In a true egalitarian society, an individual’s innate talents and abilities, rather than circumstances of birth, would be the main determinants of life chances. Australia, despite popular rhetoric to the contrary, is not such a society. Studies have revealed various dimensions of inequality within Australia and the existence of a hierarchical class structure. Aspin defines life chances as ‘the chances an individual has in sharing in the economic, social and cultural resources of the society into which he / she lives’ (Aspin 1996, pp.68-9). Life chances include access to resources such as wealth, education, occupation, housing and health. An individual’s opportunities to access such resources vary according to social classes.
To illustrate the extent to which a person’s social class impacts on his or her life chances in Australia, this paper will begin with an examination of social class, including the major theories behind the concept of class. Life chances will also be defined, as will inequality and social mobility within Australia. Finally, evidence on how social class (particularly socio-economic status) impacts life chances will be considered.
Social class can be described as the hierarchical grouping of individuals based on their economic position. While Australia is often described as an egalitarian society that is free of class barriers, Holmes et al argues that ‘…the rhetoric of equality becomes incomprehensible when basic measurements of inequality are looked at in any detail’ (Holmes, Hughes, Julian 2006 p.91). According to data gathered by the United Nations Development Program, Australia is the world’s fifth-most unequal developed nation. Between the mid 1990’s and mid 2000’s, incomes of the top 20% of earners grew four times faster than that of the bottom 20%. (Mccamish 2009, The Age 16 Aug 2009). A study by Andrew Leigh revealed that ‘in the early 1990’s, a CEO in a top 50 company earned 27 times more than the national average; only a decade later it was 98 times more. While these figures represent significant inequality within Australia, Leigh’s study also revealed that the inequality gap in accumulated wealth is twice as wide as it is in take home pay (Mccamish 2009, The Age 16 Aug 2009).
The existence of class within Australia can be explained from various theoretical perspectives, most of which are based on the class theories of Marx and Weber. Marx identified a two-class model, including an upper / ruling class that own the means of production and a working class that provide the labour for the ruling class. Weber expanded on Marx’s theory with the addition of two middle classes and also identified other indicators of class from within the ‘social order’ that are more transparent, such as status groups. Aspin defines status as ‘a system in which people are ranked on the basis of the amount of honour, prestige or esteem they receive’ (Aspin 1996 p69) While status differences can influence variations in lifestyle, Aspin argues that it is class differences that influence life chances. Socio-economic status refers to a combination of the dimensions of class and status, of which wealth is a central determinant.
Almost all class theories recognise the existence of a ruling class, middle class and working class in Australia, however there is now debate over the existence of an ‘underclass’, consisting of the permanently unemployed and low income earners. The upper class consists of the wealthiest 5-10% of the population, whose wealth comes from the control of property and capital. Aspin argues that ‘those who own and control the economic resources are in a position to make important decisions about their own lives and the lives of other people, and often therefore determine the life chances of others (Aspin 1996 p.77). The middle class consists mainly of individuals with non manual occupations and can be broken down to include upper middle class (‘professions’ eg doctors, dentists, lawyers etc) and...
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