Bending over backwards

IN MARCH 2012 I found myself sitting on the floor of a living room in a suburb forty minutes’ drive from the centre of Melbourne. I was surrounded by a tight-knit circle of women in their late thirties. Most of the women – who were long standing friends and neighbours – were on maternity leave with their ‘last baby’. A couple of newborns gurgled on the rug next to me. Older children, two, three and four-year-olds, ran around the backyard with a collection of dogs. The women drank tea and ate chocolate biscuits, interrupted in their energetic dialogue from time to time by a request for a drink, a breastfeed, a knocked knee.

I was there in their midst to listen to them talk about their lives as part of Ipsos’s twice yearly Mind & Mood study into Australian sentiment. We conduct our research a little differently than the average market research company running focus groups. We venture into people’s living rooms, kitchens and favourite meeting places to hear friendship groups talk candidly and in an undirected fashion about their lives, relaxed among their peers they eagerly share stories of their daily pleasures and regular anxieties (mostly the latter). On this particular day the six friends assembled spent a lot of time – as women at their life stage often do – discussing life after maternity leave. Should I return to my old job or profession? Will they take me back? Will I need to retrain? What are the viable work options if I don’t return?

As a result of where these women were living, namely a significant distance from areas where jobs were available for their husbands, they felt the daily commute was a constraining influence. ‘He leaves before 6.30 and comes home around 7.’ And so they were all solely responsible for the child care and school shuttle run each day, not to mention supervising homework and making dinner. There was a financial justification for putting their husbands’ work needs first. ‘You put up with the longer hours [from him] because that’s where the money is.’ But undoubtedly there was also a subterranean belief among these women that their husbands’ jobs mattered more in a non-pecuniary sense. ‘Realistically I am not going back to full-time work for a very long time. I want him to have a job he enjoys.’ Whereas they seemed prepared to put up with shitty jobs that paid some money and slotted easily in with a husband’s schedule and the kids’ needs. Interestingly, the pressure not to return to their previous work commitments seemed to be largely an internal rather than an external one; the husbands were in fact keen for them to get back to work so they could be earning a full-time wage. ‘My husband is putting pressure on me to go back to work full-time. He is stressed, he wants money coming in. But I don’t want to compromise being a mum for her.’ ‘I get the guilt trip when the credit card bill comes in.’

Even among full-time working women the belief that a second-rate job is a flexible job prevails. There is some resentment among women about this as well: the sense that their careers after children had somehow become less important than their partners’ careers. ‘[My son] went to hospital a couple of times with asthma, and [my husband] never took a day off. It was all me…because he’s got the ‘real’ career.’ ‘Like, I find with Steve’s career, Steve’s always comes first.’ ‘We slip into our “half-arsed” bloody careers and still do all the paying of the bills, the shopping, the running the kids around, mowing the lawn...’ Having too much to do in the home and a lack of flexibility in the workplace are seen as key obstacles to mothers maintaining fulfilling careers. ‘When you go back to work…I still have to do everything else. I’ve just got to fit in whatever shitty job I choose.’ ‘The biggest problem I have in trying to get back into my chosen career is flexibility. My career is accounts admin and you have to be there 9 to 5 and I can’t do it with kids. What am I supposed to do? The kids have to come first… I don’t know if Australia is behind the rest of the world, but parts of Europe have 10 to 2… Here there’s no flexibility.’

THE GROUP OF women living on the periphery of Melbourne – and their approach to work at their life-stage – was fairly typical. What did stand out was their conscious decisions to move away from reasonably well paid, middle class jobs in the finance sector and elsewhere, because they believed these jobs would be too demanding and not flexible enough to allow for them to fulfil their other responsibilities. ‘I’m over work. I am over the travel, the politics. I have been there fifteen years in May. I wouldn’t go back into a branch because I don’t like the sales and the quotas.’ ‘With work, I don’t want the responsibility anymore. I am sick of it. I want to go to work and then leave.’

The ideal job for these women in their view would be as a ‘check-out chick’ at a local supermarket. ‘Any job I go back into I am going to have to do some retraining. I’ve been out for eight years. It will be minimum wage for me. So maybe a check-out chick? Five per cent discount on groceries?’ For these women, flexibility meant a job at the tail end of the labour market. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg would describe this as leaning out. But of course what’s unclear is how capable these women – perched at the lower ends of the middle class – were of leaning in.

Of course what they might not realise – and it’s something I hear from workers in retail all the time – is that a life behind the till or stacking shelves is anything but carefree and flexible. Rosters change regularly and there is the nightmare of the split shift. I recall conducting an interview with a group of women in their early forties in Adelaide, friends because they all worked at the same retail giant. They had all headed into retail after having children because they thought it would complement caring responsibilities. And yet it was clear after a decade or so of working these jobs how unrewarding they could be, especially if hours were scattered all over the week. ‘I was working a casual job, stupid hours and stuff. Brad and I were fighting all the time because just as he would come home I would have to go out for work. No family time. We worked out we were around $50 off better a week. I almost spent that on petrol. It wasn’t worth it.’ ‘They don’t care about the staff. The wages reflect that. In our industry they actually want turnover of staff so they can keep getting cheap ones. They want the young kids and not the mature permanent staff. By underpaying us they hope to force us out. And it’s working too, people are going.’

After years of flexibility that meant low pay, low status, little opportunity for training and advancement and a roster that ate into family time, these women were looking for the opposite of flexibility: certainty. ‘I am on my sixth year as a contract casual and I am waiting for permanent. I want some stability.’ ‘I’m all about finding a new job. Because we made a loss last year they are cutting down on our hours. But that’s not our fault. We are working just as hard as ever. It’s bad management.’

The group of women considering jobs as ‘check-out chicks’ in the hope of effortlessly combining paid work and family would benefit from reading social science researcher Veronica Sheen’s work on how tenuous jobs slowly, but surely, force women out of the middle class. She has conducted extensive interviews with women in their forties and fifties showing the result of losing, or walking away from, long-term permanent jobs. For women, like my Melbourne mums on their ‘last baby’ who had left full-time work to raise small children and were reluctant to head back into ‘full-on’ jobs, this necessarily means dependence on a husband’s income. But as Sheen points out, this strategy is a risky one in many respects. In a number of cases the husband’s income was then eroded by business failure or retrenchment, or by disability. This meant an exit from the middle class for the household. It placed more pressure on the woman’s employment which, part-time and insecure, could not compensate for the loss of the male job. This could then be further exacerbated by divorce or separation.

Even if these tragic events didn’t occur, once children had become more independent, older women who wanted and needed to return to the workforce were struggling to find a pathway back. ‘There are no jobs [in Toowoomba] for women over fifty. The people at the employment agency told me, go home, you’re too old.’ As Veronica Sheen puts it, ‘The doors to a middle-class life had closed behind them.’ The benefit of an older woman’s income to the household to contribute to retirement savings is obvious, especially given that at around fifty, men – who have been working full-time for decades to support the broader family – are starting to show signs of being worn down by work. More about that later.

WHO COULD ARGUE with the notion of flexibility? ‘Flexibility’ is a key word in the vocabulary of work – and increasingly in the vocabulary of everything else, contracts with service providers and even personal relationships. Flexibility is associated with a sense of control and feeling ‘in control’ at work is a major contributor to the broader sense of having control over your personal destiny. Ideally, we want to feel in control of our time at work, the pace of work and our schedule, including in some cases when we start and when we finish work. We see lack of flexibility as a source of stress.

As Professor David Peetz, whose essay The choices we make also features in this collection, has rightly noted: ‘We love the sound [of flexibility]. It’s undeniably good, seen beside its evil twin ‘rigidity’. If only we knew what it meant. Or at least, knew what others using it mean.’ Indeed in the eight years I have been conducting the kinds of groups described above, I have seen both the light and the dark of our increasingly flexible labour market. I know that in many ways the capacity of any individual worker to make the most out the ‘flexibility’ now on offer is contingent on what they do for a job, what sector they work in, their degree of bargaining power as an employee and increasingly the attitude of their employer and immediate supervisor to flexible work.

Reviewing the last eight years of Australians’ conversations about work contained in the Mind & Mood archive of reports, there are examples of flexibility working as it should. For those fortunate workers, flexibility enhances their sense of feeling in control, both at work and outside. ‘The best thing about my job is that I’m basically my own boss: I can do what I like when I like.’ ‘The money’s good and the flexibility’s good: if the surf’s good, I go surfing [even though I] still work forty hours per week.’ ‘These days you can work more flexibly and potentially from home. Last Monday, being the first day of the school holidays, I was at home and when people ring and hear the kids in the background they’re attuned to it these days.’ It’s clear some workers are prepared to compromise on many aspects of work – pay, hours and stress – if real flexibility is available. ‘My pay is reasonable, but not brilliant, but the conditions are great. If you want an hour or two off, there’s no problem off you go.’ ‘I have flexibility and the job does let me travel. I can have days off in lieu and keep my holidays intact so I can go overseas. It makes up for a lot of the stress.’ ‘If I didn’t have an RDO once a fortnight, I don’t know what I’d do. That’s everything for me. It’s worth everything to have that day off.’

Yet even those who value and have a certain flexibility and sense of control of their working lives recognise there is a price to pay for this. This is particularly the case for shift workers. ‘I do shift work and I do enjoy it, I can go to the beach or chill out on my days off, but the downside is my partner is on rosters too and sometimes we can go for days without seeing each other.’

There is a significant body of public health research that shows that long periods of shift work is associated with detrimental health outcomes for workers, including heart disease and sleep disorders. Not to mention the pressure it puts on relationships.

There is recognition too by workers that increased flexibility can equal a looser association with the workplace and with it a sense of diminished responsibility of employers to employees, in terms of issues such as career advancement and further training. Some older workers mourn the loss of the collegiality of the workplace where permanent employees were in the majority. ‘In the old days, people used to pat you on the back at the end of the day and say, “let’s go for a drink”.’ A workplace in which a larger and larger proportion of employees are casual, contract, working remotely on their laptops or turned over frequently for new staff doesn’t sound like a particularly friendly or supportive one.

Technology has profoundly altered the world of work and the ability of some of us in the workforce to work flexibly. Workers of all stripes themselves recognise that the smartphone can be both a useful tool and an irritant. While mobile phones and ‘access anywhere’ technology theoretically allows increased flexibility in patterns of work and leisure, it can also blur the distinction between the two, making it difficult to ‘switch off’. The idea that ‘work can follow you everywhere’ is simultaneously appealing and appalling to the Australians I encounter in discussion groups. ‘People are at work longer even if they are not in the office. You’ve got connectivity at home, so you go and check the email. It’s on your mind; it’s relentless.’ ‘Having a small business is more of a lifestyle thing, but it’s something I can’t get away from, even on holidays. It’s so easy to be contacted.’ Participants in our groups discuss expectations of management to respond to messages via technology in the evenings, early mornings, weekends, official leave and even Christmas. ‘Now with the iPhone there are expectations to be available 24/7 even over the Christmas break.’ ‘My employer expects me to check emails over the holidays. I was driving to Mildura and she was ringing me about some furniture order. Just because she doesn’t stop she expects you to keep going. I was on my holiday!’ ‘I teach high school sport. I was at a funeral yesterday and missed work. I had two text messages and three phone calls from parents because I wasn’t there… My wife is getting emails at 10.30 at night from parents.’

AT THE BEGINNING of this report I canvassed the issues I’ve observed in our research associated with women, work and flexibility. Interestingly the notion of ‘flexibility at work’ has traditionally been linked almost exclusively with women’s desires and need to take time off to look after small children. But as our society continues to age – and as Australians of all ages take on more responsibility for caring for family members up and down the generational tree – flexibility at work should broaden to include and acknowledge this shift. And yet the view among many Australians, men and women, is that age discrimination exists in the labour market. This is all the more stressful given the current and continuing emphasis on working longer and the raising of the retirement age. As the implications of the ageing society start to dawn on all of us, true ‘flexibility’ at work is something everyone (not just pregnant workers and mothers of preschool kids) will want and need.

The most interesting conversations about flexibility at work I’ve observed have been among men in their fifties and early sixties. A few months after my discussion group with those outer Melbourne mums, I found myself in a very different part of Melbourne, leafier and more affluent, among a group of golfing buddies in their late fifties. Friendly, talkative and candid, these men have seen each other through divorces, problems with kids, career crises and cholesterol problems. The discussion started with a rather detailed exchange about prostate checks that I won’t forget anytime soon. But it soon moved on to a discussion about health, wellbeing and work. These men had been working full-time, often long hours, for many decades and were frankly over it. ‘People say going out to work and succeeding in life is what it’s all about. I don’t think we talk about the toll that takes on people. Men get worn out. They are in a cycle. They spend and have to work.’ There was no end in sight for most of them, given some had had to ‘start over’ after marital breakdowns. A few still had kids at school and fees to pay at the same time as they were trying to build up retirement savings that had been diminished by the global financial crisis. The strong consensus was they wanted to continue to work until seventy, but part-time. ‘I’d like to work less hours a week and work forever.’ ‘I wouldn’t like to retire now, but what I would like to do is work three or four days a week, wind down until I retire.’

At the forefront of these men’s minds was the retirement experience of their fathers. They wanted something different, a gradual shift to full retirement over a few decades, which would mix part-time work with time spent on grandkids, travel and particularly health and wellbeing goals. ‘Retirement has been a bit on my mind lately. I saw with my brothers as soon as they got out of stressful jobs, their health was so much better. They play golf. Their health is right. My dad flogged himself to the grave. I think about it every day.’ ‘Men who flog themselves at work. They get tired and they don’t eat properly. They drink too much. And then they die. It’s the stress of work.’

What’s stopping these men and others like them from asking for part-time work? It’s not solely the financial imperative, the concern about retirement savings. It’s the fear – a real one – that if you ask for part-time work, it’s a signal that you are a less committed worker, and that you may in fact be expendable. ‘I was retrenched because of the GFC so I have struggled with the retirement thing. I reckon I put out around fifty CVs and I think they read my age into my experience and thought, no way. I have had to come to terms with not working. It has been a forced retirement. I woke up one day and realised I must be retired.’ ‘The people who are going to manage us, they are much younger. They don’t want to employ their dad. They feel threatened.’ ‘I am over-qualified but I also have no debt, no mortgage. I am happy to earn a modest wage and do a decent job.’ ‘But it is also a question of cultural fit. If the workplace is a young workplace, you are a difficult fit, difficult to employ.’ ‘When I was in my twenties and thirties I got every job I applied for. In my fifties it all changed.’ 

Age discrimination in the workplace is real, felt by men and women from their early fifties. This is not just reflected in our research. The Australian Human Rights Commission released a report in 2013 entitled Fact or Fiction? Stereotypes of older Australians, that explores the extent and nature of nature of age discrimination in this country, with a particular focus on employment discrimination. The overwhelming majority of community and business respondents in the research the commission conducted felt that age discrimination is most like to occur in the workplace (88 per cent community respondents and 92 per cent business respondents).

The most common type of age-related discrimination experienced by older Australians is being turned down from a position (two-thirds of Australians aged between fifty-four and sixty-five, and half of those over sixty-five). Even more concerning is the report’s finding that one in ten of the business respondents to the survey indicated they have an age above which they will not recruit – and that average age is fifty.

Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan, in response to the proposal to raise the age of retirement, has argued age discrimination must be tackled if the change is to be effective as a budget reduction measure. ‘Before we ask most people to work longer, we need to ensure the barriers and impediments in the entire system surrounding employment are removed. Right now systemic barriers and negative attitudes remain firmly in place.’ How are older Australians meant to find consistent and flexible work, that allows them to continue to contribute to the labour market and earn a wage (as the government wants them to do) but at the same time pay attention to their physical and mental wellbeing in order to age well?

FINALLY, I WANT to make a personal comment about part-time work. Australia has relatively high levels of part-time employment compared to other OECD countries. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of part-time workers are women. In the literature on part-time work and in our research, ‘family responsibilities’ tend to be cited as the primary reason why women do not work full-time. The ‘choice’ is shaped by the belief – real or imagined – that they would struggle to be able to combine being a full-time worker and diligent carer. Despite the fact that Australia has a relatively high incidence of part-time work, in proportion to overall employment for both men and women, part-time work, in my experience, is still viewed as an exception, one that is often disruptive to ‘business as usual’.

I have been employed part-time most of my life, largely by choice. This is so I can have the flexibility to pursue other interests, namely writing and radio, not just because I have caring responsibilities. I must also acknowledge that I am able to work part-time because as a high-wage earner I can make a decent income on a fractional salary. I employ a team of senior women who all work part-time. We are assisted by a full-time junior employee. There are mixed reasons why my teammates work part-time: some of them have family responsibilities, but also it gives them the opportunity to pursue postgraduate study. It should be noted that our work ‘outside’ our permanent part-time jobs benefits the business in many ways. Clients rarely, if ever, notice.

And yet I constantly notice the subtle and not-so-subtle denigration of part-time work in many organisations and when I encounter senior managers in a variety of industry sectors. When comments are made diminishing the usefulness of part-time workers I challenge that person to name a precise incident in which a part-time worker meant the loss of quality in a job or any other tangible business liability. They generally can’t. My personal observation – and a comment made regularly in groups of part-time workers – is that part-timers are often more efficient and focussed when they are at work. There are fewer long lunches and silly email exchanges.

If we continue to view part-time workers as only ‘partially’ committed to the world of work, then it’s evident we have a long way to go on the path toward a meaningful acceptance of flexibility in the workplace.

WORKERS IN OUR research often comment that the flexibility in the modern workforce doesn’t always work both ways, or at least to the same degree. ‘My employer enjoys the benefits of flexibility, but I don’t always.’ I see women at the ‘having babies’ and ‘caring for young children’ stages of life talk themselves into low-status jobs believing these will be the most flexible, thus setting themselves up for potential later financial and career hardship once children have grown up. I see workers love and lament the flexibility offered by technology. While I can work from home when children are sick or check emails while I watch kids at swimming practice, I may also be caught working around the clock, the expectation from employers that I will available after hours. I feel that the notion of flexibility has yet to adjust to the challenges and changes of our ageing society, with men and women over fifty wondering if they are too vulnerable in the labour market to request part-time work to pursue health and wellbeing goals, or to be able to better care for grandchildren and older family members. Flexibility is a lovely thing to have in the workplace, if it’s genuine. Otherwise you are just bending over backwards.

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