Time for life, over the life time

Lyn Craig, University of New South Wales

Brian Howe Weighing Up Australian Values: Balancing Transitions and Risks to Work and Family in Modern Australia, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2007 (208 pp). ISBN 9-78086840-885-9 (paperback) $29.95.

Increasingly, people’s lives do not fit the ‘traditional biographies’ of 50 years ago, when life moved steadily through successive phases of education, marriage, work and retirement. Now men and women move unpredictably from one situation to another over the life course, sometimes with little warning. Each transition—for example from work to unemployment, from being married to being single, suffering a disabling accident, or returning to work after caring for children—is a time of particular vulnerability. In Weighing Up Australian Values: Balancing Transitions and Risks to Work and Family in Modern Australia, Brian Howe (Deputy Prime Minister under the Hawke and Keating Governments, and now Professorial Associate at the Centre for Public Policy at the University of Melbourne) canvasses policy options that could help people more successfully manage these life course transitions.

Howe believes that both work and family life are now much more precarious, unpredictable and risky than in the past. He argues that the foundations of social policy need rethinking and suggests the focus should move from narrow safety nets to working with people to anticipate and deal with change over the life course. As Howe sees it, the essential challenge for contemporary social policy is to support people in managing, and if possible turning to advantage, the many changes they will go through during their lives. He draws on the ideas of German policy analyst Günther Schmid, who argues that it is when people move between activities—unemployment to employment, education to work, work to caring, caring to work, work to retirement—that they are most at risk and that to best manage the risks requires taking the whole of life course into account (Schmid 1998). Schmid developed the concept of transitional labour markets (TLMs), which involve clear rights and practical support for people to move in and out of the workforce as their needs and circumstances change. People could vary their work commitments in the light of caring responsibilities, their need for further education and training, or because they may be more involved in community activity at certain times.

Time inequality is shaping up as major social divide.

Enabling people to vary their work commitments as their circumstances change would involve giving individuals ‘time sovereignty’. Building on Schmid’s ideas, Howe suggests concrete policy initiatives—wage insurance, time banking, lifelong training and learning accounts, benefits vouchers, entitlements to training leave, sabbaticals—that are essentially means of assisting each person to manage their time throughout their whole life. Such measures, he suggests, would be the foundation for substantial reform that would reduce skills deficits and assist business, but more fundamentally, would require public policy to acknowledge how central to life and work is the issue of time. Howe sees time sovereignty as a fundamental aspect of welfare. This is a relatively new view: social welfare has traditionally been measured in financial terms, but the idea that time scarcity is as important as money scarcity as an indicator of welfare is gaining currency (see, for example, Craig 2007; Gershuny 2000; Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2007).


Time inequality is shaping up as major social divide, and the pressures do vary considerably over the life course. People are likely to be at school and tertiary education longer than in the past, and to live much longer after they retire from paid work. Young people live at home for longer than they used to, and the average age at which they set up independent households, marry and have children is higher than it was. This can mean the major pressures of career and children are telescoped into a very time-intensive 20–25 years, followed by a 40-year retirement. The most intense phase is now the centre of life, when the strongest pressures of education, work, and care collide.

Time welfare is a particular issue for women. Gender and gender roles are critically important to the problem of time pressures piling up in middle life. There have been radical shifts in women’s education opportunities and workforce participation, which mean that the pressures described above impact upon both sexes. Gender equality is now a widely accepted social value, and the principles of gender equity have been incorporated into employment conditions, and family law. For example, it is unlawful for workplaces to discriminate against women when hiring staff, or to terminate employment for reasons to do with family responsibility. Property settlements on divorce presume an equitable division between husband and wife. In Australia, the proportion of women who are employed increased from 40 per cent in 1979 to 53 per cent in 2004 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006). The steady movement of women into the paid workforce has been arguably the most profound and far-reaching social development of the last century.

Australia has pursued policies that have made both work
and family more precarious.

Unsurprisingly, this profound social shift has brought challenges. Central is the problem of what to do about the unpaid and caring work that used to be done by women at home. Although widely regarded as separate arenas, the home and the market are not independent of each other. Rather, paid and unpaid labour combine to constitute the ‘total social organisation of labour’ (Glucksman 1995). The unpaid economy is very large—recent estimates put its value at about 50 per cent of GDP (ABS 2006). Since unpaid labour is both necessary and productive, it is only to be expected that there will be social ripples if women’s work moves out of the private sphere of the home and into the public sphere. If household work and care are not redistributed in concert with women’s increasing market work force participation, women will be overburdened and disadvantaged, or essential care will be left undone. The social costs potentially include women being at much greater risk of poverty than men, loss of national productivity, family strain, care deficits, loss of community cohesion, delayed child-bearing, and lower fertility. To avoid these problems, unpaid and caring work that used to be done by women at home now has to be shared around.

Redistributing household and care work is a social challenge that requires sophisticated policy responses. However, so far the effects have been largely left to lie where they fall. The huge movement of women into paid work has not been matched by a corresponding take-up of unpaid and caring labour by men. Nor have employers stepped up to the plate. Indeed, as Howe points out, Australian employers are more able now than in the past to avoid sharing the costs of unpaid work and care with their employees. Under what was called the ‘Australian settlement’, employers historically had some responsibility for care through a family wage that was adequate to support a family of five. Such a policy is now outdated and would be inappropriate, but the point is it has not been replaced by other social measures, and so the costs of care now fall more narrowly on individuals.

This appears to be acceptable to the Australian government. Unlike Europe, where work and family balance is seen as an urgent social policy priority, Australia has been slow to respond. Rather, it has pursued policy options that have made both work and family more precarious. As an example, Howe argues that Australian regulation of non-standard labour is so generous to employers that they can pick the obligations and rights they want. Employers are able to deem the jobs they offer to be casual, fixed term, or self-employed when really the jobs are ongoing positions with fewer entitlements and less security. Disturbingly, those with responsibility for dependent others are particularly likely to be in non-standard or casual employment. This implies that people who cannot make a full time ongoing commitment to the workforce must accept a lack of security as a consequence. In other words, the very people who could most benefit from rights such as carers leave, sick leave, paid leave during school holidays, and predictability of start and finish times are least likely to have them.

Sharing the care more fairly requires a communal response.

Indeed, it is very striking how many of the life course risks Howe discusses are to do with care. Policy makers have paid scant attention to the question of how care can be redistributed in the wake of the economic emergence of women. This means that having care responsibilities is, in and of itself, a profound social risk. Having to provide care makes people vulnerable. These days, the dominant moral outlook views paid work as the primary duty of all citizens. In recent debates about mutual obligation and welfare entitlement it is implicit that caring for children or other family members is of much less consequence than employment. This is repugnant to justice, because care is not only a strongly felt moral obligation on a personal level, but also, both governments and employers are profoundly dependent on it. Care work is essential if children are to be born and reared into adults. Governments depend on family carers to look after disabled and infirm relatives. Also, although the ‘ideal worker’ is unencumbered by family responsibilities, the market depends on the care and human capital inputs families provide. As I pointed out above, care and unpaid work are an essential underpinning and subsidy of the market economy.

Sharing the care more fairly requires a communal response. Individuals can’t choose to avail themselves of a supportive infrastructure if none exists. A lack of social support for care will fall most heavily on families that have the least resources. For example, in the United States poor children spend 40 per cent more time ‘hanging out’ in unstructured and unsupervised activities than do middle class kids, making them more unsafe and more likely to engage in illegal behaviour (Conley 2007). However, sharing care is an important issue for all. To deal with it, Howe advocates a new settlement that includes responsibility of employers to ensure work is organised in ways that foster gender equity in the workplace as well as the home, and helps define the entitlements and rights that provide for families security. He is convinced of both the economic value and social importance of unpaid work and care, and sees as a central objective the fair distribution of work, paid and unpaid, across the life course.

Policy Options

To achieve equality of outcomes requires policies directly targeted at men.

Howe looks to European countries for examples of innovative policy. Many countries have been more pro-active than Australia in introducing measures intended to assist balancing work and family, but policy choices about facilitating work and family are many and various. They do not all have the same effect on how responsibility for work and care is distributed between men, women, employers and the state. There is a distinction to be drawn between the policies that enable parents to care for their own children (cash transfers to home-based carers and employment-based rights such as parental leave and part-time work) and social supports (particularly access to child care) that make it possible for parents not to be full-time carers (Leira 2002). Different policy choices and family friendly measures reflect different values and are therefore ‘friendly’ to very different types of family. For example, providing universal and affordable childcare, as in Sweden and Denmark, encourages gender equity in workforce participation and preserves women’s earning capacity. However, other countries, such as West Germany, place a high value on children receiving care from their own family, and promote this through long maternity leaves and part time work for women. These measures encourage the division of domestic and market labour between women and men and, over time, entrench women’s vulnerability to poverty and insecurity.

The most obvious solution to achieving both gender equity and high levels of family care—encouraging men to share the care—has proved an elusive goal worldwide. Policies that are theoretically gender-neutral (that is, they can be accessed by men or women) have been singularly unsuccessful. Men do not take up the provisions to which they have an equal right. Even in countries with highly developed and gender-neutral policy measures such as Finland, Sweden, or Denmark, women overwhelmingly access extended leave, interrupt their careers, and absent themselves from the workforce for family reasons. The impact of children and care on men’s workforce participation and employment opportunities is comparatively insignificant. This suggests that to achieve equality of outcomes, not just of opportunity, requires policies directly targeted at men.

Howe’s policy proposals are bold and ambitious.

Although most countries are reluctant to intervene explicitly in the private nuclear family and its division of labour, some are testing the effect of father-specific rights. In Sweden, a month’s paternity leave that cannot be transferred to the mother has much higher take-up by fathers than gender-neutral measures. Though far from creating an equal distribution of care, the ‘daddy month’ is regarded as an important innovation. Howe’s ideas of a life course approach and working time policies are being tried in the Netherlands, where workers can trade time for money by ‘building up a time and income bank, resourced from part of their normal wages and salary and unused leave time, which can later be used for goals such as more income, day care for children, reduced hours of work’ (p. 119). The Dutch government is also making a deliberate attempt to redistribute the existing volume of both paid and unpaid work by actively improving the quality of part-time work. However, even with innovative policy support and rhetorical encouragement for sharing both work and care, family care in the Netherlands is still much more likely to be done by women than men, and Howe notes that men tend to work more hours, while women use the time-banking scheme to buy ‘free’ (sic) time.

That Dutch women access the innovative policies much more than Dutch men suggests that easing transitions would not in itself be enough to achieve a fair gender distribution of paid and unpaid work. Women would still make more transitions for family reasons than men, and because periods out of the workforce would still need to be subsidised by time or money accumulated within it, they would continue to be more economically vulnerable over the life course, and at risk of greater poverty in old age. Perhaps this is inevitable while the social importance of care, as a good in itself, is not recognised. (If it were, policies that see time spent in care as a social obligation could be contemplated. Perhaps a minimum lifetime requirement—say the equivalent of five years voluntary or family care contribution over the life-course—could be a pre-requisite to accessing superannuation?) Howe’s book does not solve this problem, but it is none the less a very important contribution to the debates on work and family, and on social policy and social welfare. Its whole-of-life-course approach is commendable, and the focus on anticipating, facilitating, and managing change is important. Even if social risks still fall unequally by sex, his policy proposals would significantly ease the current pressures upon women. They are bold and ambitious and substantially push the boundaries of the possible.


Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006, Australian Social Trends Cat. No. 4102.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

Conley, D. 2007, ‘The geography of poverty: Rethinking social policy’, Boston Review, vol. 32, no. 2 [Online], Available: http://bostonreview.net/BR32.2/conley.html [2007, Jul 6].

Craig, L. 2007, Contemporary Motherhood: The Impact of Children on Adult Time, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot.

Gershuny, J. 2000, Changing Times: Work and Leisure in Post-industrial Societies, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Glucksman, M. 1995, ‘Why “work”? gender and the “total social organisation of labour”’, Gender, Work and Organization, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 63–75.

Gornick, J. & Meyers, M. 2004, ‘Welfare regimes in relation to paid work and care’, in Changing Life Patterns in Western Industrial Societies, ed. by J.Z. Giele & E. Holst, Elsevier Science Press, Amsterdam, pp. 45–68.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2007, It’s About Time: Women, Men, Work and Family, Sydney, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission [Online], Available: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/sex_discrimination/its_about_time/docs/its_about_time_2007.pdf [2007, Jul 6].

Leira, A. 2002, Working Parents and the Welfare State: Family Change and Policy Reform in Scandinavia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Schmid, G. 1998, Transitional labour markets: A new European employment strategy, Discussion Paper FS 98–206, Social Science Research Centre, Berlin [Online], Available: http://skylla.wzb.eu/pdf/1998/i98-206.pdf [2007, Jul 6].

Lyn Craig is an Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. Her research interests include the gendered time impacts of children, work-family balance, the division of domestic labour, and comparative family policy. Her book Contemporary Motherhood: The Impact of Children on Adult Time (Ashgate) will be published in August 2007.