AUSTRALIA WAS ONCE known as the land of the long weekend. It was a snappy catchphrase that, like all the best clichés, embodied enough truth and ambiguity to endure and inspire a book, a film, countless newspaper headings and a few European websites imagining the land down under as a new utopia.
It was, however, not an affirmation, nor praise for a place where the work and life were balanced and certainly not an aspiration. It was not even an ironic dig, like Donald Horne’s conjuring of a lucky country. It was critical of a people and place where things were taken too easily in their stride, where work was constrained by regulation and limited aspiration. A place where when people knocked off work they went home or to the beach or to football or the pub and got on with their lives. In 1978 when Ronald Conway’s book was written, you couldn’t even go shopping when you finished work, because with the exception of one night of late night shopping a week, the doors closed at five on weekdays and noon on Saturday.
What an odd notion, like the chimera of an old dream that can be dimly recalled, a trick of the imagination, was there really such a place...
Across a couple of generations, and in the living memory of anyone over forty-five, the nature, place, regulation and experience of work has profoundly changed.
Australians are now near the top of the list of working hours for those in developed countries; a substantial and growing proportion of people work part-time – not all by choice; unpaid internships are the normal entry path for young people; women are no longer forced to resign when they marry or become pregnant, but the wage gap remains; manufacturing and agricultural jobs have given way to working in services, and now those jobs that don’t actually demand hands on contact are also moving offshore.
When Conway wrote his book, well over half the workforce was in a union, now it is less than a fifth, increasingly low paid women; the expectation that you could start working with one organisation and after moving through a number of different occupations still be there forty or fifty years later was not without foundation; the demarcation between white and blue collar jobs, between those who earned salaries and those on wages, was clear and embedded.
Now the proletariat is giving way to what has been called the precariat, a new class who lack the stability and certainty of regular work or predictable social welfare. Guy Standing has done a Ronald Conway and used this for the title of his new book, and an accompanying volume, A Precariat Manifesto (Bloomsbury, 2014).
TECHNOLOGY AND GLOBALISATION are contributing factors to the profound changes to the way people are working here and elsewhere. The opportunities in the always-on always-connected world are exciting, the ability to move ideas, goods and people around the globe with unprecedented ease transformative, but there are costs.
We are now living through a period of change as great as any in human history – like the move from agriculture to industry, from manufacturing to services, it will play out in ways we can only guess at.
The great transformation of the Australian economy that has unfolded since the 1980s, as a result of deregulation, the agreements between unions, employers and government, the targeted delivery of social benefits, has produced a rich and stable society.
The next stage of this development will be somewhat less predictable, the economic modelling has not reached a consensus, as the response to the Federal Budget and Commission of Audit showed.
After an unprecedented period of growth, of rising incomes and standards of living, of unemployment at historic lows, it is easy to forget that this is the exception not the norm. Most transitions are lumpy, the future is rarely reached by travelling down a well-lit path. Those over forty-five remember what it was like to live in a country which had periodic spikes of unemployment, even billionaire MP Clive Palmer recalled being unemployed for six months after university. There was a period of high unemployment in the mid to late 1970s, in the early 1980s it reached higher highs, then again in the late 1980s and during the recession we had to have in the early 1990s. There was a sense that unemployment, insecurity, closing and collapsing businesses, were normal and the periods of growth and good times were the exception.
THE NEW NORMAL might be more like the old normal, but with a bigger dollop of inequality. Inequality is the new buzzword, between countries and between people. French economist Thomas Picketty has galvanised international discussion about this, and how the way we work and are paid for that work can foster inequality. His book Capital in the Twenty-first Century has broken all records for a recent publication by Harvard University Press, topping the Amazon bestselling chart for several weeks. The former academic and now Labor MP for Canberra, Andrew Leigh used a different frame but reached similar conclusions about the rising levels of inequality in his book Battlers and Billionaires (Black Inc, 2013), and George Packer’s masterful book The Unwinding (Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2013) documented with heartbreaking detail what it feels like to live without a reliable, reasonably paid job, and the consequences for families and cities.
Australia is not America, where millions struggle to make ends meet with inadequate jobs and social support, or one of those European countries where unemployment rates have reached well into double digits and remained there for years, or one of the many countries where work itself may be life threatening. But even here work is changing. It is less secure and less predictable, forcing us to adapt. One thing remains constant, work is essential to economic wellbeing and meaning, so getting it right is important.
23 May 2014