Carers of Australia unite!

Barbara Pocock

Many Australians are living and working, at present, in an uncomfortable moment. It is a moment of dissonance, when our behaviour has moved way ahead of our institutions and cultures. Our discomfort lies in the private adaptions we make - and are forced to make - around institutions and cultures that no longer fit how we like to, or can easily, live. It also lies in the gap that we cannot privately plug between the circumstances of work, and the circumstances of our lives.

These historical moments - when behaviours run ahead of institutions and cultures that are slow to catch up with new realities, like working mothers - are not unusual. In the Scandinavian case, for example, women's participation in paid work preceded a regime of support for them: childcare, paid and unpaid parental leave, part-time work. Public policy responded to a significant social change. It did not leave it - for long - up to private adaption, to diminished quality of life for those who depend on those who now worked, or to the imposition of a double day on working/carers, reinforcing gender inequality and undermining quality of life perhaps for children in particular.

But this Scandinavian lag, then catch up, occurred at a time when the public sector budget environment was positive, a tight labour market screamed for women's contribution, and a social democratic political force, reinforced by a strong equality and rights perspective, prevailed. All in an economy that was relatively protected from the kind of chill winds and downdrafts of international competition that now drive labour standards down rather than up.

The gap between how we live and work, and how we might want to, is not the same for all. It is different for men and women, for rich and poor, for those in cities and those in country towns, for those who have dependents and those who do not, for sole parents and couples, for Indigenous Australians and immigrants and those who are not.

But - amidst all this diversity - there are some overwhelming commonalities. More and more of us live and work with twin responsibilities of work and care and these twins are not, at present, easy bedfellows.

The prime minister and his advisors like to suggest that another over-riding divide differentiates experience: between those in single earner, and dual earners; between the way Janette did it, and Melanie might. Of all the sources of difference I think this is the least real: today's single earner households with women at home and men in jobs, are tomorrow's dual earner households, and vice versa. The better way to view this difference is as one that occurs over the life course - for many households - rather than as one of 'types' frozen in aspic, one choosing to live behind an unassailable picket fence, and one not.

My recent experience of writing this book about the work/life collision was convulsive: a bit like vomiting or childbirth. The book was born with a powerful momentum propelled by people's experience. I won't say it wrote itself, but it did feel like riding a horse that had a mind of its own. And its direction was not always in my control.

The book has found some unexpected supporters: Jeremy Cordeau - Adelaide's answer to Sydney's shock jocks (though much more Adelaide-polite of course) recommended it as a read worth every cent of its price. A prominent liberal woman cribbed from it avidly as the basis of her speech in front of the PM at the recent Liberal party convention.

And across Australia through more than 50 radio and newspaper interviews I have waited for the caller or letter writer who says 'What a load of bunk - my life is fine thankyou very much. No collision here, just happy workers, kids and hot dinners on clean table cloths'. No such call as yet. And no such heckler at many conferences and public discussions in the three months since it was published.

Instead, many other responses. Let me tell you a few.

  • A woman in tears in Melbourne - because she had to choose between staying a vet and being a mother. Her sense of loss of her beloved career, a necessary and voluntary casualty of her beloved daughter's arrival, but a loss that overwhelmed her unexpectedly on the airwaves.
  • An employer representative from a large South Australian country town lamenting the collapse of his community as a result of work: no more football team.
  • A well paid single mother in Perth saying that despite every flexibility from her wonderful boss, her single motherhood was bloody hard work - and her daughter had asked her to take her computer back to her workplace rather than keep it at home, because she saw it as a competition for her mum's attention. Working from home did not fix her collision: just brought its two halves - child and office - into toxic proximity.
  • An Aboriginal woman admonishing me for not mentioning the experiences of Aboriginal women more - and at the same time saying that the experience was 'parallel', with the thinning of the Aboriginal community of mutual support as city work/life patterns take over and fracture relationships.
  • The engineer - in a two-engineer relationship - who wanted to swap earner/cares roles with her husband except that he could not find an engineering company that would let him work part-time.
  • The Sydney executive who resigned his very senior job to care for his chronically ill wife, to go part-time at a less senior level: prospective employers couldn't believe that 'someone like him' would want 'a job like this'. Downshifting is a dangerous career trajectory it seems: he was shocked and shaken to find that he missed out on job after job because interview panels could not reconcile his reshaped ambitions with his 'successful' past.
  • A man who rang up and said he won't take holidays with his family for fear he will be replaced in an insecure workplace.
  • A young woman who says she and her friends won't have children 'yet' because their jobs are insecure or limited term contracts.
  • A woman on talk back who has just spent nearly a thousand dollars on her young child's birthday present because she feels guilty for 'not being there': she and her husband are both fulltime workers.
  • The women - several - who tell the story of going back to work within a week of a caesarean birth.
  • Women who do housework into the night to try to 'keep up their standards'.
  • The husband and wife who wanted to get some overlap in their shifts so they could get some time together - and their employer who knocked them back: 'Why?' they ask in puzzlement and anger, it wouldn't have affected production, just an act of 'meanness' they thought.
  • A woman working full-time who comes on the radio at 2am in a long session of talkback and says, very sadly, 'I don't belong to either world - the world of the workplace, or the world of the neighbourhood, because I'm so busy running between the two'.
  • Another who asks: 'What do we think we are doing? We might be watching "I Love Lucy" on our wide-screen television on a lovely leather lounge, but it is still "I Love Lucy", and we are working 80 hours out of the household to do it!'
  • A single mother who says she is having a great time: good sex, happy kid, great job - her secret: 'stay fit and live alone (with a boyfriend who visits) so you never have to argue about housework'. (With women doing their housework into the night, I'm not convinced that all women can fit that run in. I know I don't). The construction worker, working long hours, month after month, who says sheepishly that an elbow in his wife's ribs late at night when he comes home doesn't really constitute very good foreplay.

So many stories, that follow the contours of the themes in the book.

It is reasonable to predict that people who have it all together don't ring up talkback to put their point, or lie awake at night listening to it, or come to events that talk about the quality of life. Maybe only the miserable ones do: I hope that's not true - it doesn't speak well of this audience tonight. There is certainly what researcher's call a 'selection effect' at work here: you can't rely on these as research findings. A lot of people just get on with things; they don't whinge, and they don't call talk back. They are too busy for conferences and meetings.

But many, when they stop and think, or when someone pops up in front of them with a question and a tape recorder, doing a piece of methodical qualitative research, and asks them how they are managing, will reflect on the trade-offs they are making - often unconsciously - and reflect that they are often far from ideal. This is the stuff of the work/life collision. This collision is between changes at work and in households, meeting institutions and cultures that have changed too little.When changes at work, and changes in households, meet unchanging labour laws, workplaces, institutions of care and culture, the fall out is real.

Changes at work - to mention just six:

1. Shrinking proportion of women at home creating care.

a. 1966, 36 per cent of women in paid work, 64 per cent outside.

b. mid-2002, 55 per cent of women in paid work and only 45 per cent outside it.

2. Paid working hours for full-timers have been increasing. Over 3 hours a week between 1982-2002.

3. Increased traveling time for workers - extra 30 minutes a week 1992-1997.

4. Increased intensity of work (summarised in Watson et al. 2003).

5. Most new jobs have been part-time: 44 per cent of women in Australia are part-time - much higher than OECD as a whole (26 per cent). Part-time work in Australia - the common carer's vehicle - has unique characteristics: two-thirds is casual with restricted rights, tenure and no job security. Increasing precariousness characterises Australian jobs.

6. Degradation of common family time - e.g. weekend, public holidays. Bittman has recently shown that people who work on weekends - one in five - miss out on family time and they can't make it up during the week.

Change in households - to mention just four.

1. The birthrate has fallen - 25 per cent of 20 year olds now not likely to have kids.

2. Traditional 'male breadwinner/female carer' families down from over half in 1984 to less than a third of couples with kids.

3. 62 per cent of couple households with kids now have two earners.

4. Increasing number of sole parent households, mostly mothers.

But institutions and cultures have changed too little ...

- As women have taken up jobs, there has been no great compensating rush of men out of jobs to home (less than 3 per cent are male carer/female earner).

- Or into housework: in 1997 women did twice as much housework as men (33 hours, compared to 17) on average of housework, childcare, voluntary. Despite evidence that more male participation in work is good for kids, relationships and more sex (Coltrane, 2003). And very little change between 1992 and 1997 except that women did a bit less and bought more help (take away food, gardening help)

- Institutions - like labour law, workplaces, and forms of care - have changed too little in response to these changes.

- Similarly cultures that construct who we view, ideal workers norms, and 'proper mothers', 'proper workers', are remarkably resilient and sticky.

It is the gap between reality and these norms that the comments through out the book reflect. It is this gap that drives parents to buy ridiculously expensive products to compensate children for absent parents (a trade which parents know is wonky), and which loads parents up with parent-guilt and worker-guilt because they cannot always get either job done right. Our institutions lag behind changes in our patterns of work and our households, and our communities and families are bearing the costs of this dissonance between institutions, cultures and preferences.

Women and mothers are especially affected by this dissonance as they attempt to meet the un-renovated standards of 'proper motherhood' while more and more of then are now workers. The culture of 'proper motherhood' is very robust and fixed. Many women can no longer live it, though it haunts their motherhood. Worse, many find that their jobs spill over through a kind of 'emotional contagion' to infect their households and kids.

Women without children are also contaminated. Men are also affected, especially in terms of the struggle to care, and the effects of long hours of work.

Can we trust this account?

This analysis parallels the terrain of my own work/life collisions. I have a job, I live with a worker who has a full-time job. I have two kids. Like many Australians I am hundreds of kilometers from my extended family so the market is my main work/family support: quick food, bought cleaning, commodified culture, market-based after school care and baby sitting. So far from my grandparents' uncommodified farming lives. Most of the women and men in my street have jobs, and those that don't, pick up more for the rest of us.

For a short while I was squeamish about this: was this account one of my personal collision dressed up as social science? But I don't think so, for several reasons.

Firstly, this book convulsed its way out of the personal experiences of the more than 250 people who's stories it tells in one way of another, and it is substantiated by larger data sets. It was not in my head before I began with the question 'how is work affecting us?'

But there is more a more profound reason for being attentive to this account regardless of its own resonance with my own experience. All social science reflects the personal location of its authors - in the questions they ask, the way they ask them, in the data they most respond to or choose to focus upon. Adam Smith's or Milton Friedman's or Karl Marx's freedom from care-work - their dependence upon servants, patrons, the public purse, and their wives and daughters and nieces - constructed their fundamental misunderstandings of economics - the 'careless science' - as if the non-market world of care did not exist.

We have way too much social science that has been written by people made free of the work/care collision by the hidden labour and reproduction of others. This is one of the reasons why neo-classical economics, in particular, is such a perverted 'science' and its resultant politics and policy so rotten. Those who do it are 'careless' and they miss the most important aspect of any market or public life: it is underpinned by care and community and by uneconomic decisions to care - decisions that are often mutual, and so far from those that a fully informed, cost/benefit calculating 'economic man' might make, that any economic system based on this figure is laughable. 'Economic man' was born of a woman who - if she had stopped to behave like her offspring subsequently theorized - would have balked at conception.

So, yes, my account of the work/life collision is saturated with individual experiences, and is not unaffected by my own. Such a social science is an important corrective: we have too many books about social and economic life as if care didn't happen, and doesn't matter. It does, and if more social scientists and decision-makers were carers, our maps of the world would be different and our policies would be better.

So what is to be done about the Work/Life Collision?

Mothers are not revolting, but they should be. If our grandmothers saw our lives, they might ask have we been sold short, or sold ourselves short. Of course not many of those who were around arguing for a fair go for women in paid work in the 1960s - and from then on - thought a job was the single-laned road to liberation. Though it could get you out of a violent relationship or conscripted sex and this should never be underestimated.

But 'sharing the care', was the bit that got lost on the way to the 'paid work' revolution. Let's face it our economic system loves women's labour, alongside men's, and it needs it: the labour force has been boosted by millions of paid working hours in the last 30 years through the entry of women to jobs, through longer hours from men, and by more intensive work. And women have taken jobs on terms that capitalism loves: flexible, short term hours in many cases, and on a casual basis. Women in particular have taken up the growing service, technology, hospitality and caring jobs that the economy now depends on. Alongside this labour, our economic system loves the expenditure that more paid work means - on new categories of commodified food, clothing, care and culture, and so on. As we have increasingly exchanged our time for money, that money has kept the wheels of the market turning - indeed it has given them a hearty stimulus. They generate profit.

But a few things got left behind on the road to paid jobs and dual earners. And these forgotten things are what are pulling us up now. And not just us, but all those who depend on us for care - our partners, children, aged relatives, communities and workplaces.

As long as our politicians - and, lets be frank, those who benefit from women's double day and disproportionate toilet cleaning (a lot of them men) - think they can keep deferring the missing half of the revolution, they will. Take the women - perhaps some in this room - who went back to their jobs within days of a caesarian section. Guys cannot imagine what that is like. They simply would not do it. A Great Paternity Movement would win a 12 months paid lie down for all newly delivered men in about six months. Factories would stop, trucks would not be driven, sheep would not be shorn, fruit would not be picked, patients would not be doctored - if paid maternity leave were not provided in recognition of the great social and political service that men performed in carrying, pushing out, and suckling babies. Let alone having their gizzards put back together, stitched up, and a good lie down as they recover.

Let's face it men have won paid leave to train for wars, and for a good lie down for turning up to paid work (long service leave). It is past time for all Australian women - not just those earning more than $30k a year or in the public sector - to get a paid rest when they have a baby.

So what needs to be done?

At a government level:
1. Improve the leave regime for paid workers.
2. De-casualise part-time jobs.
3. Improve the quality of accessible, quality publicly provided care and lower its costs.
4. Improve 'transition points' between care/work/types of jobs, over the life-cycle
5. Reduce hours of work and overtime. Share the work around.
6. Change workplaces through more flexible work regimes.
7. Create new cultures around 'proper mothers', 'proper fathers', 'proper workers'.
8. Share domestic work and unpaid care.
9. Improve payments to families so that they are fairer and more effective.

Change does not happen through good evidence or argument alone. It comes through political influence and organised voice. Those who are most affected by the work/life collision are political weaklings. They kick their legs in cots, or in nursing beds, or run between work and care or rush to get their own kids - and those of their working neighbours - to soccer. They are too busy hanging on to their job, squeezing in that one last task before they run for the bus, trying to get good shifts that fit childcare, wiping noses, putting away washing, balancing the budget - and staying sweet with the neighbour so she'll pick up the kids again. Our politicians take carers for granted.

Carers - like mothers - are not revolting. But they should be. They will never go on conscious strike in relation to their own living children or dependents. But strike action of another form is underway. The next generation of mothers are effectively withdrawing their labour - literally - consciously or unconsciously. Many current twenty year olds will simply not have children - or refuse to personally look after their sick parents (us) - because their jobs have overtaken care.

The best carer-friendly regime will not turn this around in a flash. But such a regime can only be won if mothers and carers, and those who depend on them - including children and the aged - develop a new, louder political voice. Carers, mothers, fathers, will need to be noisier, more organised, and less obliging if they are to stop being convenient political footballs, hauled out for a good kick around in the lead up to grand-final-election-day. Carers should stop coping within the terms that are on offer, get more organised, and insist on the missing parts of the social and work revolution. It is our right, and it is essential for a better future.


Barbara Pocock is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Labour Research in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide. This is the text of her presentation on her new book, The Work/Life Collision: What Work is doing to Australians and what to do about it (Federation Press), at the Evatt Foundation Sunset Seminar, held in the Macquarie Room, Quality Hotel, Sydney 1 September 2003.


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