Saturday, August 30, 2008

Big houses and bigger fences... what are we hiding?

I went for a walk the other afternoon, up and down the hills of Ascot and Clayfield - the beginning of the preparations for Project Fuji Assault scheduled for next year. As I was walking, I was doing what everyone else like me does and sought every opportunity to sneak a peek at how the other half lived. And I didn't realise how hard that had become lately! Fleeting glimpses up driveways and through iron garden gates was all that was afforded me; with almost every gaudy mansion was walled off from prying eyes by massive 8- and 10-foot brick, cement and besser-block fences, it left me more impressed by the footpath and 'nature' strip than by the mass of wealthy exuberance. Not like the big Greek and Italian jobs of inner Melbourne and Sydney I had grown up with, which screamed out their worth and value and "we're better than you" mentality of the owners like a rather crisp slap across the cold, wintery cheek.

I began to wonder why people spent so much money and effort on their houses - an obvious and realistic status symbol of their perception of their life's worth and value - only to shut it away by massive walled fences and partitions. Sure, I canvassed the obvious reasons for the over-the-top segregation: security to keep out the undesirables (ha, like me!); safety for the occupants inside; and maybe even a little bit of status cringe creeping in. The theories just really didn't stack up to me, but I did resolve that if I ever decided to enter the property market, I was going to make sure I buy the shittiest, dingiest and cheapest house I could find, but then spend a mint surrounding it with the biggest, fuck-offest fence money could buy, just to get the tongues wagging and the neighbours intrigued. And, I guess, maybe that's part of the reason why these fences exist - to provide a tantalising glimpse into their worlds, but not provide you with the whole picture. Just whet the appetite.

Anyway, this thought process led me worry about what might happen to this nation with the impending financial crisis. I look around my peer and professional groups on an almost daily basis and have noticed a definite change in their outlook on life. People not 10 years younger than me have no recollection of the 1990s credit squeeze and what that did to families all around the nation. And that was in a period of mild economic growth and lower comparative house prices. Now, the search for the mighty dollar sees 25-year-olds with debts in the realm of half a million dollars and slim hope to actually paying it back. In fact, with belts stretched to breaking point, even the slight murmur in interest rate talk has seen them shake like frightened lap dogs. It's funny how even half a generations gap has seen the entire collective wisdom removed in favour of searching for a "leg up" in this financially driven community.

This collective amnesia, I believe, has led to a fundamental shift of the national psyche in recent years. Thanks partly to the world economic cycle, the south-east Asian tiger economies (and subsequent Bear markets... which makes me wonder if our doom will be similarly tagged with an animal motif: an eel or snake comes to mind), our own "mining boom" and a decade of ultra-conservative rule, we have developed a national pysche completely different to the one which faced our last great economic bitch-slapping. We have become more US focussed in our introspective dealings and have risen to being a rather heavy-hitting 'aspirational capitalism': one in which the traditional elements of honesty, hard-work and credibility have moved aside for cunning, daring and prejudice in order to forge success.

And that, then, is why I'm worried. I look around at my peers and professional groups and see a whole swag of essentially decent people who have unfortunately bought into this aspirational capitalism and have tagged their sense of self-worth and value to this market. If that goes down, or at least stumbles to the point where those already over-extended lose their bundles, then what will happen to them? Will there be a national out-pouring of grief, with association depression and anxiety? Or will we merely develop a thicker skin which allows us to lose these literal and metaphoric fur coats we like to portray to the world, yet still continue to be an important, contributing community? Time will tell, I guess.


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