Why We Will Resolve the Conflict Between Work and Family

Workers are demanding better working conditions, and conditions for family life

If debate on this page over the last few weeks has made anything clear, it is that motherhood has driven a red-hot stake through the heart of the sisterhood – if such a thing ever existed in the first place. Equal pay for equal work, more funding for women’s diseases like breast cancer, tougher sentences for rapists: on these things most women agree. But as Naomi Wolf discovered during her jaunt through Australia’s capital cities last week, mention motherhood and the claws come out.

Yet despite the difficulties women and the women’s movement have talking about motherhood – or more precisely the nature of the conflict mothers experience between work and family and how it should be resolved – it remains an issue of major issue concern for contemporary women. Not just women who already have children, but the 92% of young women who want to have them, as well as a steady partner and career, in the future.

Feminists have been the ones who have identified women’s unhappiness about work/family imbalance and the main ones to suggest solutions to the problem, yet the women’s movement is unlikely to ever muster the political muscle to compel change. This is because the transformations required – no less than the structural reorganisation of paid employment and an increasingly globalised economy – are too major, and the forces arrayed against such change too powerful.

Yet change will come. Indeed, profound changes in the size and makeup of Australia’s population that are already underway make it inevitable.

Australian women now have on average only 1.73 children each, a fertility rate far below the 2.1 children per woman needed for steady population growth. And according to the ABS, the rapid dive of our fertility rate is set to continue. On one estimate, it will fall to 1.3 by 2008. During this time, our already rapidly aging population will continue to age. Indeed, by 2051 the ABS predicts there will be three times as many Australians aged 65 to 84, and half the number of children, than was the case in 1971.

What this means is that as the children of the largest generation we’ve had in quite some time, the Baby-Boomers, make their way from their current starting positions in the labour force to the positions of power their parents and those from Generation X now occupy, there will be increasingly smaller pools of applicants from which to select their replacements. Sure, business will do as it currently does today, compete like mad for skilled migrants to make up the difference, but given the low fertility scenario is happening across the western world, Australian business is unlikely to be successful enough to significantly relieve the skilled labour shortage.

This is when things will get interesting. Because – unlike today – employers will no longer have the luxury to say, favour a childless applicant or a man with a full-time wife at home over a working mother to fill a given vacancy, the current practice of marginalizing workers – mostly mothers – who can’t arrive at 7:00 in the morning and put in face-time until 8:00 at night will end. As is always the case when labour is short, workers will have far more control than they do currently over their conditions of employment.

Some will no doubt make the trade that global capitalism favours: exchanging increased productivity (read: more time every week at work) for higher wages. But I suspect many more will bargain for what is already and will continue to be the scarcest commodity in contemporary life – time. Along with their secure career-track jobs, these workers will demand capped time, fractional time, flexible time, work-at-home time and time to go visit their kids on the days the other parent – demanding the same conditions – is not at home with them at the subsidised work-place based crèche. And it won’t just be working mothers demanding such conditions, it will be dads, too. Because if there is one way in which feminism has changed the world, it is in changing men’s beliefs not only about women’s right to paid employment, but their own responsibility to share in the work of running a household and raising the kids.

Empty nesters wanting time to help care for their grandkids, childless workers wishing to donate quality time to a cherished social cause or hobby, the unemployed. All these groups, as well as parents, will benefit from the long overdue reversal of global capitalism’s relentless push towards the “downsizing” that means little more in their day-to-day lives than more time at the office doing two jobs instead of one. In the new world, it is more likely that two jobs will be shared between two and one half people, or even three.

Rapidly declining fertility rates not only indicate the unhappiness of contemporary women and men with work/family imbalance, it points to the way the problem will be solved.

And I for one, can’t wait.