Redefining affluence, post-credit

Living standards are declining for Australia's middle and working classes as the credit boom of the 2000s deflates. But governments and business leaders are ill-equipped to deal with this.

Finance writer Scott Pape always has an interesting perspective in his regular columns.

This week he talks about Melissa a mother of three who lives in the US state of Georgia who also happens to be Scott’s virtual PA.

Scott hires Melissa because she’s cheap; far cheaper than her competitors in Australia.

For the $8 an hour she earns, she gets no sick pay, no health insurance and no retirement benefits. Unless Melissa has a well paid partner and her work for Scott is just a sideline to help pay the bills, she will work until she drops.

This is the new reality for those in America, Spain, the UK and most of the West. It’s slowly becoming the reality in Australia as well despite the current hubris about the Down Under Economic Miracle.

Melissa’s job as a secretary or PA was safe and comfortable 20 years ago. Today – just like auto workers, shop assistants, accountants and even lawyers – secretaries are having to trade their secure jobs for precarious, and reduced, incomes in the globalised and casualised marketplace.

Scott makes perfectly valid points that individual drive and determination will be important in the globalised economy, but nothing changes the fact that Melissa and millions like her – including ourselves – will not have the living standards of her parents.

While we can talk about billions of Indians and Chinese improving their standard of living in the new globalised world, we shouldn’t forget for a moment that living standards are declining for most of the developed world’s middle and working classes.

This decline isn’t totally due to globalisation and was probably going to happen regardless of the rise of China. The West’s prosperity was built upon the post World War II reconstruction and the credit booms of the 1980s and 2000s. Eventually the money – or the credit – had to run out.

How we as a society deal with this will define our nations and communities over the next 50 years. Our governments, business leaders and media commentators are ill-prepared for the effects even if they recognise the problem.

Those most deeply affected are the businesses based on the 20th century model of ever increasing prosperity. As our retailers are finding, this model is running out of steam.

While some expect the newly affluent Chinese and Indians to save their well padded hides, most will find Asian consumption patterns in the 21st century will be different to US auto workers of the 1950s or English real estate agents of the 1980s.

Even financial planners like Scott are going to find things different – many financial planners thought they could get rich just skimming commissions off their clients’ portfolios which grew with the ever climbing stock and property markets. That model dropped dead in September 2008.

For those of us born and raised during the Western world’s era of great prosperity, we’re going to find we have to work a lot harder and not take affluence for granted.

Melissa and her $8 an hour secretarial service is the future and it’s probably Scott’s, yours and mine as well.

Some may say that’s a pessimistic view of the world, but a leaner, harder economy may be the best thing could happen for us as individuals and a society.

Paul Wallbank is a business technology writer, broadcaster and blogger and author of eBusiness: Seven Steps to Online Success.

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