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Weighing up Australian values

By Brian Howe - posted Thursday, 12 April 2007

The book Weighing Up Australian Values; Balancing Transitions and Risks to Work and Family in Modern Australia is a social policy response to the period of ongoing social and economic change in Australia over the last 30 years driven in part by the revolution in information and communications technology.

The transformation in the structure of the Australian economy from a concentration on domestic markets to a greater emphasis on exporting goods and services has resulted in changes in the workplace that influence the outlook most Australians now have for their working lives.

A more open economy carries with it a greater sense of risk and the demand for increased competitiveness, greater efficiency, higher productivity, more emphasis on brainpower than muscle power and an increased preference for workers able to meet these demands. These changes in the economy alone will place increased pressure on governments to do more to strengthen systems of social protection.


In parallel with these changes there has also occurred a profound shift in the relationships between men and women, driven largely by the much higher participation of women in the paid workforce, reflecting the shift towards an information and service economy eager to employ more women. It also reflects an ongoing demand by women to realise a greater degree of gender equality at home and at work.

Together these changes have made obsolete the dominant post war model of “full employment” based on permanent full time jobs paying a living wage for male breadwinners supporting stable nuclear families. This model assumed that women would mostly only participate in full time paid work prior to partnering and only resume full time paid work when children were no longer dependent.

This standardised pattern of employment has been replaced today by much greater variation in working hours with only half of those employed in full time permanent jobs. The balance of those employed is either on permanent part time or casual contracts or in various forms of fixed term employment. While women are over represented in part time paid work, increasing numbers of women have full time jobs including those with preschool children.

For both men and women there is enormous variation in the conditions of work placing great pressure on parents seeking to balance work and caring responsibilities. The changing character of work places has meant greater demand for the acquisitions of education and skills, delaying workplace entry for the young and resulting in older workers being phased out of the workforce earlier, despite people living longer.

There is also much greater weight being placed on individual productivity with the result that younger people not completing secondary education may be marginalised early, while interruption in paid working life as a result of accident or illness or increased caring responsibilities may have longer term financial and social consequences. These changes introduce a stronger sense of risk and uncertainty into relationships at home and at work.

My concern in writing this book was that Australian governments had not anticipated the social policy implications of such profound changes. The traditional social policy model had assumed a sharp distinction between the roles of men and women, between paid work and the domestic sphere, between work and education.


It was underpinned by assumptions such as the subordination of employees to employers and the dependence of women on male partners. Economic and social change exposed the need to renegotiate an acceptable balance of individual rights and obligations in both places.

The obligation accepted by most employers to offer longer-term security in return for workers accepting the employer’s authority no longer form the basis of work contracts. Today’s emphasis on individual work contracts is based on the interest of employers as opposed to values reflecting a sense of reciprocal social responsibility.

At home the desire on the part of women for a greater degree of gender equity often results in an ongoing conflict as to roles and responsibilities.

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Weighing Up Australian Values; Balancing Transitions and Risks to Work and Family in Modern Australia by Brian Howe, University of NSW Press, 2007.

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About the Author

Brian Howe A.M. is a Professorial Associate at the Centre for Public Policy at Melbourne University. Elected to the federal parliament in 1977 Brian represented the seat of Batman until 1996. Elected to the Ministry in 1983 and appointed to the Minister for Defence Support he subsequently served in social policy related Ministries including Social Security, Health and Housing. He was one of only four ministers who served continuously in the Hawke and Keating Ministries from 1983-1996. He was Deputy Prime Minister from 1991-1995. Since leaving politics in 1996 Brian has researched and taught social policy at Melbourne University. He is currently a member of the Board of the Australian and New Zealand School of Government and Chairman of Victorian based Disability Housing Trust.

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

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