Every Monday night my stepson Dave, 22, comes over for dinner. In between beers, chopping and the juggling of pots, we talk about the week gone by. Usually he ends up taking over at the stove, even though he’s been up since 4.30 in the morning. Dave’s a chef. He works long and unsociable hours, has bags under his eyes and looks like he could do with a good dose of UV. But he couldn’t be happier: a kitchen brings out the best in him.
Dave earns a good wage, enough to support himself and to take a mid-winter break with his girlfriend. He’s on casual rates, so the holiday is unpaid. A month or so ago I asked him what his conditions of employment were. He looked blank. “I don’t know,” he said. “I signed something, but don’t ask me what it was.” Soon afterwards, he said he was going to talk to his boss about negotiating a new contract, on salary, for a year. He has no formal qualifications but he figures that, having earned two promotions this year, and with his experience and skills in a desperately under-supplied trade, he can sit down with his boss and work out something that suits them both.
If you told Dave he was a walking, talking embodiment of John Howard’s WorkChoices, he’d tune out. Not that he’s any more interested in what the other side of politics has to say. He takes work as he finds it, and while there’s so much of it around and he enjoys what he does, where’s the problem?
Historically, industrial relations has been ideal for the us-versus-them treatment: workers to the Left; bosses to the Right. There’s a whole vocabulary attached to IR which is expressed as much in the set of a placard or the curl of a well-shaven top lip as it is in the polarising rhetoric which both sides wheel out. WorkChoices’ opponents argue that the new IR regime is not about increasing productivity or prosperity, but about “increasing the power of those who already have the most power and resources and in doing so taking power away from those who have the least, and from those who would challenge the power of the mighty” (academic David Peetz, writing in the Griffith Review’s autumn issue). On the government’s side, the main game is demonising the union movement and its influence on Labor: “What the union movement is about in its campaign is reimposing its monopoly control over the industrial-relations system ... It is about reinserting union power and union authority” (John Howard speaking at a business forum in April).
But the old scare tactics of class warfare aren’t nearly as productive for either camp as they used to be. The boss doesn’t look so intimidating when many Australian businesses are complaining of chronic labour shortages and in every state and territory the jobless rate is now below 5% - and below 4% in Western Australia. “There is no one in WA who really wants a job who can’t get one, so you have really got quite a strong safety net built in,” says Mike Dockery, a labour economist at Curtin University’s business school in Perth. “Employees are in the strongest bargaining position they have been in for 30 years.”
Likewise, it’s harder to demonise unions when there’s a whole generation of Australians with little or no experience, or indeed much knowledge, of the militant power struggles of older generations and the notion of workplace solidarity. The union accord of the 1980s brought workers and employers closer, ending the era of the closed shop and centralised wage fixing. Membership figures tell the story: less than 20% of Australian employees belong to a union (the figure is even lower in the private sector), compared to around 45% in the mid-’80s. It’s tricky conjuring up the menace of union ‘thugs’ and ‘bully-boys’ amid so much indifference. So when in June an official was caught on tape abusing an employer on a Perth construction site, and the story headlined news bulletins, you could almost hear the whoops of joy from the Coalition campaign bunker.
High levels of political cynicism may now be a given in developed democracies like Australia, but come voting day people still have to choose, and it suits the process to configure that choice broadly in terms of Left and Right. Yet Left and Right have long been banging into each other in the centre, and in the centre are the economics of the marketplace, espoused with different degrees of fervour but dominant everywhere. Economists assume that people are rational (“It’s the easiest way to make your model work,” quips Dockery), and free-market economists in particular have persuaded most of the world over the past 30 years that rational behaviour is self-interested. “No government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first,” Margaret Thatcher said in her notorious “there’s no such thing as society” Woman’s Own interview of 1987.
Thatcher didn’t invent the philosophy of individualism. She promoted it at a time when Western societies were ripe for change, when disenchantment with the welfare state was profound and the transformation of citizen into consumer was poised for lift-off. Thatcherism, as it was called in those days, encountered early resistance; but by 1995, when the feminist and community activist Eva Cox delivered her Boyer Lectures, “the lone, greedy figure of economically rational man”, as Cox described him, had settled into Australian life. He worried her deeply. Human beings, she said, evolved in communities and were defined by their links to each other, which she called “social capital”, introducing the American political scientist Robert Putnam’s term to a local audience. Spending time together, working co-operatively and enjoying each other’s company, created social capital. “Without our social bases we cannot be fully human,” she said,
[yet] I have a strong sense that we are unravelling and tearing the social fabric, replacing it with a safety net that catches some of the poor and leaves the rest of us to flounder. We are losing some of the sense of belonging, of the common wealth that is part of our public selves. We are left to retreat into the presumed safety of the private world.
Soon afterwards, we voted into office a self-described “average Australian bloke” who, during the election campaign, described his vision for the nation in 2000 as being a place where people could feel “comfortable and relaxed”. Asked by the Four Corners journalist Liz Jackson whether that vision was dynamic enough for Australians, John Howard replied, “You can’t possibly hope to feel excited about something unless you feel comfortable and familiar with it. If you really want to drive Australians away from interest in something, you disturb their sense of comfort about it and you will succeed in driving them away from it.”
More than a decade on, and looking for a fifth term, the Howard government is betting that Australians remain committed to continuing comfort. Who would want to foresake such a good thing? In 2007 the share market has delivered record returns and the job market is going gangbusters. “There’s no better thing a government can do than to run an economy so that people who want work can get it,” the prime minister said on learning that the June unemployment rate of 4.2% was the lowest in 32 years.
The Labor Party, meanwhile, is calling on different loyalties. It is hoping that WorkChoices, with its skew towards individual contracts, has unsettled people, enough at least to drive us out from the “presumed safety of the private world” (as Cox described it) and restore our collective mindset. It is also hoping that enough of us still feel strongly enough about a “fair go” to punish the Howard government for its “extreme” IR laws. Forward with fairness is its mantra. Choice and flexibility, and let the growth continue counters the government. If you listen carefully you’ll hear the echo of Left-Right, Left-Right, but it’s getting fainter.
By some measures Australians appear self-assured, confident of ourselves and our future prospects: consumer confidence, as measured by the quarterly Sensis Consumer Report, was almost 20% higher in June than at the same time last year, and higher than at any time since March 2004, when the survey began. And why shouldn’t it be? Each successive Australian Bureau of Statistics labour-mobility survey shows fewer people losing their jobs and more hiring going on than ever before. And more money is coming in the door than ten years ago: the median household income range in 1996 - in adjusted terms - was $778-$906 per week, compared to $1000-$1199 per week in 2006. The latest census data shows that nearly all - nine out of ten - couples with young children live in a separate house with an average of four bedrooms, and have two cars and an internet connection. We’re not exactly slumming it.
But we’re also ringed with debt, and that makes us edgy. Many are painfully aware of our acute exposure to rising interest rates, having been persuaded by the availability of cheap finance to over-reach in the housing market. National home-loan repayments now soak up 31.6% of average household income (up from 27.7% in 2001), and fewer of us have paid off our homes (33% in 2006, compared to 41% in 1996). Though all the talk at the top is of mortgage stress, much of the pain appears to be self-inflicted. The amount we owe as a nation on credit cards has doubled over the past five years and is now over $40 billion, an average of $2990 per card. Prophets of doom abound. The property analyst Michael McNamara recently predicted that by 2016, if wages, debt and house prices keep growing at current rates, many Australian families would have no money left after paying their mortgage. “If ... we continue to hurtle towards peak debt, what sort of fearful, exposed family lives will we have?” he asked. The Wesley Mission, which looks after those already leading those lives, estimates from its research that 15% of families in metropolitan Sydney would find it difficult or impossible to cope with an increase of $40 per week in household expenses.
Those of us who are in better-than-average-paying jobs, for whom $40 equates to a good bottle of wine from the bar or a late-night taxi fare, may carry our worries lightly, but we know we need to keep our wits about us in a market economy. Our anxieties show up in the conflicting messages we send the pollsters. ACNielsen released a consumer-confidence poll in June. Like the Sensis poll, it had a bit of a swagger about it. Of those surveyed, 84% thought their job prospects in the next year were strong and 73% believed they were in good or excellent financial shape. But only about half thought it was a good time to lash out and buy the things they wanted. Spending on technology, clothing, home improvements and, particularly, out-of-home entertainment was down on the previous six months. Asked how they were mostly likely to spend their spare cash, most people said they were paying off debt and building up savings. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.
And yet we continue to tell the pollsters that life is good, that we’re satisfied with our lot. Australia consistently ranks among the happiest nations in the world, when these things are measured, as they increasingly are. Working up rage against the machine, it seems, isn’t one of our stronger suits.
Recently, my 16-year-old daughter came home unexpectedly from the Saturday job that’s meant to give her an idea of what it means to earn the money which she spends with such joyous abandon. It was a bleak, wintry morning, the kind which keeps people tucked in bed instead of heading out for breakfast at the popular organic eatery where she waits tables for $8.90 an hour. The café was still empty at 10, and her boss told her to go after one hour of her usual five-hour shift (it’s five hours on the trot because everyone knows that you’re due for a rest break after that, and employers don’t like paying for breaks). She wasn’t fussed. Actually, she couldn’t see the point of staying when there were no customers. She had things she wanted to do, in any case. It was me who was worried: something didn’t seem right, and sure enough it transpired that this particular employer was also scandalously relaxed about paying her.
My daughter resigned once she was paid what she was owed. In classic IR-speak, she and her brothers and step-brothers, all of whom bob about the casual job market, are vulnerable workers - that is, they have poor quality jobs which offer no security or control over how they do their work. If asked, however, they say they don’t think of themselves in that way. They may be naive, and initially intimidated by the boss, but that doesn’t make them powerless. They have their own standards about what constitutes a job worth doing. If the hours don’t suit or the pay’s too low, they walk away. Their sense of security doesn’t just come from a buoyant job market (‘I don’t have to go looking for work, it comes and finds me’); it also comes from the safety net which their education and home provide. They’re aware that some of their older workmates at the bakery or the warehouse or on the shopping-centre floor may not have the same advantages, and that those who, for whatever reason, are up to their ears in debt have much less room to move. They understand that some people need more looking after than others. But none of them belongs to a union, and they’ve never asked me why I do. Explaining that when I started in journalism it was pretty much a closed shop would be almost as hard as trying to explain the reason for the Iron Curtain.
I don’t feel the need for union protection these days, but I remember when I did. There were interesting times when I first met my partner, a small-business owner who, if you take him at his word, is an enemy of the workers. No union official has, or will, ever come onto his site. His parents fled an Eastern European Communist country, and frankly, his politics got stuck then. We don’t argue the point anymore. His stable, mature workforce speaks for itself in a climate in which small and medium-sized enterprises nominate finding and keeping good people as their prime problem.
As a household, we keep our heads above water and nobody starves. We have a mortgage, and the house needs painting, yet recently we succumbed to the temptation of the larger television screen. Like many families, we lurch from one drama to the next, and our actions are often irrational and inconsistent. Yet if a happiness researcher were to ask me if I were satisfied with my life, I’d say yes. My answer, however, wouldn’t capture my niggling concern that our life is too much about paid work, nor my fear that the children are growing up with a false sense of security and that they are in fact vulnerable, in ways they can’t yet imagine.
Consider the following. On 17 May, the Melbourne Institute released its quarterly wages report, which showed a surge since the February quarter in both the basic hourly rate and the total pay indicator. Employees on individual contracts reported larger increases (almost double) in their wage rate and total pay than employees on award conditions and those on enterprise agreements. On 22 April, an ACTU-sponsored protest rally which segued into a rock concert pulled a crowd of somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 to the Sydney Cricket Ground. The aim was to inform young Australians about their work rights, according to Peter Garrett. And on 1 June, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, in his address to the NSW Provincial Synod, worried about “the fixation of many in our community with economic wellbeing and the impact that this is having on relational life”. “It is startling and dismaying,” Jensen said, “to see that tradition of the value of relationships and the proper rhythm of work and rest succumb to an officially sanctioned greed for more.”
None of my kids went to the Rockin’ for Rights concert. Thinking back, that Sunday probably was much like any other. Most of the shops and delis, pubs and cafés along the busy street where we live were trading. My partner may have been doing the one Sunday shift in four he works at his pharmacy down the road. My 18-year-old son would have started work at 8.30 am at the municipal aquatic centre. (Again, a five-hour shift.) Another son almost certainly would have slept in after working the previous evening for a catering firm which offers him more shifts than he can fit in around his uni timetable. Another does a few hours’ work at the local gym, which seems to have a permanent ‘staff wanted’ notice on its door.
I suspect the archbishop would be unimpressed with our day of rest. But for our family, as for many others, Sunday is no longer a day reserved for worship, or even for relaxation. It is a day much like any other, and that no longer strikes me as unusual. Yet when I compare it to the Sundays of my childhood, when the prospect of a ‘Sunday drive’ meant something to do when all around was a flat sea of inactivity, I can see where Peter Jensen is coming from. Since the ‘70s there’s been a trend away from what we used to think of as normal working hours - 9 to 5, Monday to Friday - and towards longer and more diverse hours, more part-time work and more work at odd times. Working patterns have been affected by the global economy and pressure to compete across time zones, the demand for greater productivity to generate higher shareholder returns, the obsession with staying connected and, of course, the gradual move to seven-day trading. These factors are not peculiar to Australia, but Australia is notorious for being the only high-income country with a high proportion of people working long, atypical hours in temporary employment.
You could drown in the figures that document the long and atypical hours that Australians are working (by long hours, the Australian Bureau of Statistics means 45 hours or more a week). Here are a few from the latest ABS Working Time Arrangements report, describing the state of play in November last year. Of the nation’s 8 million employees (excluding owner-managers of incorporated businesses), 36% had hours which varied weekly or usually required them to be on call or on standby, 37% usually worked extra hours or overtime and 38% were able to work extra hours in order to take time off. Shift work accounted for 17% of employees, but more of those aged 15 to 24. Most people had only one job, and of those 15% usually worked on Saturdays and 7.4% usually worked on Sundays. However, of the half-million people who worked more than one job, around 40% usually worked on Saturdays, 26% usually worked on Sundays and 56% usually worked nights (that is, between 7 pm and 7 am).
Work squeezes most Australian families far too hard for time, Paul Shepanski and Michael Diamond conclude in their report An Unexpected Tragedy: Evidence for the Connection Between Working Patterns and Family Breakdown in Australia, released in March. In 60% of couple families with children under 15, both parents have paid jobs. In the majority of families, mothers bend their paid work to make it fit around their responsibilities at home, but the take-up of flexible work arrangements by men is still low - and, in any case, that solves only part of the problem, they say. People who work on Sundays lose six hours of family time and social contact, and it is not made up during the week. What relationships need is “time together to give and receive support, build intimacy and repair conflict when it arises”. Time, Shepanski and Diamond argue, is a family resource, and working patterns which deprive parents of time with each other and their children are increasingly implicated in family breakdowns.
It’s not that we’ve stopped doing stuff - junior club cricket, school fairs, choir practice, Latin-dance lessons, Scouts, Bible groups, Meals on Wheels, historical-society meetings - you name it, it happens somewhere. What’s changed is that it’s harder to know who will be available on the day, since many Australians no longer share set times outside work to socialise. The University of New England’s Michael Bittman, a pioneer in the analysis of time-use statistics, has shown that while work is spread around the clock and across all days of the week, Saturday and Sunday are still far and away the most popular days for spending time with family and friends. Those who aren’t available at the weekend tend to miss out.
There’s plenty of tut-tutting about this pickle we’ve got ourselves into, about how we’re locking ourselves into a frenzy of over-work and over-consumption, both of which feed each other in the classic work-spend cycle. The South Australian researcher Barbara Pocock writes passionately in her book The Labour Market Ate My Babies of the early onset of that cycle, and of how young people - their appetites artificially stimulated by advertising - seem increasingly to be reliant upon a sense of self built through work and buying. I couldn’t agree more. And when the Sydney Morning Herald led its front page on Saturday, 2 June with the headline ‘Millions yearn for 9-to-5 heyday’, I, like many others (2.5 million full-time workers, according to research undertaken by the Workplace Relations Centre at the University of Sydney), agreed that I had a hankering to return to the standard working day.
But on that Saturday, after breakfast and the paper, I launched into the rest of the day’s activities. Like millions of Sydneysiders I was relying on supermarkets and specialty food shops being open till at least early evening. Many of us may have included in our day a hair or dental appointment, or a visit to a commercial gallery. Maybe we went house-hunting, checked out a new range of garden furniture or called into an office-supplies store. Later that evening, we may have visited a restaurant or rented a DVD. Whatever our preferences, we could have counted on a huge range of goods and services being at our disposal. And there’s the rub. We over-burdened workers are the same people who are out there with our credit cards, wanting to shop till we drop. We say we don’t work on Saturday and Sunday, but then again, if the money’s good enough ... and in any case, someone has to work if others are to shop. Some of us, mostly the self-employed, simply don’t see the difference anymore. The work’s got to be done, and if you’re wired at home with email and internet, and you can sneak in a few hours’ work while the kids are at netball or your partner is making dinner, it’s no more of an imposition during the weekend than it is during the week.
We more than likely get a lot of satisfaction from what we’re doing. That doesn’t stop us from complaining about how hard it is to get family and friends together anymore; and yes, Archbishop Jensen, we too, if we are of a certain age, feel nostalgic for a time when the world moved at a gentler pace. But that world didn’t deliver what we expect of it now. It was a world where business hours didn’t stretch to meet demand, where flexible was a word applied to rubber objects and children’s joints, where telephones had cords and cricket players wore white and played only in daylight. It was a world in which the prime minister would not have said that strong employment growth was the “human dividend of good economic management”. Back then, for many people, going to work - making a living, as it was called - was a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Take the question of home ownership, which in Australia more so than many other countries is the touchstone of financial security, and which, in an election year, is so politically sensitive that Kevin Rudd called a summit on housing affordability at the mere prospect of an interest-rate rise. In its 2004 report on first-home ownership, the Productivity Commission found that both the demand and supply sides of the housing market had contributed to the widespread escalation in house prices, but that the dominant source had been a surge in demand, above the normal increases associated with population and income growth. It attributed much of this to cheaper and more accessible loans. For home buyers, a halving of the interest rate almost doubles the mortgage potentially available, the report said, as well as nearly doubling the price of a home that can be afforded on a given budget or income. Over the past decade, with their purchasing power doubled, both existing owners and new buyers stoked the housing market to a blaze, and suddenly everyone was in a sweat over housing affordability.
Not only have we been paying higher prices for houses (and, on average, bigger houses than a decade earlier), but we’ve been borrowing more to buy those houses because the money’s been cheap. So, what do people do when their bills are mounting? They work (though increasingly, if they’re younger, they let the bills pile up: half of those who defaulted on their debts last year were under 32, according to the credit agency Dun & Bradstreet, a 25% leap on the previous year). More people, men and women, younger and older, are working - the participation rate, the proportion of adults in work and looking for work, is now a record 65% - and, across the board, we’re spending longer at work. In both full-time and part-time jobs, the average weekly hours worked have increased over the last two decades, and very long hours (50 or more a week) are more common, particularly among men: in 2005, 30% of men working full-time worked very long hours, compared to 22% in 1985. However, the same research which showed millions wanting to reinstate the standard working week found that one in two employees acknowledged that working long hours is a choice made by the individual, rather than something over which they have little or no control.
The reach of jobs into our lives goes beyond the hours they eat up, paid and unpaid. For many of us, our job defines who we are. Work is the second most common way that Australians define their identity, after family. Perhaps we have, by default, allowed work to become the central organising factor of our lives, allowed it to seduce us with its rewards, financial and otherwise. Perhaps many of us could be more disciplined about turning off the mobile or the computer, about knocking back extra work and knocking off on time. Work-creep is insidious, and the willy-nilly hacking into our most intimate spaces by technological gadgets seems unstoppable. But in a non-standard world, standard judgements about the effects of certain behaviours and work patterns don’t always hold.
The nation’s largest ongoing panel review of households, the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, has compared the subjective wellbeing of men and women by the number of years since 2001, from zero to three, that they had worked 49 or more hours per week. It found no adverse link between long working hours and overall life satisfaction, overall job satisfaction, general health, mental health or vitality. Men who worked long hours between 2001 and 2003 were no less satisfied with their relationship with their partner or children, and women who worked long hours were no less satisfied with their relationship with their children, and were on average more satisfied with their relationship with their partner.
The HILDA survey (by which I mean the available data, which spans 2001 to 2003; three subsequent waves of data are yet to be publicly released) also casts doubt over the notion that part-time, casual and other non-standard jobs are ‘bad’ jobs. Critics of the casualisation of the workforce and its precariousness clearly regard full-time jobs with standard entitlements as the benchmark, and the sale of labour on an hourly basis as an aberration. But HILDA data shows that job-satisfaction levels are just as high for part-time, non-standard employees as they are for full-timers, and, perhaps more surprisingly, that non-standard part-timers feel just about as secure as full-timers.
In each wave of the HILDA survey, employees are asked the percentage chance that they will lose their job in the next 12 months. Each year since 2001 that percentage has fallen, and while the 2006 data is still being crunched, Mark Wooden, the labour economist who directs the HILDA project at the Melbourne Institute, expects no change in the trend. Why? “It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “It’s a darn good time to be hunting in the labour market.” A tight labour market contains checks and balances on employer behaviour: “If workers are going to up and quit, you have got to treat them nicely.” The IR debate is all about bargaining power, and that’s a hard sell in this climate, Wooden says.
In booming Western Australia, where one in four people is employed on an Australian Workplace Agreement, the prime minister can readily argue, as he did in the Perth suburb of Stirling at the end of July, that to remove AWAs would do “enormous damage” to the economy and to tens of thousands of locals. In the same week on the other side of the country, where housing repossession is a boom industry, the media covered a report by the University of Sydney’s Women and Work Research Group that showed how much “collateral damage”, both at work and at home, was being sustained by low-paid women workers (earning $10 to $20 an hour) whose earnings and conditions had deteriorated under WorkChoices. There’s always an audience for anxiety.
Whichever political party is most persuasive in selling its vision for industrial relations, my guess is that you won’t hear anyone clamouring for the return of the eight-hour working day and the Monday-to-Friday working week anytime soon. We wouldn’t tolerate the kinds of restraints on our lives that would involve. Yes, we’ll fret about the stress that long and unpredictable hours place on our relationships, but as long as our society is exposed to the rough and tumble of the marketplace, then what we as individuals need to learn is how to negotiate to our advantage in that marketplace, while holding firm to what and who matters to us. What’s unclear is how expansive our circle of concern is.
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