Former MasterChef contestants (Image: Network Ten)

My high school’s motto was “strive for the highest”. Most teachers preached that the only impediment to success was a failure to tuck one’s shirt in and apply oneself rigorously.

It was in VCE Literature where I first encountered a contrary narrative. Author Arthur Miller depicted characters deludedly wedded to the “American dream”, certain that if only they worked hard and innovated, prosperity lay just around the corner. Vindicated were those who spotted the con; those who saw that just as the cat almost clutches the ball of string, the owner pulls it beyond its grasp.

Millennials now feel similarly. Conservatives bemoan our decreasing support for capitalism, enraged by our perceived lack of persistence and economic nous. But the news provides daily reasons to mistrust the link between hard work and reward, on which the system’s legitimacy relies.

The cat won’t chase the ball in vain forever.

Last week’s headlines gave more reasons to doubt that our exertion and thrift will ever result in just compensation. Celebrity chef George Calombaris, a man famous for imploring mostly young aspiring chefs to strive relentlessly towards their “food dream”, was exposed for actively frustrating his own employees’ goals.

MasterChef and its reality TV counterparts implored us to believe in creativity and vocation. They encouraged the pursuit of one’s passions with vigour and flair, especially in the face of adversity. It was this that endeared the program to myself and millions of viewers.

George’s workers heeded his vapid exaltations to “boom boom shake the room” with their passion and skill, performing inhuman workloads and creating culinary masterpieces in the vain hope of a sustainable career. Yet George rewarded their grunt and finesse by stealing $7.8 million of their agreed compensation, causing many to leave the profession his show encouraged them to enter.

I experienced this slow-burning frustration firsthand when my hospitality employer stole my wages three years ago. I deluded myself for a while — if I persevered through the long, sweaty nights scrubbing food scraps off plates for $15 an hour I would be rewarded with greater responsibility, more hours, higher wages… There comes a point when you realise that the promotion isn’t coming.

My generation was taught that, on top of working hard, you also had to be responsible and forward-thinking. Private health insurers and their political allies capitalised on these values, positioning the absence of private health cover as an economically irresponsible risk, and instituting penalties to chastise the reckless.

Yet recent research has revealed my generation’s waning enthusiasm to shell out the increasingly high costs for paltry benefits. Again, millennials saw through it.

I, like many of my generation despite popular perception, am not a natural risk-taker and prefer to guard against negative possibilities. Even so, I dropped my private health insurance two years ago after the price jumped significantly. It was simply financially irresponsible to continue.

If corporate Australia ever truly believed their own neoliberal prescriptions, they have shamefully undermined public faith in the values they so vehemently exalted. By diminishing reward for effort, Calombaris and his fellow thieves weaken the case for propelling oneself by working hard. By diminishing the returns for making “safe” investments, private health conglomerates undermine the very culture of individual responsibility they rely on.

I still believe, outside the provision of public goods, that markets have utility in many spheres of Australian life. But you can’t blame millennials for increasingly dismissing them as giant scams, when once-credible actors are caught out shadily conspiring against their interests.

Capitalists are ruining my generation’s faith in capitalism by failing to hold up their end of the bargain. If our corporate class wants us to have faith in the modern economy, they’ll need to stop flagrantly cooking the books.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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