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Social Mobility

As an immigrant city, Melbourne held out the promise of social mobility to new arrivals, but the opportunity to materially change one's status varied greatly over time. The possibilities were at their best for the first generation of European immigrants - so great indeed that the pastoralists, given access to large acreages of prime land through the dispossession of the Kulin nation, had hopes of constructing an aristocracy to which few would have had claims of membership on the basis of birth. Such hopes were dashed with the discovery of gold, bringing to the colony a group of entrepreneurial young men who, through a mixture of luck and application, constructed a society in which wealth became the primary marker of status. Wisely used, such wealth could ensure the status of one's own family while simultaneously re-erecting boundaries to exclude newcomers from enjoying similar opportunities for upward social mobility.

Melbourne's pioneer stories celebrate the success of this first generation, constructing a myth that promised social mobility to anyone who practised thrift, sobriety and perseverance. The reality for later arrivals was somewhat different as the changing scale and structure of industry and commerce diminished the chances of spectacular success. The elite maintained their status by delaying marriage, limiting their family size, investing in suburban property and paying for independent school education for their children. For those able to maintain stable employment and benefit from the comparatively high colonial wages, a more modest improvement was possible. Skilled, sober and respectable tradesmen could acquire property as a hedge against poverty in old age. However, for most of the 19th century a substantial proportion of the population lived only marginally above the breadline.

The depression of the 1890s punctured the dreams of social mobility, chastening the successful and unsuccessful alike. Although many of the old family fortunes were reestablished, they were built along more cautious lines. While the virtues of respectability and self-improvement continued to be practised, they were now seen to promise security rather than spectacular success for the wowser city's 'moral middle class'. The working class lived with a constant sense of marginality, with survival, rather than security, the more achievable goal.

Melbourne's second great period of social mobility came almost a century after its first. The generation born during the 1930s depression, coming to maturity in the rapidly growing postwar city, were the beneficiaries of an expanded secondary and tertiary education system and a booming economy. Returning servicemen were able to take advantage of war service loans to purchase homes in the new suburbs. With privileged access to professional or technical education, they were able to aspire to occupations denied to their parents. The higher wages and greater security of employment that such occupations provided enabled them to invest further in their own children, extending the possibilities for social mobility across a second generation.

As such families vacated the old inner suburbs, their places were taken by immigrants again in pursuit of social advancement. Although, for many of the first generation, immigration involved substantial downward social mobility, their ambition for their children prompted a repetition of the hard work and thrift espoused by Melbourne's first generation of successful immigrants, with heavy investment in housing and education designed to ensure that the second generation would enjoy greater advantages than their parents. By the 1970s, however, the moment of social mobility was past. While rising property values have ensured that the beneficiaries of the postwar boom live far more comfortable lives than their parents could ever have imagined, they can no longer be sure that their children will do the same. By the start of the 21st century the city was marked geographically and socially by a greater social division than ever before, with wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Shurlee Swain