big things and little things

Today I broke up with my bank. It had been a long time coming, and it was definitely them at fault, not me. It feels like an oddly renegade thing to do, to simply take your own money, the savings you've built up and sacrificed for, and move them to another virtual holding bay. The bank teller treated me with disdain bordering on pity, speaking quietly to me and enunciating carefully, like a hostage negotiator. 

'Now, I'll be cutting this card up, today. So, do you understand that once that happens, you won't be able to use it?'

I understood.

'You may have a purchase on here that hasn't come through yet, so it might show up later on your final balance, and you'll have to pay it. Do you understand that?'

'Oh, ok. I don't think I will though. I haven't used it in...' the look on her face made me change tack. 'yep. I understand'.

Next to me, a woman was getting her credit card interest rate lowered. 'Whatever it's at now is too high, it's killing me', she said. I bet she wished her card was getting cut up too. I walked out of there feeling lighter about my finances than I have in years.

Lately, I've been on a bit of a downsizing binge (is that a tautology?) It seems a lot of people I know are also consolidating their finances, trying to spend less, cutting up their credit cards. Recently, this article published by the Queen Victoria Womens Centre struck recognition and fear into my heart. In it, Jane Gilmore discusses the financial circumstances of an average Australian couple. They begin with only a small gap in their incomes as they start careers in comparable industries. But, as they navigate maternity leave, childcare, mortgages, divorce and settlement, a wide gulf separates their finances until the woman in the article- the statistical average- is left in financial hardship for the majority of her adult life.

No matter how hard you work, systemic biases create financial uncertainty and instability that can be impossible to surmount. Once upon a time, I thought the leanness in my household growing up was caused by fate, incompetence, or an unfortunate mixture of both. As an adult, I realise it's not that simple, but nor is it all that mysterious. Mum once said to me 'divorce makes people poor'. She's wrong of course. It doesn't always make people poor, or at least not the same people. But she's right about cause and effect. Some things make other things hard.

Today Australia recorded 26 years of continuous economic growth (i.e, we haven't technically had a recession, despite the fact that since 1991 the economy has both shrunk several times in its total size and wealth has swelled noticeably toward the top, like an undercover pimple). Yesterday, it was announced that retail, hospitality, pharmacy and fast food workers would have their penalty rates cut every year for four years. The same workers have never seen an annual rate increase greater than inflation. And wages growth overall has hardly even broken a percentage point in the last year. 

As Richard Denniss points out in this blistering essay, year after year, Australian politicians (so-called conservatives) have engaged in what amounts to inter-generational theft across superannuation, taxation and housing, to say nothing of their trashing of universities. As a result, life is harder than ever for young people. And more so if their parents lack the assets and the means to support them well past university. I'm thinking of those single mothers who are themselves struggling within a sexist economy that forces them into financial dependence and then punishes them for it.

We hear every day about climbing rates of anxiety and depression among young people. I know so many people who struggle daily, their stress compounded by the fact that they work casually, or don't have sick leave, or work freelance or on short contracts. No matter how much you talk about your feelings or practice self-care or delete your Instagram, you have to eat. And you have to be able to envision a future in which you'll be able to do so, and maybe even one day feed other, littler mouths too.

I don't have any answers, because despite my own relative security, I feel quite powerless, which I think is the whole point of neoliberalism. Eventually, we'll all just float along in the cool liquid embrace of the market, bobbing over to where we need to go. But of course it doesn't work like that. No one goes through life without making deeply personal, idiosyncratic decisions, which nevertheless affect those around us. All we deserve is an economic system that recognises and supports that process.

Big things make little things hard.