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After the Barbecue. Perspectives on work-life balance in Australia

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

After the Barbecue. Perspectives on work-life balance in Australia

Pru Goward
Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Department of Consumer and Employment Protection
Work Life Balance Conference

Wednesday 22 February 2006

After the Barbecue.

Thank you for the opportunity to address your Work Life Balance Conference about, of course, work life balance.

How quickly those words have become familiar to us, how rich they are in meaning, how endless the possibilities. Synonymous with the Prime Minister’s phrase “the barbecue stopper”, work life balance is a fashionable topic.
It has been fashionable for a long time.

Even a poor student of history must appreciate that industrialisation, in particular the separation of work from home, is the genesis of this particular question of balance.

True, historians might also point out that life before industrialisation was so hard and precarious the question did not really arise. If you didn’t work you didn’t live. Forget balance.

But industrialisation began a long time ago, almost three hundred years ago. It wasn’t long before balance did become an issue; a health issue but also an issue of dignity and human rights. Conditions for workers at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution were little short of slavery.
True, not the same sort of perilous existence endured by landless peasants in feudal times, but slavery all the same.

In fact the campaign to protect workers’ conditions flowed directly on from Wilberforce’s anti-slavery campaign and it is interesting to read even Lord Shaftesbury, the acknowledged leader of the factory movement, arguing that among the many reasons for improving the working conditions of women and children was the need to ensure political stability and safety.

“ I agree with you that the state of the poor cannot be discussed too much, for till it is improved physically and morally and religiously we shall be in more danger from them than the West Indian planters are from their slaves" he said.

The Factory Acts between 1802 and 1847 were in large measure a response to the terrible imbalance of power between worker and factory owner, unrelenting working weeks with only a few hours off for Chapel and the shockingly unhealthy and dangerous working conditions. Economists can argue over whether this was a case of government addressing a market failure or interfering with its proper operations, but no one would deny that it was a very good thing.

For us it seems extraordinary today that children as young as 6 or 7 were allowed to toil in inhumane conditions for 16 hours a day. The reform of children’s working conditions flowed quickly to women and finally, fifty years later, to men.

Much as the industrial relations debate of today connects industrial deregulation with free trade, many British industrialists argued two hundred years ago that this would make them uncompetitive with factories on the Continent and that wages and capital values would both drop; however they acquiesced to public outrage, the Tory Party and, perhaps for the last time, the leadership of the Anglican church.

But a funny thing happened, as technological change accelerated not only did Britain’s mines and mill owners find themselves more, not less competitive and efficient, they also became the beneficiaries of better rested and trained workers with time to go to classes and with children, the workers of tomorrow, able to read and write.

For those of you wondering why I should start with a history lesson, remember the old adage that those who forget the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them.

I am not suggesting that the challenges of work faced by a young mother or sixteen year old today compare in any way with the horrors of that age and any media outlet that were to report it in this way would be terribly remiss, but there are obvious parallels; the same tension between work and life, the slowness with which society responds to adverse social changes when they are propelled by economics and the location of both that debate and today’s much more mild-mannered debate in an era of free trade.

But let me get back to history. Western democracies have moved forward from the dark ages of early industrialisation.

Indeed, by the time Australia was federated there was a very different view about the rights of workers and Australia quickly established itself as one of the most regulated and expensive workforces on earth.

You might say the middle of the twentieth century represented a golden age for family life- an age where families could enjoy a reasonable level of economic prosperity yet still have sufficient time for children, the elderly and family life.

You might have thought that technology, humanity and the law had resolved the question of work life balance forever.
But in fact as we know, and as the Prime Minister has reminded us, the tension between work and family life has re-emerged as a social question, despite modern technology (which was meant to make work easier) and a widespread awareness of the risks to health, children and relationships of stress, lack of exercise and lack of time together.

So why?

A number of very obvious reasons I think.

First, the social contract has changed enormously since the second world war. The majority of mothers, as well as fathers, are now in paid work. There is no longer that person at home being CEO of Family Inc.
The amount of total time available for a couple, or indeed a sole parent, to devote to unpaid work and family responsibilities is consequently diminished- putting more stress on working mothers but also on their children and partners.

A secondary point is that the majority of working mothers are part time, with, you would have thought, sufficient time to attend to family responsibilities as they did before. But recent time use surveys show they are still doing more total hours of work, paid and unpaid, than they used to when they were home full time.

As children stay at home for longer, completing their education, the years of mothering are actually increasing.
This means women are carrying a disproportionate load of caring and domestic work over an increased number of “family years”.

I’d like to think that today’s teenagers not only get to vote and drink on their 18th birthdays but become responsible adults fairly sharing the household tasks, but the evidence is strongly against it.

Interestingly the Household Income and Labour Dynamics Australia survey, the best source of data on these questions, finds that women are not unhappy with their working conditions, but with their home life.

Men, by contrast, complain their working conditions limit their access to family life. And the working hours of Australian men- managers, executives and blue collar tradesmen in particular, just keep getting longer and longer. Not quite 16 hour days but frequently 12. According to the OECD, Australia is continuing to pursue longer working hours as other countries have either stabilised or actually reduced theirs.

I don’t think any Australian audience needs reminding about the cost of housing in Australian cities and the inevitability of mortgages requiring two working parents.

Like men, women today work for a combination of pleasure and necessity. The difficulties of finding appropriate and affordable child care, after school care or someone to supervise the Year 10 teenager’s homework are all management stresses.

Frequently grandparents fill this gap- so that the work-life struggle is now extended to people who thought they had finished with juggling, only to discover that they are needed to mind grandchildren regularly to either save the cost of child care or to provide care that would otherwise be unavailable.

A second reason for work-life balance drama is the intensification of work. Information technology, supposed to free us up from tedious jobs like typing and book-keeping, has in fact, doubled the white collar work load. Two in-trays; one paper and one electronic- and very short response times thank you. And it’s not just white collar; once the plumber could get on with fixing one person’s pipes and get his next lot of jobs that night over the telephone. These days he’s getting them on the mobile and expected to be able to respond immediately.
Even news cycles, once a full 24 hours long, have now become a few minutes in length and journalists, for example, race against the clock.

A third reason is globalisation and the incredible increase in competitive pressure brought about by free trade. It has brought great prosperity to many, but always at a price. People are expected to work longer and harder than ever before; trans national corporations require meetings at all hours, turn-arounds at all hours and that sense of pressure which comes from knowing your company is up against companies around the world. Middle managers, both in the public and private sectors, work ridiculous hours.

Almost a quarter of the workforce works an average of 50 hours a week or more, and many of these workers are men with families.

The industrial reforms of the past fifteen years have enabled much of this. The sclerotic, industrial system of awards and centralised wage fixing has gradually been made more flexible by the addition of negotiated arrangements such as enterprise agreements which have certainly fuelled Australia’s economic growth over the past decade- and jobs with it.

But undoubtedly much of the productivity growth to come from this new industrial flexibility was the result of people being prepared to work longer hours, or less family friendly hours without penalty rates, or more uncertain hours as casuals or contract workers. That was all traded away against more money and, of course, more jobs.

Ah yes, the sanguine might say, but people adapt. Families adapt. This is just an adjustment phase. This may be true although I cannot see how relationship building, the development of love, trust and respect between family members, can simply be sped up to accommodate the requirements of work. Love takes time.


Yes, some of us, not all of us, can out- source meals and even cleaning, but there is more to family time than that. In any case this is of no real comfort to the child who, in their short childhood, suffers the unintended consequences of this speedy adjustment phase. Nor the elderly parent who needs some support if they are to stay living at home, nor the marriage, teetering on the edge because the two of them are always stretched, never alone, never with enough time.

Looking to the future, work-family tensions don’t look like going away.

In the case of women, get ready to move from the double shift to the triple shift. This is because women are having children later in life; the median age for mothers in Australia is 30.5 years, continuing a consistent increase since 1972.[1] With this increase, the likelihood of overlap between caring for children and caring for ageing parents will also increase.

Already we are hearing of women with the so-called sandwich problem – being squeezed between the demands of care for children and care for elders.

The ageing of the western world, brought about by vastly improved longevity and collapsing birth rates, has not only produced skill shortages around the western world but great pressure on government budgets.

A rapidly growing generation of retirees needs a rapidly growing amount of government assistance, to be got from a less rapidly growing generation of tax payers. No wonder governments are all busily privatising old age.

Australia, one of the world’s younger western countries, may now only be seeing the ageing of its workforce but it is already acutely conscious of the need to change the level of support it provides to the elderly.

As the population ages – whether we see this as the looming ‘crisis’ that some predict or as one demographic challenge among others – the question of who will provide the care for these people is a critical one for all of us, and not just those concerned with gender equality.

We know that by 2044-45, one in four people in Australia will be 65 years or over, double what it is today.[2] Formal aged care needs alone are projected to increase from around 180 per cent to 250 per cent between now and 2044-45.[3]

Over this time the costs of formal aged care are expected to increase by about 2.5 times more than GDP growth.[4]

The Productivity Commission estimates that health expenditure will almost double to 11 ½ percent of GDP - basically because older people take a great toll on health services. The Head of Treasury, Ken Henry, estimates the GST will need to rise to 24 cents in the dollar to fund the increased expenditure on aged care!

One response to this dilemma is to help people stay in the workforce for longer- not only to pay taxes for others but also to fund their own old age. In particular their own superannuation accounts.

Treasury’s Intergenerational Report makes no bones about that.

But if we are serious about assisting people to stay in the paid workforce for longer then we need to make sure these (often older) workers are also able to balance their paid work with their caring obligations.

A large proportion of women in the labour force provide care not only for children but for people with disabilities and older people, so let’s move beyond policies for working parents to policies for employed carers.[5]

In 1998 employed women made up 34 per cent of all primary carers of people with disabilities and the frail aged.[6] Fifty nine per cent of carers combine caring with paid employment, with most carers located in older working age groups.[7] And almost a quarter of people aged 55-64 provide some level of care.[8]

Informal carers are projected to increase by about 57 per cent by 2031 to meet the needs of those who cannot access or do not wish to receive formal care.[9]

Although historically Australia has had only a moderate participation rate for women, a low rate for mothers with children under five and an even lower rate for women over 50, that is now rapidly changing. Mortgages and a dawning realisation that an old age living on a pension and not much else should be put off for as long as possible, have both contributed to that.

As labour force projections indicate a sustained increase in the workforce participation of women workers aged 45-64, and as women in this age group are almost half of all female primary carers,[10] the tension between paid work and caring commitments can only become more of an issue for older workers.

Will it be resolved by sharing the responsibilities more equally between husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, by employers providing an unprecedented amount of family flexibility for all their employers, not just the young mums? Or will we prefer to see taxes rise and do none of the caring ourselves?

I haven’t even begun to factor in the consequences for Australia of the changing expectations of Generations X and Y, nor of the impact that India and China will have on our labour market in years to come, although this impact might be self evident.

Suffice it to say that the pressures on Australians to work for more hours and for more years are unlikely to abate- and the pressures on Australian family life, on gender equality and on communities can only grow.

So what do we do about it? And what are we doing about it? Those are the two questions I have been asked to address this morning.

Which is fortunate because it is also the subject of my national research project, Striking the Balance; Women, men, work and family. The project is an examination of how Australian men and women spend their unpaid time, how they balance their social responsibilities with their work commitments and the consequences this has for, amongst other things, gender equality.

The project has been the work of a year so far, with a discussion paper released in June 2005. That has been followed by 9 focus groups, 28 community, union and employer consultations and 181 written submissions. On the basis of this, I expect to bring down our final discussion paper in the middle of 2006.

As you can imagine people are generally agreed that addressing the balance is about more than tinkering at the edges and that the obvious solutions of spending more on child care, legislating for part time work options and mandating paid paternity leave are far from adequate.

What is clear is that work conditions can and must change, but that the home front is in need of as much reform. It is our culture- which includes the value we place on being with our children, our elderly, taking time for private responsibilities- which needs to be challenged.

Essentially the nature of work and life have both changed enormously in the past thirty years but not necessarily in step with one another. We still have for instance, fairly traditional views about the share of paid and unpaid work responsibilities, views that we know are no longer fitting with reality. It’s equivalent to having a brand new Ford Fairmont with an old Falcon gear box and a steering mechanism that was state of the art in 1971 when it was launched on the world, but not now!

What has become clear from our consultations, ranging from some of the most senior business executives in the country to young couples struggling to bring up their kids, was that we need big change.

No one knew quite how to do it, but they all consider fiddling with the levers here and there was not cutting it.

We have options of course.

We could go back to the so-called golden age of family life. Before Betty Friedan discovered that women were going mad behind their white picket fences and men were wondering what they were living for.

We could encourage women to stay at home and rediscover their calling as madonnas and devoted daughters. We would need to compensate for the reduced work force with either increased immigration, amazing technological break throughs or the acceptance of a lower standard of living.

Or, we could do away with globalisation and free trade, settle for a lower standard of living and reintroduce a wages system that provided sufficiently for single earner households

OR conversely we could spend enormous amounts of money on providing child and elder care for everyone but with very high taxes needed to pay for it, with or without free trade.

Or we could think smart.

And that, in the Australian way, is what we are doing.

With the exception of international trade, which becomes ever more free each year and for which there is bipartisan support. Even there I am not sure that future governments, panicked first by China and then by the rise of India as the world’s service provider, might not want to reverse some of this freedom, but that is quite another story.

Although we are a federation of states, there is no doubt that Australians increasingly look to their federal governments to solve their problems, particularly on big ticket items. The obvious one being the extension of early childhood development programmes so that children could start school or pre school at 3, rather than at 4, for example.

Greater investment in after and before school care would not go astray either. Governments need not defend these as mere sops to two income families but as keeping up with educational trends and in addressing the additional needs of teenagers. Anyone who has seen teenagers hanging around pinball parlours and city bus stops looking for trouble at 4 o’clock in the afternoon knows what I mean.

Anyone working with teenage boys with learning difficulties and desperate for coaching time will also know. Anyone worried about teenage obesity and associated disease might also consider there are some spin offs.

Ditto community care services for the elderly.

Looking at what the states do tells the story of governments responding when and where they can but again, fragmented. This is no one’s fault particularly; it completely reflects the fragmented community debate.

While I won’t pretend to present a comprehensive picture of what the states are doing, suffice it to say that it demonstrates how piece-meal is present policy, however admirable.

The Victorian government exempts paid maternity leave from payroll tax, for example, and has recently embarked on a Work and Family Action Plan which includes working with companies to develop work and family friendly policies, working with communities and being a best practice employer. They have also given a number of grants to companies keen to develop workable policies.

New South Wales has a similar approach- enabling companies to develop solutions that help them.

Queensland has developed a programme for back-to-work parents and carers who have been out of the workforce for some time. I don’t know the size of the programme but that is definitely an essential element of assisting people to ride the waves of life- life is no longer a straight line from the day of the first job until the day we retire and then die.

Queensland has also focussed on child care, introducing laws to regulate the industry three and four years ago, developing what it calls a series of child care and family support hubs, developing a State-wide Training Strategy and State-wide Training Plan, a Remote Area Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Care plan and investing in School age care.

A number of state governments have altered industrial regulations to allow for paid maternity leave and other family-friendly conditions, such as the extension of parental and leave to casual workers.

New South Wales has similarly amended its state discrimination law to protect people from discrimination in the work place on the basis of their caring responsibilities.

In fact the extension of industrial regulation into work-life balance is perhaps the only consistent policy across the states and territories, which will make life very interesting if the states’ anticipated challenge to the new Work Choices bill fails and state industrial law becomes irrelevant. The states also regulate child care and the community aged care facilities.

Then there’s the federal Government’s contribution.

There can be no one in this room who is not aware of the $2billion plus child care scheme, the beginnings of tax deductible child care, FBT concessions on a limited form of employer-provided child care and their support for after school-hours care. The Government also provides $4,000 to each woman on the birth of each child, which in conjunction with other measures such as the right to 12 months unpaid maternity leave, is arguably a form of paid maternity leave.

The Government is currently considering whether they ask the United Nations to consider the Maternity Payment, in conjunction with the 12 months of statutory unpaid leave, to be a form of paid maternity leave.

In addition to this a raft of welfare benefits provide additional funds to working families, give significant incentives for lower income earners to stay at home with their children or to work very little and historically have provided industrial protections for workers with caring responsibilities.
The Sex Discrimination Act also makes dismissal on the grounds of family responsibilities unlawful and although the case law is far from settled, it seems to be the case that indirect discrimination against women seeking workplace flexibilities to accommodate their family responsibilities is also judged to be unlawful by the Courts.

They could of course do more. So could the states.
As the community consultations demonstrated repeatedly for example, travelling times to and from work cut hard into family time and Australia’s public transport infrastructure must take some of the blame for commuting times we can’t explain for such a small population. Investment in infrastructure is a states issue, as is the role of the education system in providing families with balance and also with opportunity. The extension of the school system to include early childhood programmes at age three and a half is a state issue.

Similarly, states could do more with teenagers- particularly since we have the beginnings of a teenage obesity epidemic and for example, the preparation of teenagers for the world of work.

We need to acknowledge that teenagers, while well beyond the age when they get put in an after-school hours centre to do craft five days a week, could benefit from supervised programmes after school, instead of being allowed to wander the streets or sit hunched over a computer or in front of the television after school each night because mum and dad aren’t home yet.

Similarly with elder care, so long as the Federal Government is responsible for retirement pensions and the accreditation of nursing homes, it is difficult to see what incentives there are for the states to think laterally about community-based aged care.

Having said that many states, particularly at the local level, have highly integrated services which are of high standard. The problem is, not enough.
Again, a leadership issue for the states but one which federal-state funding arrangements do not encourage.

At the federal level, industrial reform is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand fifteen years of reforms have definitely generated more jobs, especially for women seeking part time jobs. Once these women would have stayed home because no such jobs were available. The extra prosperity has to be good for them and their families.

But of course wherever there are winners there are also losers and no doubt entry level workers and many of those with families will find it more, not less difficult to manage. The buoyancy of today’s economic climate is expected to make this a soft landing but undeniably for many workers there will be hard ground.

Similarly Australia’s approach to family law and post-custodial arrangements reflect the often traditional arrangements that families have made for who does the caring and who does the earning. At this traumatic stage – the breakdown of the relationship – it is difficult to develop flexible family arrangements, let alone real choices for men and women which are not constrained and shaped by gender expectations but by their own wishes and capacities. This too, could do with rethinking.

But I am not here to lead the work of thousands of public servants in states and territories around Australia. There is neither the time nor the capacity to review the possibilities, look at overseas experience and brilliantly solve the problem of work place balance. If I could I can assure you I wouldn’t be here but in some pantheon far away!

But let me instead finish with a couple of points:
First, Federalism continues to dog systemic solutions to this problem as it does just about everything else in Australia that requires a comprehensive, integrated approach.

From the prevention of domestic violence to the management of mental health to work-family balance, it needs all levels of government and all levels of the community to work together.

Second, as I think my final paper on Striking the Balance will describe in more detail, we are presently working with a social system and arrangements that no longer fit into the modern world of work. It’s not that our family values have changed, it’s just that we’re all finding them harder to hang on to thanks to the intensity of economic and technological change.

It’s like putting a new engine into an old car- eventually just adding on a power steering wheel system here, global positioning system does not, ultimately, protect the old car from being worn out by a new engine that is too powerful, too fast, for the rest of the vehicle.

So we need to recognise this, to start talking not about incremental change but about some wholesale fundamental changes that enable us to respond to the twin juggernauts of internationalism and demography without throwing our sanity, our families, our happiness- and our values- out with it.

That is the challenge of policy makers, academics and public policy commentators such as yourselves. It is a great challenge, but also the most crucial of the 21st century. We must get it right.

Thank you.

[1] ABS 3301.0 Births, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003, p 11.
[2] Productivity Commission, Economic Implications of an Ageing Australia, Draft Research Report, Productivity Commission, Canberra, November 2004, p 1.1.
[3] Productivity Commission, Economic Implications of an Ageing Australia, Draft Research Report, Productivity Commission, Canberra, November 2004, p xxxix.
[4] Productivity Commission, Economic Implications of an Ageing Australia, Draft Research Report, Productivity Commission, Canberra, November 2004, p xxxix.
[5] AIHW, Carers in Australia: Assisting frail older people and people with a disability, Aged Care Series, No. 8 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra, October 2004, p 59.
[6] AIHW, Carers in Australia: Assisting frail older people and people with a disability, Aged Care Series, No. 8 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra, October 2004, p 59.
[7] Seniors and Means Test Branch, Australian Government Department of Family and Community Services, “The role of families in an ageing Australia” in Family Matters No. 66, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Spring/Summer 2003, pp 46-53 at p 49.
[8] David de Vaus, Diversity and change in Australian families: Statistical profiles, Australian Institute of Family Studies, July 2004, p 251.
[9] Richard Percival and Simon Kelly, Who’s going to care? Informal care and an ageing population, Report prepared for Carers Australia, National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, NATSEM, University of Canberra, June 2004, p 28.
[10] AIHW, Carers in Australia: Assisting frail older people and people with a disability, Aged Care Series, No. 8 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra, October 2004, p 35.

updated 9 December 2005