One of the most significant measures in this year's Federal Budget is the increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67.
I can remember when it was assumed that people would increasingly work less and have more leisure time. Some people even panicked that there would be too little work for people to do.
The assumption was a reasonable one given the long-term trend. Back in 1900 around 85% of 65-year-old men were still working. That percentage dropped in a very even line during the course of the twentieth century, so that in 1980 only about 10% of 65-year-old men were still working.
In my profession, teaching, there was even a retirement scheme that kicked in just before the age of 55.
During the same decades the number of hours worked per week also gradually fell. In 1913 the benchmark was a 49 hour week; by 1947 it was 40 hours; and by the early 1980s, a 38 hour week was the general standard. However, by 2001 the average working week had crept back up to 46 hours.
Real wages also grew quickly and steadily after WWII but the growth peaked in 1974. There is some variation in how wages growth is reported since then, but one demographer, Andrew Beveridge, has charted median wages in America for those in their 20s and found that while the female wage has remained steady, the median male wage has declined since 1970.
There is a political dimension to this. Liberalism has failed in many important respects, but for a period of time it succeeded in increasing the amount of leisure time and real wages for the average person. Each new generation of young people could expect to experience an improvement in the material conditions of life compared to the parents' generation.
This just doesn't seem now to be the case. A baby boomer man could raise a family of three or four on his own wage and still pay off his mortgage and invest in shares and property. Although this is still not an impossible scenario, it's more common for both the husband and wife to work, to raise only one or two children, and to find it difficult to repay the mortgage let alone to invest as successfully as their parents.
The rise in the retirement age from 65 to 67 fits the pattern of a decline in the material conditions of life.
I doubt if this will lead too many people to reconsider their allegiance to liberalism. The sense of decline, though, might help to dissolve a naive faith in liberalism as a source of material progress.