A story is currently filling the weekend newspapers and real-estate lift-outs. A story of struggle, frugality and the entitlement that stems from these. A couple buy property. They work very hard, buy no-name groceries, never have coffee or dinner out – they're proud penny-pinchers. Perhaps avocado never touches their lips.
The problem with this portrait of virtuous acquisition isn't that the facts are false. Of course these families exist. Of course they need to scrimp and save to buy houses whose prices are appreciating faster than wages, in a market primed by tax incentives.
The problem is that this story is narrow and misleading. It uses one of our weaknesses – for a good yarn – to distort reality, and dresses up considerable privilege as morally pure hardship.
First, let's talk about stories themselves: humans love them. Not simply novels or short fiction, but any narrative: from anecdotes recounting conversations, to tales about a civilisation's history. We're creatures of beginning, middle and end; of origin, journey and destination; of seduction, lovemaking, climax. "Tell me what happened ..." is often best translated as "tell me a story ..."
Importantly, we don't simply throw stories over random and inchoate experiences (although we do this, too). We often perceive the world in narrative terms: the present reaches out towards the future, while also maintaining a past behind it. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes, part of comprehending another person is understanding their biography, and the larger history of which it's a part.
This has been rediscovered in recent decades. In philosophy, for example, narrative has been discussed as a source of personal identity. In other fields, from psychology to sociology, a similar interest has grown. And likewise for more popular areas. There are now countless TedX, management and self-help talks, stacked with hyperbole, about the power of story.
One problem with the more superficial celebrations of narrative is a certain Pollyanna mindset: they want potent stories without any dangers. But any fundamental aspect of humanity can be manipulated; any great longing or logic can be used with malice or greed. Put another way, if stories are powerful forms of comprehension and encouragement, then they are also powerful forms of misunderstanding and coercion. Every tyrant has a story of needful brutality; every repressive cadre has a tale of their own heroic victimhood.
In this sense, it makes sense to speak, not simply of stories, but of good stories. We need narratives that are honest; that are more than neat justifications for cruelty or avarice. Some of the finest stories include tension and strife. They don't falsely neaten the mess of reality – they aid understanding by confronting us with ambiguity, ambivalence, and such. At the very least, they allow us some congress with experiences other than our own.
Which brings us back to these invest-spiration tales in the broadsheets and tabloids, selling us commodity exchange as virtue. As I said, the problem isn't that the information is incorrect: no doubt most of the prices and sacrifices are accurate. The problem is that the stories often play down what these people haven't earned, and exclude much of everyday reality.
For example, many buyers are aided by family. Some are given a deposit by parents: over half of first-time home buyers, according to Digital Finance Analytics. Many are born into wealthy families, where connections to capital are simplified. This means not only higher income from employment, but also access to guarantors and credit. It's easier to leap into risk when you know you'll be caught.
And some of these buyers are investors – whose portfolios' profits mean others are locked out of the market altogether.
As this suggests, these stories often obscure the many people – young and old, I add – who are labouring ardently, living austerely and buying no property. Not because they're oddly disconnected from the need for stability or equity, but simply because they don't earn enough, or their work is unstable. In a highly contractualised and casualised workforce, it's no simple thing to ensure income over the long life of a loan.
Perhaps these stories aren't as buoying, because there are no buyers trading perseverance for bricks and mortar. But they're true, and increasing: over the next decades, the number of renters in Australia will rise significantly. This is to say nothing of those excluded from stable housing altogether, by poverty and violence.
Of course, newspapers and magazines want to sell. One way to flog copies and get clicks is breathy tales of plucky families, giving up luxuries to own real estate. And the real estate section is a profitable one. But these organisations also have an expressed interest in truth and perhaps even justice.
To ensure the latter isn't corrupted by the former, the media ought to tell some different stories.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author. damonyoung.com.au