Torn social fabric calls for more trust and optimism

The marketing playbook ensures that opinion surveys (or polls if you prefer) are commonplace. Every week or so we’re kept informed of the current public standing of this or that industry, product, leader, party or policy.

Like everything in public life, some polls are ordinary and some are plain rubbish, but some demand that we sit up and pay attention. One of the latter is “Mapping Social Cohesion 2023”, which came out a week or so before Christmas.

Release of this annual survey was in my book about as important as news gets. Social cohesion is the single most telling indicator of how humanity is coping with life in a turbulent world. If it’s solid we can weather many storms; without it the future is bleak.

In collaboration with Monash University and recently the Australian National University, the Melbourne-based Scanlon Foundation has been mapping social cohesion in Australia since before the 2008 global financial crisis, using some of the world’s most sophisticated survey tools.

The 2023 study, 17th in the series and Scanlon’s most ambitious yet, combines a nationally-representative survey of 7454 Australians with additional targeted surveys of first and second generation Australians and 55 in-depth interviews of representative migrant people. The survey took pains to include people without internet access.

The headline news out of this year’s report is that our social cohesion is “under pressure and declining on several fronts”. As the report asked, is this “a tear in the fabric?”

In 2023, the survey found, financial and cost-of-living pressures were being felt more keenly than in any of the past 17 years, such that one in five people were finding it hard to pay for health care and one in 10 struggled to pay rent or mortgage. A record 84 per cent considered the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large.

It pointed out that higher financial stress and concern over economic inequality led to a degraded sense of worth, in turn diminishing people’s effective participation in their local, state or national community.

The survey found that people struggling to pay bills are much less likely to feel they belong in Australian society, and much more likely to feel pessimistic about the country’s future.

Interviews suggested that community social events were happening less often, or not at all. “People don’t have them,” lamented one respondent, “so the social fabric, how it operates, is disappearing… It’s the fabric of the way we live… important for social and mental wellbeing.”

For many Australians, daily life in 2023 became more of a grind than ever. “No one is going for a holiday [or] to the cinema,” joked an interviewee, “so we just sit at home, go to work, come back, and then pay bills… That’s a challenge.”

In 2022 Australians’ sense of belonging – that sense of pride and connection people feel in Australia as a nation and its life and culture – dropped to its lowest recorded level since 2007, but that low point slipped further still this year. Fewer than half of people surveyed felt a strong sense of belonging to the country – a record low.

The report’s author, ANU demographer and social cohesion specialist James O’Donnell, said this sense of alienation was strongly related to lower trust in government and growing concern about inequality, both of which diminish people’s connection to Australian values and society and their sense of pride in their country.

Trust in government to do the right thing for Australian people dropped to just 36 per cent in 2023. Nearly one in three people (30 per cent) believe leaders abuse their powers all or most of the time, and a whopping 84 per cent think it happens at least some of the time. “Politics is a bit of lying,” said a respondent, “but it’s just been full on in the last two to three years.”

Australians’ sense of belonging to their country and society declined across all age groups in the past two years, but there’s a big disparity between old and young. Whereas 72 per cent of people aged 65 and over feel a great sense of belonging, that figure drops for younger people – just 26 per cent of those aged 18 to 24. And (no surprise here) young adults are far more likely to feel unhappy and isolated from others.

If this sounds too negative, Scanlon Research Institute’s CEO Anthea Hancocks has a remedy: “We all have a responsibility to build trust, encourage a sense of belonging and a community of welcome and optimism.” Amen to that.

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