MY FIRST THOUGHTS on family politics for this essay came to me in the middle of a crowd of sweaty, half-naked men, some of them wearing frocks. I’m holding my four-year-old son above my head and dancing while he calls out, “Throw me up in the air, Daddy!” I guess there are a couple of hundred of us in the room, men and women, some in costumes with wolf masks or fairy wings, dancing to drum ‘n’ bass at 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. Outside, the shadows are lengthening across the bowling green; people are standing around talking and drinking, children chasing each other in between their legs. It’s ideal family entertainment, a dance party for forty-somethings at a bowling club in Sydney’s inner suburbs where you can take the kids. It just so happens that most of the crowd are queer, gay or lesbian, or have been in a former life; but straights are welcome, too, and everyone seems glad to see children here. It feels like a safe, laid-back sort of scene: family-friendly. When the drum ‘n’ bass gives way to Sister Sledge’s disco anthem We are Family, the predictable cheers go up and the kids get down on the dance floor; it’s a popular number at their day-care centre.
One part of me can’t resist a nagging feeling that there’s something all too inner-suburban and elitist about this particular family. It’s all very well for us to be celebrating diversity, affirming an idea of family that’s inclusive, open to all; and I can’t deny there’s a certain rather adolescent satisfaction in knowing how shocked the watchful perimeter guards of the nuclear family would be to find themselves in the middle of this colourful crowd. But really, we’re just fringe dwellers, straight or gay.
It’s not until later that it strikes me: in the modern, deregulated, flexible, free-choice economy of early-twenty-first-century Australia, it’s the childless gay or lesbian couple who are the model family. Child-free, unencumbered by the need to pick kids up from school, care for them when they’re sick, spend time with them on weekends or take time off in school holidays, gays and lesbians are the stuff employers’ dreams are made of; and the Prime Minister’s and Treasurer’s, one might add.
Of course, that’s the sort of thing only a heterosexual could say about gay and lesbian families. Plenty of lesbians and gays do have children; and even if they don’t, many are caring for elderly parents, not to speak of maintaining a broad range of friendships and community responsibilities. And what about single people, gay or straight? Don’t they have the same commitments and responsibilities, too? Why should the “work-life” balance be an issue for breeders only?
OVER THE PAST , few years, a steady stream of books about the family contemporary Australia has been appearing, with increasingly gloomy and often martial titles: Crowded Lives, The End of Equality, The Work/Life Collision, The War over Work. The common theme to all these books is a stark, relatively simple insight: the Howard government’s unfolding vision of what the workplace should be is fatally blind to the reality of how families live and work in contemporary Australia. In fact, there’s really no place for anyone with family responsibilities in the modern workplace.
Of course, it’s a little too trite to lay all the blame for the condition of Australian families at the feet of the Prime Minister and Treasurer. They have simply continued and accelerated sweeping changes to Australian society that were engineered by earlier governments: the deregulation of the economy and the industrial relations system, and a paring-back of the role that government plays in enabling and shaping the choices people have in their lives.
Even for those of who’ve lived through it as adults, the sheer pace and scope of all this change is hard to comprehend. We now live in one of the most deregulated, casual and flexible economies in the developed world. However, the story of economic change in the past two decades is not all negative for gender equality, either in the home or in the workplace. Women’s integration into the workforce in Australia has been aided and abetted by Australia’s integration into the global economy. Women fill more than half the jobs that have been created since the early 1990s. It is women who have benefited most from the expansion of the service economy and the growth of part-time jobs that has accompanied it. There is pretty good evidence, from a range of statistical surveys, that the majority of women in part-time jobs are happy with the number of hours they’re working and do not want to work more.
However, it’s much less clear that women are happy with the conditions that accompany these flexible hours. About two-thirds of all part-time jobs are casual and about half of those casual jobs have no sick leave attached to them, no carer’s leave when a child gets sick, no paid holidays to take when school is out. A simple change in the time a shift starts can turn the headlong morning rush to get the children to day care or school and oneself to work into an impossibility.
Exactly that scenario was the subject of an important legal precedent set by the NSW Industrial Relations Tribunal in what’s become known as the Steggles Chicken case. Kym Wood, a telesales operator, received a letter out of the blue informing her that she was required to start work at 6.30am instead of 8am. The earlier start time made it impossible for her to take her children to before-school care, which opened at 7am.
Wood and her union took Steggles to the Industrial Relations Tribunal and won the tribunal ruled that she should be allowed to start work at 7.30am, a compromise that suited both her and her employer. But many more similar cases are now beginning to surface, and under the proposed national industrial relations scheme, employees are unlikely to enjoy the sort of legal recourse or protection that Wood sought and gained in NSW.
For the best part of a decade, we’ve become accustomed to hearing that we are lucky enough to be citizens of a kind of globalising Arcadia, a land of milk, honey and low interest rates, sustained by our economic “wonder Down Under”.
In fact, the lived experience of many Australians during the past decade has been a very different one. For lower– and middle-income families, the reality looks more like this: longer working hours, more insecurity and financial stress, increasingly unreliable public services. As the author of The War over Work (Melbourne University Publishing, 2003), Don Edgar, puts it, it’s a daily battle “for possession of our bodies and minds: work versus family, boss versus baby, presence at work versus time spent at home, men versus women, young versus old”.
One of the great political achievements of the Howard government and its supporters has been to render this battle largely invisible. Despite the prime minister’s description of work and family issues as a “barbecue stopper”, he has been extraordinarily successful in preventing these subterranean conflicts from bursting up through the pristine pavers of Oztopia and spoiling the lamb satays, much less entering what passes for mainstream public policy debate in Australia. This achievement is all the more remarkable – given the weight of evidence that has been piling up in recent years – evidence that suggests that the “work-life balance” is no longer a preoccupation of the already privileged middle-classes, but is becoming the central political issue for ordinary Australians.
AUSTRALIA HAS NO shortage of social scientists, commentators and policy wonks who think and write about these issues. But generally, they’ve been unable to weave together what’s happening – the fragmentation of the labour market, the complex and shifting ways in which the labour of caring is divided between men and women, the shrinking of the public sphere and the privatisation of hope as a social resource – into a coherent story.
A welcome exception to this general rule is Children of the Lucky Country? (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2005) co-authored by Australian of the Year and professor of child health Fiona Stanley, professor of psychology Margot Prior and director of the National Institute of Labour Studies Sue Richardson.
For a society that professes to care so deeply about children, and which obsesses about child protection, it ought to come as a profound shock to us that the incidence of many physical diseases and psychological problems among children and young people in Australia is not declining but is actually rising – and rising “alarmingly”, as the authors contend. The great virtue of what Stanley, Prior and Richardson have done is to join the dots between a set of symptoms – for example, premature births and low birth weights – and a social context.
We hardly need to be told one more time that the health of poor people tends to be worse than that of those who are well-off. So, it may come as no surprise to learn that the poorer the parents, the more likely they will be to have a baby with low birth weight. Similarly, the news that being born into a single-parent family increases a baby’s chance of low birth weight may produce no more than a knowing nod. We might begin to experience a mild perplexity at the news that there has been a steady increase in the proportion of underweight babies since the 1970s in the United Kingdom and that a similar trend is appearing here. After all, don’t we have a world-class health system and an economy running like a smoothly oiled machine? What are all those mothers doing wrong? The research also tells us, after all, that if only they’d get a bit richer and, well, middle-class, their low-birth-weight babies would have a much better chance of thriving in later life.
The point at which we might really start to ask some questions, however, is when this already chastening set of facts is seen in connection with the larger changes that have taken place in the economy, in the workplace and in gender relations over the past two decades. Again, the broad outlines are almost as familiar as Peter Costello’s smirk and John Howard’s worried frown. We know all too well by now that men have been working less while women have been working more. Men’s participation in work has fallen from 78 to 72 per cent, while women’s has risen from 44 to 56 per cent. Those bald statistics conceal a more complex picture: as Anne Summers points out in The End of Equality (Random House, 2003), the proportion of women in full-time work has not increased since the 1970s. The increase in women’s participation in the workforce has been entirely driven by the rapid expansion in part-time work, much of it casual and low-paid. Contrary to one popular myth, women have not been stealing the jobs from under men’s feet. The percentage of men in full-time work has fallen even further and faster than the overall participation rate, and the reason is simple: a whole sector of the economy, made up of low-skilled, blue-collar, full-time jobs, has simply vanished. One in five men with no post-school education is out of the workforce, regardless of age.
Let’s add one more ingredient to this dreary stew. One in six children in Australia lives in a household in which neither parent is working. Now stir. Skim the scummy stuff off the top – I’ll let you work out what that is – and what lies beneath ought to be pretty clear. We have a whole cohort of Australian men who are out of work and have little prospect of getting back into anything except part-time jobs. That doesn’t make them very attractive as husbands. If that sounds harsh, read the wealth of research that shows that working-class men without jobs are much less likely to marry or form permanent relationships than their employed middle-class counterparts, and much less likely to have marriages and relationships that last. They are doomed to more or less permanent exclusion from what the sociologist Goran Therborn has called “the normative aspiration of the European working classes”: becoming the primary breadwinner of a nuclear family.
Roll over to the other side of the bed and you have a significant group of women who can’t expect to find husbands with jobs and who must make the choice to have children with a jobless man – a choice that is almost certain to mean a life on or below the poverty line – or to have children on their own, which amounts to pretty well the same financially, or to have none at all.
Strangely enough, the pundits who mutter darkly in the opinion pages of our daily newspapers about Australia’s putative population crisis do not seem overly concerned about this group of women. This is hardly surprising: it is the declining fertility rate of the middle class that has them tossing in their beds at night, not the prospect that women in public housing estates and teenage girls might suddenly go on a baby strike.
What is surprising is how little public discussion there is of what ought to be self-evident, and what Stanley, Prior and Richardson delineate so clearly and sharply: that allowing a section of the population to become simply superfluous, excess to needs, is a sure-fire recipe for what is happening daily in maternity wards around the country: the birth of a growing number of children who are starting life behind the eight-ball not only socially and economically, but physically as well.
Let’s try to call a spade a spade here. This is a scandal. It is not only a scandal, it is disgusting, in the truest and deepest sense of the word. It ought to fill us with a profound moral nausea that this is happening in one of the richest countries in the world, and in a country, moreover, which in the past has at least paid lip-service to notions of fairness, decency and equality of opportunity.
BUT, IN A sense, it should hardly surprise us that there’s so little outcry about this particular scandal. To begin with, it’s old news. More than two hundred years ago, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, English cities were full of displaced, unemployed, threadbare men who’d come from the country seeking work and found neither work nor wives. Some of these members of the late-eighteenth-century urban underclass ended up in Australia, at Her Majesty’s pleasure. It’s arguable that what’s happening now is an upheaval no less far-reaching in its consequences than the Industrial Revolution: if that’s so – and I happen to believe it is – then it’s hardly surprising that there are winners and losers. Only a very small number of people now, middle-class romantics most of them, would wish to forgo the very real benefits that industrialisation and modern market capitalism have brought to the lives of the masses, though it took a 150 years, two world wars and indescribable slaughter and suffering for those benefits to become widely distributed.
Not long before the first of those world wars, the novelist E.M. Forster placed a two-word epigraph at the beginning of his novel Howard’s End: “Only connect.”
That epigraph is worth bearing in mind now, for a number of reasons.
In the first place, there are clear and important connections to be made between the condition of those on the very lowest rung of Australian society’s “ladder of opportunity”, and those on the rungs immediately above them. Many of the stresses and strains experienced by families in the lower-middle-income group – Mark Latham’s “aspirationals” – are a product of the same economic and social transformation that has consigned those on the bottom to life in a permanent netherworld.
A couple of years ago, I spent several weeks talking to families in new housing estates in the south-western suburbs of Sydney about their hopes and aspirations. Most were happy to have made the leap into a middle-class ambience, often from “fibro-belt” suburbs with decaying infrastructure and poorly resourced public schools. Most of them worked in the service sector; it’s where the majority of the new jobs have been created in Australia broadly, and in the outer suburbs of our cities in particular.
The longer we talked, however, the more evident the hidden costs of this transition became. Again and again, I heard stories of couples with young children moving into new houses on the estate, only to break up several months later. Again and again, the reasons cited were the same: financial stress, husbands working long hours to meet mortgage payments, wives struggling to balance part-time work with caring for young children. Pretty soon, everyone’s lives are fraying around the edges.
Perhaps it really is necessary here to repeat the bleeding obvious one more time: if you are lower-middle-class parents with children in Australia and you want to prevent your family from sliding back into poverty, let alone have any aspirations to join the middle class, both of you will need to work. On the whole, your household will consist of a man in full-time work, almost certainly working longer than the standard 38.5 hours a week, and a woman in part-time work. It is simply impossible to escape this ineluctable economic law.
It’s a law, however, of which the Federal Treasurer appears sublimely ignorant. On Budget night 2004, Peter Costello urged parents to have three children, one for mum, one for dad and one for the country. He has said many times that he favours further workplace deregulation, so that Australians will have the freedom to work longer hours in order to achieve their economic aspirations. That next wave of deregulation is about to become a reality and it promises a range of additional freedoms: the freedom to bargain away sick leave, carer’s leave (where it exists) and a number of other entitlements that make it possible for people to carry out their responsibilities as parents while earning a living.
Only connect what’s happening in the workplace and what’s happening in the home, and the outcome is likely to be pretty clear: more and more of the stories I heard on the housing estates around Campbelltown and the surrounding suburbs; more and more fractured families; more and more women with children riding the down-escalator into poverty; and more and more humiliated, angry men.
A sceptic might retort that Australian political culture has shown itself remarkably capable of absorbing economic strain and social fragmentation without any signs of serious challenge to the status quo. After all, it’s already absorbed 600,000 jobless families. There’s no need for Costello to give up his daydreams of life in the Lodge just because a few aspirationals here and there are losing their dream homes and their 4WDs. And the same sceptic might add that the ALP has maintained a deafening silence about the condition of families on the lowest rung and seems sublimely indifferent to the “work-life collision”. There are some notable exceptions: Lindsay Tanner has argued, in his book Crowded Lives (Pluto, 2003), that balancing family relationships with work obligations is “emerging as one of the central issues of twenty-first-century politics”. But Tanner is a lonely voice in a party still dominated by hard men. It is these men, not Tanner, who are out of touch with the social realities of contemporary Australia.
IF THAT’S NOT clear already, let’s make one final set of connections. In the late 1990s, The Sydney Morning Herald published the results of a survey that asked young women between eighteen and 22 to describe what their lives would be like at the age of 35. More than 60 per cent imagined they would be working full-time and married with one or two children. On the whole, they had an optimistic view of their futures: they saw the balancing of work and family commitments as something manageable, negotiable with both partners and employers.
As Summers shows in The End of Equality, these young women are likely to be in for a rude shock when they begin to partner and have children. There is already a gulf between what the next generation of Australian parents says they actually want and what the workplace is offering them, and that gulf is set to widen even further.
Summers argues convincingly that Australian politicians and political institutions have abandoned the commitment to gender equality that was first forged in the 1970s and became a national goal for a couple of decades – the decades during which the young women interviewed by the Herald were growing up.
However, there’s something missing from both the Herald survey and from the bleak portrait Summers paints: men. The newspaper did not consider it necessary to question young men about how they saw themselves in their mid-thirties, or about their attitudes to work and children. In all the 300 pages of The End of Equality, and especially in its final chapter on “Restoring Equality”, there is scarcely a cursory mention of men, other than as pillars of patriarchy, and certainly no glimmer of any suggestion that men might be part of the solution as well as the problem.
I think this is misguided. In my view, the sorts of social and economic changes that Summers, Edgar and other authors mentioned above believe are necessary will only occur once men themselves begin advocating them. Only when the “work-family balance” is seen as an issue of equal concern to men and women will there be actual change in the workplace and in the political and institutional structures that define the rights of employees and the responsibilities of employers in the workplace.
Many feminists are sceptical about the likelihood of this happening. Why should men voluntarily give up the privileges they’ve enjoyed at work and at home, they argue? What’s in it for them? There’s plenty of good empirical research, moreover, carried out by Michael Bittman and others, which shows pretty convincingly that, measured in hours and minutes, men are doing only a little more of the caring for children and no more of the housework within families than they were 20 years ago.
I think it is not too glib to reply that many men working 50 or 60 hours a week as taxi drivers, shiftworkers or tradesmen would not regard their long working hours as a privilege. The Electrical Trades Union in Victoria ran a successful industrial campaign over several years to persuade their members – predominantly blue-collar, working-class men – that they should seek a ban on overtime beyond 48 hours a week, and then struck enforceable agreements with employers which entrenched that limit. The union talked to its members about the impact of long working hours on their family lives, and the members made shorter working hours an industrial demand.
This is only one example. But it points to what I believe is a larger and more potent reality. Many men already play active roles in caring for their children and many more would like to do so, if the strictures of long working hours were loosened and the culture of the workplace redesigned in the ways suggested by commentators like Edgar. Men and women have a shared interest in creating a new “Australian settlement” – one that recognises, as Edgar says, “the legitimate value of private, emotional involvement through the partnerships and responsibilities of family life, and the value of wider community engagement in both democratic decision-making and management of the common good”. There is no reason why these should not become national goals in early-twenty-first-century Australia, but they will only become so if men start to agitate for them.
Ten years ago, the United Nations defined the family as “the world’s smallest democracy”. It would be fair to say that that definition remains an aspiration, rather than a lived reality. But it is a definition with a profoundly radical and emancipatory potential. As Eric Hobsbawm argues in a recent essay in the London Review of Books, the last third of the twentieth century saw “the most rapid and radical global change in … gender and generational relations” in human history. This change has been driven primarily by women, but now men too have been drawn into the “everyday social experiments”, to use Anthony Giddens’ phrase, which those changes have brought with them, and in which women and men are engaged every day in Australian families. Within those everyday social experiments lie the seeds of a new politics and the genesis of a more just, equal and decent society.
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