American individualism and Australian mateship

American individualism and Australian mateship make two similar countries very different.

I’ve written before about the little differences between Miami and Melbourne. It’s hard to make generalisations because the United States and Australia are both large countries with different regional cultures, political and social ideologies, and state laws. Life is very different in New York, Georgia, and Montana. The same is true in Australia. The cost of living, employment opportunities, and access to quality education and health care can vary greatly. Nevertheless, a national identity emerges. America and Australia are similar in some ways, but their national identities are starkly different. Americans view themselves as individuals; Australians view themselves as members of a community.

The Protestant work ethic

There are two related concepts in American culture that drive this difference: the Protestant work ethic and bootstrapping.

In 1904, German sociologist Max Weber published a series of essays in which he explored the Protestant work ethic. This is a historical, sociological, and economic concept based in the Calvinist emphasis on the necessity for hard work as a component of a person’s calling and success. While Catholics believe that good works are required for salvation, Protestants re-conceptualised good works as a consequence of an already-received salvation. It’s an important difference because the Protestant work ethic has been a powerful force behind the development of capitalism. Weber’s visit to the United States, which was founded by Protestants, convinced him that his thesis was right.

Most Americans are not conscious of the religious roots of our industriousness, but the Protestant work ethic is a fundamental value of American society. As many Australians have observed, Americans live to work. The U.S. has some of the longest working hours in the developed world and some of the shortest paid vacation leave. What you do is essential to your identity as an American. After names are exchanged in an introduction, the next question asked is, “What do you do?” And the more you do, the more productive (and, hence, valuable) you’re perceived to be. Of course, in reality, this does not apply to all kinds of work. This tradition is least kind to the majority of working class Americans.

Pull yourself up by the bootstraps

The second related concept is the notion of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps”. The basic idea is about improving yourself by nothing but your own efforts. It is the very ethos of the United States. It’s the American Dream; freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity, success, and upward social mobility through hard work.

The reality, of course, is very different. Despite a deep belief in an egalitarian American Dream, America’s wealth structure perpetuates racial and class inequalities. Studies have shown that economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe. NPR recently ran a story on how the rungs of America’s economic ladder have moved further apart.

This lack of mobility is especially true for people at the bottom of the income ladder. If you’re born to low-income parents in the United States, you are significantly more likely to remain on the bottom rungs than in countries like Norway and Germany. In fact, 40 percent of Americans born in the bottom fifth don’t get to the next rung.

Similarly, if one’s parents are well-off, Americans are more likely to remain in the top income rungs than in those European nations.

Still, the idea persists. Americans are fiercely individualistic and often confuse privileges with rights. It’s a problem that leads to opposing a number of incentives that would benefit us as a society such as recycling, healthier food options in schools, and universal health care. It’s absurdist. Why should the government decide what my child eats in school? Never mind that the National School Lunch Program is federally assisted and that it’s a good idea to invest in the health of our children, our future. Why should I have to pay for your health care? Never mind that we already do, that the reason health care is so expensive is because 46 million Americans have no health care coverage (myself included). This should be an embarrassment for a wealthy and civilised nation.

Mateship and a fair go

Turning to Australia, instead of an ethos of “me”, we discover one of “mateship” and “a fair go.”

Perhaps born out of the cruel hardships of convict life or the working-class egalitarianism of British society, mateship embodies equality, loyalty, and friendship. In her 2011 Australia Day speech, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that mateship defines the spirit of Australia. It is so central to Australian identity that there was debate over adding “mateship” in the preamble of the Australian constitution during the 1999 Australian constitutional referendum.

Australians are free to be proud of their country and heritage, free to realise themselves as individuals, and free to pursue their hopes and ideals. We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship.

Ultimately it was not included in the preamble on the basis of the word being too common and not actually a real word.

What exactly is mateship? Historian Dr. Glenn Davies explains that a mate is more than just a friend.

As Aussies we recognise that individual achievement rarely occurs without a helping hand from others. We value independence in a community minded way. Despite our differences we all know that when adversity strikes, whether in the form of bushfires, floods or international conflict, there’ll be a fellow Aussie to help out. It’s the tradition of the digger, the character of mateship and it’s still the essence of the Australian spirit.

Here are a few examples of mateship at work.

In 2011, Arthur Freeman shocked and horrified Australia when he killed his two-year-old daughter by throwing her off the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne. Justice Paul Coghlan sentenced Freeman to life in jail with a non-parole period of 32 years. This is a pretty heavy sentence in Australia, but there’s a community-minded reason behind it.

You chose a place for the commission of your crime which was remarkably public and which would have the most dramatic impact.

It follows that you brought the broader community into this case in a way that’s rarely if ever been seen before. It offends our collective conscience.

Earlier this month, a long-time supporter of the Aussie football team Collingwood Magpies was stripped of his membership for a racial slur against Joel Wilkinson, a player for the Gold Coast Suns. The slur was heard by Magpies midfielder Dale Thomas during a match between the teams and he reported it. The issue was made public in an effort to educate spectators on inappropriate crowd behaviour.

In the aftermath of significant flooding in the state of Queensland last year, thousands of volunteers offered unconditional assistance. It’s a remarkable contrast to the looting, violence, and criminal activity that erupted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One police officer told a tourist, “Go to hell, it’s every man for himself.”

Mateship is about considering the broader community ahead of your own needs sometimes in order that everyone may have equal opportunity, a fair go.

This is not to suggest that America’s got it all wrong and that Australia is a utopia of social equality or that all Americans and Australians feel this way. In the United States, individualism versus community is one clearest dividing lines between conservatives and progressive. That seems to be the case in Australia too. The Liberal Party is often viewed as chipping away social programs. Like America, Australia also struggles with issues of privilege, inequality, and racism especially when it comes to Aboriginal people, asylum seekers, immigrants, and Muslims. In short, we all have work to do.



  • I would agree with most of this. When G met me, I was living on less than $24k a year (that’s gross, not net) and owning my own business meant that there were periods where there was just simply no money. It was worse than living paycheck to paycheck because I really never knew when I would have money and when I wouldn’t. And I was living in a not very affluent state in a very poor community (by choice- rent for my office was very cheap there).

    G was really quite shocked by it. He is one of those people who sort of makes friends wherever he goes and he would strike up conversations with anybody who passed by. It really struck him how many people have a hard time making ends meet in America. He said, “It’s tough being poor in America. You just can’t catch a break and it seems like there is no help for people who truly need it.” He also met a friend of mine who is terminally ill. She can only get the medications she needs to stay alive if she has access to Medicaid and in order to have that, her husband has to be unemployed or work odd jobs and get paid under the table. If he took even a minimum wage job, she would lose her benefits. Needless to say, they really struggle with finances. G couldn’t understand how they manage to keep a roof over their head. As my friend’s husband says, “You can get free healthcare in America as long as you are willing to go into bankruptcy and never have any assets.” They owe over $500k in medical bills that they have no intention or means of paying. When she dies, his plan is simply to file bankruptcy and start again.

    While I don’t think Obamacare will even remotely address the problem of unaffordable healthcare, I do find it very odd that so many Americans have no problem with their tax dollars going to fund foreign wars that kill so many people and destroy so many lives, but are practically willing to stage a full scale riot if their tax dollars have to be used to save the lives of their fellow citizens. I understand why they oppose Obamacare- I do, too- but there is an inherent knee-jerk reaction among most Americans against any kind of publicly funded expansion of healthcare that just beggars belief.

    I think the “fair go” mentality is very obvious in Australia. Australians really like to cheer for the little guy and the underdog and they like to know they will be given a fair chance at anything and a helping hand if they ask for it. I think they have a better understanding of the concept that certain things are beneficial to the community as a whole. Having a healthy populace, for example, benefits everyone. Americans have, on the whole, taken the idea of individualism to an unhealthy extreme. So I don’t think your observation is superficial- just a simple summing up of a self-evident truth that is somewhat hard to qualify in a way that someone who hasn’t experienced it first hand will understand.

    • Thank you for your kind words. What you say about your friends is unfortunate and all too common. You have to live in near poverty to get help (or cheat the system, which is a huge problem) and it’s mind-boggling to me that, in some strange ways, Americans are so unwilling to help each other and don’t seem to realize we foot the bill anyway.

      • I think in some cases Americans are very generous people. Most people do tend to help, for example, when natural disaster strikes. But when it comes to every day things that could be viewed as taking care of people who won’t take care of themselves, they can be very selfish. There’s this assumption in America that if you are down and out, it must be your fault, and if you can’t dig yourself out of the hole you’re in by yourself with sheer hard work, then you must just be lazy. Rarely are people who are struggling given the benefit of the doubt.

        • Absolutely. That’s exactly what the bootstrapping mentality is.