Our economy is failing families

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I have a confession to make: sometimes, I dream of the return of the 'family wage'. I know, I know: it's hideously unfair. Pay equality is a matter of basic fairness. It's worth fighting for. And it's not that I think the idea of the family wage is the best option.

FamilyBut as I drop my daughter at daycare at 6:30am three days a week, to be looked after by someone else who I then have to pay, to go to work to earn enough money to pay our rent and daycare (and not much more), I am almost daily struck by how much our system is failing families. It was a failure of my own empathy that I only truly came to understand this after I experienced it personally.

In the 17 months since my daughter was born, I have worked harder than I ever have before. My days are long and exhausting. While I work in a paid role three days a week, the vast majority of the work I do is the unpaid work of raising a child. I have gone from having enough disposable income to be comfortable, to counting my pennies and choosing between bread and milk at the end of the month, and ignoring the pain in my tooth.

It is an obvious problem: much of the work done in our modern economy falls outside contributing directly to our economy, so it is unpaid. But such work is essential, not only for our economy to function but for our society more broadly.

Unsurprisingly, this work — domestic work and caring work — is still disproportionately done by women. Even in a male/female couple with both partners working full time, the average amount of domestic work done by the female partner far outweighs that of the man.

But in our focus on the distribution of domestic work, we often overlook the fact that the amount of work we're doing overall in order to maintain a similar standard of living has increased. Instead of work being distributed between the unpaid carer at home and the paid worker, whose income was enough for a family to live on, we now require both partners to have paid roles outside the home. While we are able to shift some of the work onto paid child carers, the capacity to do that is limited by both the cost and the natural limitations of group care.

More and more mothers are returning to work after their children are born, doing so sooner, and are doing so because they can't afford not to. Our economy, especially in our cities, requires two household incomes. It's near impossible to live on one, unless that single income is vastly above the average.

 

"Many people have reached out to me privately and said they'd love to have kids, but they just can't afford to."

 

The massive growth in property prices (and rent) means the equation is fundamentally different to even a generation ago. And so we must outsource our childcare at a rate (hopefully) lower than we earn, so that we can make enough money to survive.

But the practical realities of parenting haven't changed. It's impossible to predict when your child will get a virus and be sent home from daycare, or scream from 1am to 4am for ten nights in a row, or fall over and hit their head. These are problems that can't be outsourced: ask any parent who's been called to pick up their child because of a high temperature, or had to call in sick because their baby was sick over the weekend and you can't go to daycare until you've been virus-free for 48 hours.

And so, in this free market economy, parents (especially primary caregivers) become that most loathed of things: the unreliable employee. And that's for those who have the luxury of jobs that you can leave if you need to. Many parents aren't so lucky.

Being a primary caregiver and working in most workplaces are fundamentally incompatible, if not with the work itself, than with success and good performance at work.

This shift has had a profound impact not just on young families, but on any other household where there aren't more than one full time wage earner. It means single people are forced into sharehouse arrangements well past the age when that used to be common. It means people looking after their elderly parents (again, work primarily done by women) will struggle, especially if they don't own their own home.

Over the last three decades, our economy has slowly shifted from two-income households being an option to being a necessity. Rather than giving women the choice to work, we are now given no choice but to, regardless of how much domestic work is on our plate.

Is it any wonder we're so burnt out?

There are solutions with potential: reducing the length of the 'full time' working week from 40 to 30 hours; more generous parental leave plans; different tax treatment for single-income households (including for single people); more redistributive tax focused on wealth, not just income; and true 'flexibility' in the workplace, beyond letting you work from home once a month if you really need it.

But until we address these things, we are making parenting something people will increasingly opt not to do. Many people have reached out to me privately and said they'd love to have kids, but they just can't afford to.

We remade our workforce to facilitate women participating in it. This was the right thing to do. But the evolution needs to continue, so we can create an economy that doesn't just permit women's participation, but allows us all to live balanced lives, where we can make real choices about what's right for our families.

 

 

Erin RileyErin Riley is a sports writer and historian from Sydney. Her writing is focused on understanding the role sport and its institutions play in Australian life.

Topic tags: Erin Riley, working families, childcare, paid parental leave, wage inequality

 

 

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Existing comments

Surely more of the nations funds need to be directed to supporting families. It is clear that the money being directed to supporting US military activity and being prepared to be inter operable with their forces for the frightening prospect of another major world war is both immoral and unacceptable. The Independent and Peaceful Australia Network is challenging this reality.
Annette Brownlie | 11 April 2018


Maybe some parents should consider supporting their families first rather than their lifestyles and careers. Such was once the norm and once family was established material goals and lifestyle were then slowly acquired. Can't see why government or society at large must accommodate the "I want now without any sacrifice or effort on my part" generation.
john frawley | 11 April 2018


I think you are being a bit unfair, John Frawley. Housing prices a generation ago were about double an average income; now they are twelve times that. It is housing stress that is the major contributor to families needing a double income. The rise in house values has a multifactorial history. I don't think it is greed that is the issue really. As well, a casualised workforce makes life more difficult for the young than it once was. Add to that universities churning out degrees that are a hiding to nowhere and it can be all a bit harder than it once was.
BPLF | 11 April 2018


Thank you John Frawley. I also cannot believe why people "discover" the costs after making the decision to have children....
Patrick | 11 April 2018


The redistribution of wealth for the good society needs first to value all citizens by enabling all to live rather than eke out an existence. You paint a picture familiar to many of being on a treadmill simply to earn funds to do the latter. The trend to have both parents doing paid work outside of the home has been welcomed by governments: more workers = more tax collected. Where large companies dodge tax quite legally because of mechanisms available to them, this is not a possibility for the wage earner who is just getting by. So if change is to occur then the government needs to “sell” the notion of community responsibility and collect sufficient revenue from company tax to do so. It is one thing to argue the need for companies in Australia to have a reduced tax rate so as to remain competitive on the global market: it is quite another to sacrifice billions of dollars to companies without requiring a guarantee that profits will not simply be distributed to shareholders. Yes under the present system the rich get richer and the poor poorer. Of course women need access to work that caters to their desire to use their knowledge and skills but this has to be balanced with the value we place on rearing a child particularly during pre school years.
Ern Azzopardi | 12 April 2018


Is it our 'economy' that's failing families or our philosophy of family, child rearing, ambitions, gender equity/expectations, consumerism and a whole range of assorted 'beliefs' we have been socialised into accepting? Governments and their economic strategies are mere reflections of the people and their socialised demands/beliefs, who elect them. Mid you a lot more solid and decisive leadership wouldn't go astray. But, overall, who is running the show philosophically? Who is telling us what to think, what to believe, what to demand? More self-reflection needed as well. Try reading some Lloyd de Mausse (and Erich Fromm) to balance out the popular philosophies of today.
Stephen de Weger | 12 April 2018


BPLF. I agree completely that things are more difficult nowadays. As a society we have promoted unrealistic notions in our young people through dumbing down school and university education, telling all people regardless of ability that they can have whatever they desire and promoting lifestyle as a basic right. We pay essential service providers like nurses and paramedics and genuine university graduates peanuts while we pay people who play games millions of dollars a year. I don't think house prices are the problem - I think we are!
john frawley | 12 April 2018


You answered your own question. Two incomes allow you to bid higher on the auction price of your home. Two working people in household has lead to financial chaos. To late to go back. Old saying. "Be careful for what you wish for".
Mark | 12 April 2018


Two steams in life, those Men and Women who take resonsibility for their choices, hook in and get on with it, and those who complain.
Dan Carney | 12 April 2018


Mark, you have highlighted one of the multifactorial factors to which I was alluding, yet you will pretty much never hear any allusion to dual family incomes as a cause for mortgage stress because it is one of those things that it is not okay to say in Australia. Dual incomes pushed up the cost of housing long before foreign investment did.
BPLF | 12 April 2018


We cannot go back to the 'good old days' I know, but we did seem to do with less, 'make do' with what we had and make food and clothes at home. We did this to stay home with our children until they went to school and just managed with less money and 'things'. However, because we were all doing it together, it was normal and we enjoyed ourselves very simply during this short time.
Jennifer Raper OAM | 13 April 2018


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