumoured to be worth more than $300,000, often verges on self-parody, but on this occasion he surpassed himself, waxing nostalgic about a six-penny lending library as he managed to suggest that such facilities as free public libraries would be abused by people who think the world owes them a living.
This is the peculiar foreshortened perspective of economic rationalism narrowed to a squint, of course. In a world decisively dividing into the information-rich and the information-poor, the man is proposing that we further deprive the disadvantaged, all for their own good.