When it came to the visual accompaniment for this guide, Jon Frank's 'Australians' series seemed the perfect fit. The series was featured in our Steph Gilmore Guest Editor issue.

The Idiot’s Guide To The Australian Class System

All photos by Jon Frank

The Wu-Tang Clan said it first in “C.R.E.A.M”—or maybe it was Marx.

In a capitalist system, cash rules everything around us. Meaning cashflow is everything. Meaning the class you were born into is going to go a long way to shaping your experience and perceptions of this planet. Yet it is almost never talked about.

“Extraordinary isn’t it?” says Dr Liz Allen, a leading demographer from the Australian National University, who specialises in population studies, inequality and the study of class. “Class is one thing that we have not bridged the divide in—in terms of representation—and very little recognition has been given to that,” she continues.

In the interest of helping Australians better understand it, Dr Allen has devised this tool to help you figure out the class you belong to. She also helped us formulate this here Idiot’s Guide To The Australian Class system.

You Are Born Into A Class

“From what we know from international research—quite a large body of research—the circumstances you’re born into largely determine the future of your life; whether you go onto finishing high school, whether you will have good health throughout your life course, whether you will gain employment in a particular area. All of these things are largely determined by the social circumstances of our birth.

“Warren Buffet refers to it as the ‘ovary lottery’. There is very little mobility in terms of class mobility from that in which you are born. It does happen but it is the minority.”

“You Can’t Be What You Can’t See:” Why Class Is Never Discussed

“Who are the voices that are most heard? It’s not the so-called ‘hidden people,’ it’s the people that have the opportunities to be heard, to be actively engaged, and are recognised.

“It comes from that idea that you can’t be what you can’t see. That idea of access is very difficult because of either our financial, physical, or social accessibility to gaining the skills, education, or the right networks and friends to get us into particular places.”

Addressing Class Is The First Step To Redressing Inequality

“Privilege can stem from class. And our class can shape individual perceptions and experiences—for better or worse. Recognising the existence of class and where we might sit in the spectrum has benefits; benefits particularly for those who lack the necessary power to be heard. Identifying the existence of class is the first step toward redressing inequality. Taking stock, checking our own potential biases is a good place to start for Australia to truly offer a fair go for all.”

This Hasn’t Been The Land of The Fair-Go For A Long Time Now

“Most Australians recognise that a class system endures in Australia. But as Australians, we like to think we live in and foster a fair society, beyond a class-based system. It’s a romantic narrative, but this really isn’t the case.

“Across Australia there are vast differences in socioeconomic conditions, meaning opportunities and outcomes are different. The class system in Australia is not as pronounced and overt as in other parts of the world, but the almost covert underpinning of class in Australia is highly problematic because we judge others’ circumstances unconsciously.”

“It’s Who You Know, Not What You Know:” Media and Politics Are Dominated By Upper Classes

“Based on the research, we know that class mobility and where you’re born largely determines your life course and your access to education. If you think about that you might see that it’s ‘who you know, not what you know.’

“There is that level of network-building that is vital, particularly in politics, to being known and getting recognition. In some respects, if you look at research into class mobility it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the voices that occupy the media and that occupy parliament may not represent the demographics of Australians.”

This Has Created A Warped Perception of Reality, Particularly When It Comes To Inequality

“It’s very hard to empathise and put ourselves in someone else’s position if we don’t have lived-experience.

“Lived experience isn’t a moment spent serving food in a soup kitchen. Lived-experience is understanding what it’s like to not have the resources that are required to survive or live a comfortable life. Without a lived-experience, we are unable to understand or truly empathise. So what’s important is to find some way those sensitivities can be acquired—i.e by working with people with lived-experiences in these things.”

Can The Upper Class “Acquire” an Understanding of Inequality?

“I would encourage anyone in a position of power, whether that be in the media or in politics or at the local hospital, to think about how you can develop cultural and social competencies around what it’s like being the so-called ‘other being’, perhaps at the lower end of the income distribution; families struggling to afford Christmas gifts, families struggling to get their children with autism to an appropriate school. Through that exposure to lived-experience, we can develop a more meaningful understanding of what it is to be the other.”

Housing Is Driving The Class Divide

“The bank of mum and dad is how a lot of young people enter the housing market in Australia today.

“But the bank of mum and dad is not so good across Australia. Some areas are much better off than others. That intergenerational wealth continues, whereas those that don’t have access to the bank of mum and dad don’t have that benefit. So we see a widening intergenerational inequality but we see a deepening of inequality where it is so entrenched in terms of mobility, and in terms of class.”

The Political System Ensures Politicians Are Out of Touch

“The longer you stay in parliament the longer you have access to the lovely incomes, entitlements and perks. And that’s not to say that income is unfair for politicians, but the difference is stark for many people in communities that see a politician owning or having interest in 20 properties when they’re unable to access a single one. That’s a difficult pill for many to swallow in many electorates.”

Class Performs The Role of Consolidating Power

“Power is associated with class, particularly with affluence.”

Where You Grew Up Largely Decides The Class You Belong To

“Largely, where we live is determined by our ability to afford housing. Our income largely drives that.

“The way and the circumstances in which we’re raised as children, and the influences of our community, our family, our peers, our school environment, the policies, the social contexts that we live in, largely shape us. So in terms of lifelong, the way that we start, the way that for example, a child raised on the North Shore [of Sydney] versus a child raised in the western suburbs or outer suburbs of Sydney—they would have differential access to different quality of education, and that might be purely determined by their parents, so that we actually see this over a child’s life intergenerational inequality is passed on.”

Jobs Are A Good Indicator of Class

“Upper class: Professionals, people working in the finance sector, IT professionals, managers, CEOs, entrepreneurs are all in the high distribution (of income).

“Middle Class: Managers, teachers, nurses, those sorts of occupations that require skills and education and actually are a core part of our economy.

“Working Class: Frontline labourers, cleaners and so on. Across the board, we require all of these skill sets as a country and a healthy economy.”

There’s No Such Thing As The Average Australian

“When politicians and officials of any kind appeal to the ‘average’ or the ‘middle’, they forget there’s no such thing as the middle and there’s no such thing as average. It differs across Australia. Accordingly, people might feel that if their represented politician doesn’t represent their characteristics or their sentiment, then a growing level of disengagement might occur. A feeling that ‘I want someone to represent me’, so that might go some way to explain some of the political successes and movements we’ve seen over time.”

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