Australian waiter solves class problem

For two hundred years, much of the world has struggled to rid itself of class antagonism. But no country has worked out how to give a brain surgeon the same kind of income or status as a postal delivery worker. Or to give the children of the head of the national television service the same outlook on life as those of a farm hand. In every country there are those who serve and those who are served. And almost everywhere there is strife between the camps. There’s envy, disdain, snobbery and resentment.

Except in one place in the world: Australia.

Australia has solved the class problem. And it has done it not by abolishing differences in income – which is impossible. But by creating a lot of people like Tyler Harris.

Tyler is 26 years old, a waiter and at the forefront of the Australian solution to class. For the last eighteen months he’s been on the staff at a chic cafe in Melbourne’s fashionable South Yarra district, usually doing six eight-hour shifts a week.

He’s enthusiastic about his job. ‘I really like making sure everyone’s having a great night. I love to party. But when I’m on the job. That’s it. I’m on the job. We get some terrific people in here. Footballers, pollies. A lot of the business crowd – all fun guys and girls.’

Does he find it humiliating to be a waiter? He can’t believe the question, it’s almost offensive. Why could being a waiter be any kind of problem?

© Rex

But he admits that when he worked in London, some of the people behind the bar in the pub did feel they got treated like second class citizens. Though he never felt that – ‘not for a moment. Why should you?’

Tyler grew up in Adelaide. When he was nine he moved, with his mother, to the suburb of Clayton, about 20km south east of the centre of Melbourne.

He takes home just under $600 a week. He cheerfully admits there’s no way he could afford to eat at the place where he works. Dinner here and a couple of glasses of red would leave him broke, after the college fees are paid. But he’s sure he’ll be able to eat in places like this one day – if he wants to. But it’s not a big ambition.

Most of people who come into the cafe are well-heeled local professionals, making three or four times as much as Tyler. It’s round the corner from the city’s poshest school – the all boys Melbourne Grammar. A lot of mothers pop in for coffee after dropping their sons at the gate. The fees are close to what Tyler makes in a year. ‘Two of my mates went to that school’ he says. ‘One of them’s working here while he’s at uni. Doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference really.’ No one feels like anyone else’s superior or inferior.

Tyler is confident about his future. Two mornings a week – and one evening – he’s doing a part-time Bachelor of Commerce degree at the Burwood campus of Deakin University. This semester he’s taking the Supply Chain Management course and a unit on Interactive Marketing.

Egalitarianism isn’t really about everyone having the same amount of money. It’s a collective psychological achievement. It’s to do with people with different economic lives being able to get on well with each other. Status isn’t tied to your bank account. It attaches to more important things. Like whether you’re good at putting up a tent, or willing to put in an honest day’s work.

The Australian solution to class puts a lot of emphasis on age. If you are young, you should work in a bar or serve in a shop. It doesn’t really matter what your background is. Like Tyler, most Australians are short of cash when they are young. But it’s not humiliating or too frustrating because after a few years of that you can move on to other things. It’s age, more than anything, that determines your income.

Class is to do with how people think of themselves. And Tyler just doesn’t see himself in class terms. When asked about what class he is, the question strikes him as peculiar. He’s never thought about it. And that’s the deep secret of the Australian solution. Like Tyler, they don’t think about it.