Monday, January 2, 2012

New Zealand's Vanishing Middle Class

New Zealand's Vanishing Middle Class

As a relatively new (American) immigrant to New Zealand, one of the most leading differences I observation is the absence of an established middle class in this country. Because of chronic low wages and salaries, plus a pupil loan project that incentivizes emigration, roughly one million native born New Zealand professionals, academics and managers live and work overseas.

Reliance on thousands of very skilled immigrants

New Zealand survives as an industrialized industrialized community because of its capability to attract thousands of very skilled immigrants (like me) to fill these roles. However owing to our immense cultural diversity, as well as a tendency to be a transient group, we are incapable of forming a cohesive middle class as is found in larger industrialized countries. The educated class in most North American and European countries consists of families where two to three generations have been university educated. This generally results in the formation of a varied collective group with shared moral and ethical values, as well as a shared code of collective guide passed down from parents to children.

The role of the middle class in controlling the lower classes

At the superficial level this code of guide covers table etiquette, grammatical speech and a prohibition against obscene language or other extremes of negative emotion. At a deeper level a cohesive middle class plays a crucial role in shaping the way the rest of community thinks and behaves - a role which minimizes the need to use police or military force for collective control.

This happens in large part owing to the vital role middle class professionals play - as educators, collective workers, religious leaders, psychologists and other helping professionals - as guardians and promoters of ideologies that advantage the existing power structure. An example is the emphasis teachers and helping professionals in the industrialized North place on self-reliance, individualism and competitiveness - insisting that their charges "take responsibility" for personal misfortunes, even where there are obvious collective and political causes. If you are systematically conditioned to blame yourself for losing your job, house and/or pension, you are much less likely to agitate for major political change. This is in difference to "primitive" cultures that teach mutual cooperation and interdependence.

Even doctors and lawyers play an leading policing role in relation to the working class. Doctors because they have absolute power to resolve whether sick and injured employees are capable of working or entitled to sick leave or other compensation. Lawyers because they supply the only avenue (via the justice system) through which the underprivileged can accumulate microscopic relief from abuses of power by a corporate elite that seems to have extreme operate over the other branches of government.

Working class consciousness in New Zealand

In New Zealand there is no cohesive middle class to enforce a defined set of values on the rest of society. The result is that a noteworthy working class consciousness has been incorporated into the national identify - a sense of working class identity and solidarity that seems to have vanished from American society.

I think American colleagues who to New Zealand are totally oblivious to New Zealand's unique class composition. For the most part the American middle class deludes itself that our wonderful affluence has done away with class distinctions. However my own life experiences have left me uniquely sensitized to class of origin issues. Graduating and joining the healing fraternity as a full fledged doctor was one of the most alienating experiences of my life. It came to me, as I began meeting their wives and husbands and visiting their homes, that I was very separate from my doctor colleagues in fundamental ways - that I would never think, speak, dress, raise my children or decorate my home like them. Yet for many years I blamed my differences on some innate personality or character flaw. I was in my mid thirties before I met other professionals from working class backgrounds - and realized my alienation stemmed from leading class distinctions that I had no idea existed.

Until I read Lillian Breslow Rubin's Worlds of Pain in 1983 and it utterly changed my life.

Pinpointing class values and attitudes

Someone reading this from a similar background will immediately understand what I'm trying to say. I think readers from a middle class background won't get it. Unless they are sociologists, they are likely to be very skeptical that working class identity and consciousness even exists in the Us. I would ask them to take what I am saying on faith - as the best possible explanation for the way I have come to understand myself and the world around me. My book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee is as much about the profound alienation I experienced around activists from middle class backgrounds as it is about the Fbi harassment I experienced. In fact the former, rather than the latter, played a much more major role in my decision to emigrate to New Zealand.

They don't put it in the travel brochures

Obviously New Zealand doesn't advertise itself as a predominantly working class society. However as a new doctor, it was immediately apparent I was entering a very separate work ethic and culture than I was used to in the Us. At the hospital where I work, only three (out of 12) psychiatrists are native New Zealanders - the rest are immigrants like me. Most of the doctors I have worked with in New Zealand, whether locally or foreign born, come from middle class homes. In difference the nurses and other allied condition professionals seem to come from farm or blue collar backgrounds. Many young nurses, collective workers, psychologists and corporeal and occupational therapists - as well as doctors - leave New Zealand for good paying foreign jobs. In my touch those with college educated parents are more likely to leave, owing to higher house expectations.

As a result, for the first time in my adult life I find myself surrounded - both at work and in my personal life - by habitancy from working class backgrounds. For the most part these are other professionals and academics who, despite their schooling and training, have maintained a solid working class identity and consciousness. For the first time since childhood I find the habitancy I work with - despite superficial differences in accent and slang - essentially speak the same language I do. For a woman from a working class house who has endured a lifetime of alienation surrounded by middle class condition professionals, it has been an eye opening experience.

How I identify them

I have all the time been instinctively drawn to friends and colleagues from working class backgrounds because of innate similarities in the way we think about the world. When I first meet someone - whether at work or socially - from a blue collar background, the first thing I observation is their normal forthrightness and leisure from underground agendas. Like me they tend to express themselves more directly (bluntly) without self-censoring strong opinions and feelings. It drives them crazy, as it does me, to have their middle class colleagues monopolize the conversation with their constant equivocation, rationalization and intellectualization - to be so lukewarm in normal in stating how they undoubtedly feel - and to permanently criticize us for being too open and direction.

In particular my middle class colleagues and acquaintances seem to be very uncomfortable about expressing anger. Many come to be so skilled at suppress feelings of anger that they come to be totally out of touch with their own angry feelings. It is perfectly obvious to me, from their facial tension, body language and a obvious saccharine tone that creeps into their voice that they are angry. And yet they themselves are totally unaware of it.

We don't sweat the small stuff

The other difference I observation in colleagues from working class backgrounds is their lack of pretense and capability to take a fair whole of workplace tension in stride. Whereas my middle class colleagues seem to have a knack for turning personal slights and misunderstandings into international incidents. At times this seems to stem from a sense of entitlement and personal privilege. Often, however, I sense habitancy from middle class homes simply have more strangeness dealing with stressful collective and interpersonal situations.

Like many working class kids, I learned collective skills playing in the street, where there were no adults to supervise or intercede for me. I arrived at healing school to learn most of my classmates had led very structured childhoods. That they had spent their early years in very structured activities, such as piano, violin or dancing lessons or in organized sports, where they were continually in the firm and under the administration of adults.

Differences in values and attitudes

In expanding to similarities in the way we think and speak, I find we generally share leading innate values - more in the sense of attitudes than political or moral values. The first has to do with materialism - the point settled on acquiring of material possessions. In normal New Zealanders over fifty from working class backgrounds are far less materialistic than their middle class counterparts and more concerned with substance than style and appearance. However I have found this difference much less apparent in younger adults, who have been subjected from an early age to the mindless consumerism promoted on Tv.

However in normal I find Kiwis of all ages less concerned with appearance if they come from a working class background. They are less concerned with how a someone presents themselves - if they wear the right clothes, connect with the right people, speak with a posh accent and express socially standard and "politically correct" views - than they do with what the someone undoubtedly says or does.

Distrust of middle class ideology and theoretical thinking

A second base working class attitude is a normal distrust of ideology and theoretical knowledge - which the working class both here and in the Us tends to view as something the middle class tries to enforce on us. In fact in New Zealand there are slang expressions - such as airy fairy and bollocks (slang for testicles or rubbish) - to chronicle notions that generate from an "excess" of schooling rather than practical experience. These terms are applied to so-called "hippy" notions about New Age spirituality, radical alternative condition approaches like crystal healing, aromatherapy and Reiki and non-traditional early childhood schooling like Rudolph Steiner and Montessori and so called "green" political issues, such as environmental protection, animal welfare and (alas) atmosphere change. In fact they have no patience whatsoever with what they view as moralizing by the New Zealand Green Party on issues of no practical point - because they don't put bread and butter on the table.

An possible hurt with ideology and law seems to a major result on childrearing here, where there is tremendous distrust of what is viewed as a "political correct" parenting. In fact there has been an tremendous backlash over New Zealand, following modern legislation that effectively outlawed beating children as a form of discipline. These attitudes also carry over into the clinic where I work. The other mental condition workers (who are mainly from working class backgrounds) appear much more comfortable with an approach to patient care that is informed by practical touch rather than the most recent science of mind fads.

Importance of loyalty over personal achievement

The third attitude base to New Zealand professionals of working class origin emphasizes group loyalty over individual advancement. This seems to generate from a very noteworthy trade union movement that retained tremendous influence over New Zealand community until 1984, when catastrophic economic reforms (a type of voluntary "structural adjustment known as Rogernomics) began a rapid, systematic de-industrialization of the New Zealand economy. Local manufacturers, unable to compete with the tidal wave of cheap foreign imports that hit our shores, began a steady exodus to Asia, where much lower wages translated into much higher profits. Once the installation floor vanished, so did the majority of the trade unions that were born there.

New Zealand's Vanishing Middle Class

No comments:

Post a Comment