REIMAGINING: Hugh Mackay paints the picture of an anxious and unhappy Australian society, but says the remedy is not difficult.
REIMAGINING: Hugh Mackay paints the picture of an anxious and unhappy Australian society, but says the remedy is not difficult. Alan Benson

Call for over-55s to reconnect Australia in crisis

AUSTRALIA has become a more socially fragmented, anxious, depressed, stressed, overweight, medicated, debt-ridden and addicted society than ever before.

It's not a pretty picture from the country's most respected social researcher, Hugh Mackay.

And it's up to each of us to take steps to change it.

Twenty-five years on from his groundbreaking book, Reinventing Australia, Hugh has penned Australia Reimagined: Towards a More Compassionate, Less Anxious Society.

At 80, he says this is the last book he will write which paints the big picture of the state of the nation.

But the man who wrote his first book at 55 and has been involved in social research for over 50 years sounds every bit as engaged and eloquent as ever.

He believes there are two major facts about contemporary Australia which we all understand exist but which we have failed to make a valuable connection between.

Firstly, we are more socially fragmented than ever.

More people are feeling isolated, and loneliness is a major problem.

This is the result of a number of factors including divorce, shrinking households, how busy we are, mobility (moving house on average every six years) and our reliance on information technology, all of which have cut us off from our neighbourhoods and communities.

Secondly, we have a mental health crisis with an epidemic of anxiety (two million Australians diagnosed last year) and depression.

While job losses, relationships, budgeting or even the state of the planet can affect our outlook, Hugh said when anxiety is affecting two million people, there is an undeniable underlying social factor.

He believes our poor mental health has been brought about by social fragmentation and the accompanying lack of a sense of belonging.

"We are herd animals; we need to live as social beings," he said.

"When we shut ourselves off, we're denying our humanity."

While 68% of Australians still believe in God or some higher power, only a paltry 8% are regular churchgoers, shutting the door on another traditional sense of connection, meaning and belonging.

"When we become more individualistic and live more within our own bubble, we become less trustful of people in general, as well as of our institutions like the church, our politicians, business and banks," Hugh said.

"We have become a more disillusioned, less trusting society."

Hugh described over-55s as today's "tribal elders".

He said it was up to these social pioneering Baby Boomers, once so impatient to shake off the values and attitudes of their parents, to once again take the lead in social change by saying "let's get engaged, be visible and make connections with each other" in order to shore up our communities.

Presently, he said, just 35% of Australians said they trusted their neighbours - which, to him, means we haven't taken the time to get to know them.

"We need to start smiling, say hello or be a listening ear, acknowledge each other and show respect and kindness towards each other," Hugh said.

"It doesn't sound revolutionary, but it goes against the current trend ... it's the revolution we need."

He said reconnecting did not need government or community group leadership, it's something every individual can do by simply reaching out across the generations, being engaged in clubs or other groups, holding a street party or just saying hello to neighbours or people down the street.

And if we don't?

"The future is quite bleak," Hugh said.

The problems of loneliness and social isolation will get worse, levels of trust will fall and levels of anxiety will rise still further.

He hopes his book acts as a wake-up call that our mental health and social crisis is no accident, but something we have brought on ourselves by our failure to connect.

However, he also sees the book as optimistic.

"I think we are going to do this. There is so much disenchantment now that it's beginning to dawn on us that we have to do something ... this is my contribution."

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