Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Family policy grapples with modern complexities

  • 16 April 2007

His name was Joe. He was a trade union official, a former communist, influential in the building industry and a good bloke. I phoned him at his home on a Sunday afternoon in the late 1960s about a case in the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. He said he was busy and would have to ring back: "I'm concreting over the lawn ready for my retirement." He was serious. As someone who preferred grass to concrete, I was a bit shocked by this. But at the time I hardly noticed that he was articulating his own personal vision of life after work and of life being divided into rigid compartments of school, work and retirement, which meant doing virtually nothing as one recovered from the years of labour in the workforce. Usually it meant watching television, a few beers and, by today's standards, an early death.

This world was what has recently been characterised as "the wage-earners' welfare state" in which men were the breadwinners and women remained at home, as an unpaid workforce, performing domestic functions, including the care of children and relatives. There was not much employment mobility.

Men often had only one job in their lifetime and earned wages sufficient to support an average family. Their jobs gave them employer-paid entitlements to sick leave, annual leave and long service leave. The state provided an old-age pension.

These were the essential elements of the social security system and part of the "Australian Settlement", largely devised by Alfred Deakin with the substance added by the support of the industrial arbitration system. And for three quarters of a century it worked. Though it was not obvious, at the time I had my phone conversation with Joe, this whole world was being undermined. The widespread use of the contraceptive pill was accompanied by increased demands for gender equity, both in the workplace and the home. Rapid technological change was making traditional work skills obsolete and creating demands for new ones.

And in the 1980s the whole basis of the economy was changed from one which was protected and isolated from the world to one which was faced with the realities of international trade and competition. The combination of new technologies, social changes and the opening up of the economy meant changes in jobs, in families and in personal relations. The traditional security of the provence of law and order provided by the Australian