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An attack of the 'guilts'

By Gillian Coles - posted Monday, 30 May 2005

Without work, many of us experience a loss of identity and purpose, and with too much work, many of us experience the same. Where does the balance rest?

Today is an era when many of those in work wonder who they are and what they are really here for, with many of them suffering from being time poor. While at the same time many others are coping with insufficient work hours - being anything from half-time to no paid work at all - and this group too wonders, when will it or when can it change for them?

A great example for me was the capacity to find time to write this article: the plan had been for this to be a joint exercise, but that didn’t and couldn’t happen. Reality is that I and many of my friends are now single mothers - we work, we parent, we involve ourselves in our children’s needs and in voluntary commitments for ourselves and others, and some even study (oh for that chance, what a luxury it can seem). Therefore, when an invitation comes to contribute to On Line Opinion with a topic so relevant to our lives, then of course we will contribute. But when and how?


We are part of what could be called “the guilt generation”. In particular those of us who are parents are always feeling guilty.

Have we given enough quality time to our children? We should be at home with them! Have we given appropriate time to our work? Why do we think just because we have children that we may have leave during the holidays? Did we breast feed? If not, then why not? Did we support our partners enough? (Not - did they support us?) Did our time poverty cause our partners to leave? (Or were they going to leave no matter what we did?) Are we paying enough attention to our children’s needs? Are we going to have enough security when we retire?

Is it any wonder that many are choosing to live their lives without having children?

Life can bring a constant “should-ing” of ourselves unless we are careful: “Should I be doing this or … or … or …?” These are just a few of the “guilts” that many of our generation carry every day.

In social situations when people ask, “What do you do?” it often becomes a conversation stopper, especially for those who are not in paid work and those who are parenting full-time. People judge and the conversation dries up. So whether the person is really committed to what they are doing, enjoying it and very busy or whether they are between jobs, rely on contract or casual work or have been downsized, it doesn’t matter. They are “pigeonholed” and often feel judged as irrelevant in groups discussing the issues of the day.

Is this only an issue for the baby boomer generation or is it more general? Those in middle age tend to introduce selves by saying, “I am a lawyer …” However, the younger generation will state, “I work in HR …”


In our world today what we do (as a paid job) shapes who we are, how others judge us and even how we judge ourselves, rather than who we are and how we behave and contribute.

Having a full-time job rarely means nine to five or anything close any more, but in reality requires many extra hours often for no more income, but to ensure that you keep your job in these less secure times of contract and casual work. In our computer age, with communication via email as well as hard copy, we find we suffer information overload. Dealing with email and assessing its relevance takes time without necessarily expanding productivity or rewards. So while technology has given us a number of benefits, it has also given us a loss of focus, giving little other than more work which erodes family time.

Many in the paid workforce feel they have a raw deal: women are more interested in living that “old pie” - the balanced life - which is not what they actually have. Men too are missing out. As Barbara Pocock has stated in her research, children are looking at what their parents are doing and saying they will do it all differently. They do not want our unbalanced life.

What Australians need is a focus on relieving time poverty. We need to recognise that if everyone worked reasonable hours - without the culture of unpaid working hours and overburdening small businesses with red tape, and really support working parents - there is probably enough paid work in Australia for everyone: to have as much as they need or want, and time as well to enjoy the benefits and good health.

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About the Author

Gillian Lewis Coles is the South Australian State President of BPW Australia and a Senior Policy Adviser in the South Australian Department of Health

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Gillian Coles

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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