The time of our working lives

There is a lack of recognition in public policy of the extent of change that is taking place in Australians’ working lives, and the need to design creative policy responses. Time is central to life and work, and Australia, now facing an ageing population, and with fewer young people entering the workforce, needs to take the organisation of time over the life course seriously as a policy issue, and to examine the range of alternatives that have been trialled overseas.

Australia could do much better in helping people to manage time across the life course. If people had more flexibility over the life course about when they took time for study, or to care for children or older relatives, it could open up more opportunities for others to work, as well as giving individuals and families a more rational work–life balance.

People adopt a range of strategies to redistribute their work and non-work time so that it fits in better with their own and their family’s preferences and needs.

Strategies for organising working time include: part-time work; final or gradual early retirement (‘progressive early retirement’); extended leave or career breaks; parental leave and sabbaticals; educational leave/lifelong learning, perhaps involving an annual lifetime working hours entitlement to education to be taken up in a flexible manner; and temporary absences from work on sickness leave/maternity leave/holiday leave. Some of these options are not available to all employees– education leave, for example – and some focus on handling specific life course situations, rather than events that continue over the entire life course. And some are seen as more legitimate than others. Educational leave, for instance, is likely to have legitimacy for academics, because updating knowledge is necessary for successfully pursuing that occupation. On the other hand, extended absences from paid work to care for relatives do not have a similar validity.

In Australia, while there has been an increasing body of research on the way people use time, there has been little debate about the way people use or might use time across the life course. The European Foundation has been doing extensive work on the way time might be organised over the life course, and in the following section I discuss this work to illustrate the range of policy options that might be considered to enable people to make better use of time.

As the Foundation states: ‘working-time options are a strategic prerequisite for combining working time with personal time (for social, educational or leisure time activities) not only at specific points in time, but over the entire working life course’ (2003: 115). The options noted in the 2004 European Foundation study include:

  • right to adjust working hours: the opportunity to reduce working hours from full-time to part-time so that work can be combined with education, family care or other involvements is not a legal right in all countries; to be a worthwhile life course proposal, it needs to be accompanied by a right to return to full-time work when circumstances change;
  • maternity and paternity leave: women require maternity leave provisions (which are currently of various durations in various countries and mostly paid) in order to return to their jobs after childbirth; this concept has been extended to fathers, although the permitted leave period is shorter;
  • parental leave is designed to help individuals combine their role as a worker with being a parent, thereby facilitating labour market involvement across the life course; this type of leave is often short and only partially paid;
  • care leave: in order to handle unexpected and/or urgent family situations, care leave is often provided, but it tends to be short and not always paid;
  • sabbaticals and career breaks: several countries recognise that after several years of active work, a break may be needed, though the break is often not fully paid and sometimes is conditional on a replacement employee being taken from the unemployed;
  • educational leave: during the middle phases of a working career, but not at the beginning and end phases, educational leave is sometimes provided, often for very short periods and rarely on full remuneration;
  • working time accounts: working time accounts enable individuals to save up time or salary at one phase in the life course to support any kind of leave at a later stage; they are becoming more widespread in Europe. These arrangements involve time shifting, with workers financing absences from work by banking time (and/or money) to facilitate time off work at a later stage; and
  • flexible retirement: arrangements to permit progressive reduction in working hours and vary the age of retirement have been common in Europe (but early retirement is becoming less acceptable with later retirement preferred).

Workers displayed a preference for adjustments to established working hours (such as flexible working time regimes and jobs requiring part-time working hours) and for arrangements for paid leave from work to handle non-work issues. Early exits from the workforce, while potentially accommodating life course stresses, may ultimately intensify them by curtailing the income-earning time. Long-term working time accounts allow for blocks of paid leave to be accrued; they are an important mechanism for giving workers more control over the time devoted to work over the life course. In some situations, leave models stipulate that the person taking leave be replaced by an unemployed person.

People taking up leave options are usually at their prime age (25–45), usually employed full-time and usually well integrated into the labour market, and require a career break due to some kind of ‘over-employment’. Younger people receive other kinds of labour market assistance, while those over 45 are offered various schemes for early or gradual retirement. These sorts of leave arrangements are part of active labour market policy.

The European leave schemes share the following general features. They:

  • are often administered by the public employment service;
  • are supposed to be cost-neutral for government budgets, as their costs are offset by reduced expenditure on unemployment benefits;
  • often provide support to the leave-taker in the form of unemployment benefits, but people on educational leave are more likely to maintain their salary than those on other kinds of leave; and
  • are more often used by women than men since men would suffer larger income losses than women if they went on leave and women’s work roles tend to be more compatible with taking leave.

Before considering what might be possible in the Australian context, it is important to recognise the very strong commitments made both by the European Community and individual governments to address issues of work–life balance. The European Community sees these issues as being founded on principles of human rights, often made concrete through directives to national governments to draw up appropriate legislation and through tripartite negotiations between governments, employers and trade unions. There is general recognition in Europe that the trend towards fragmentation and diversity in industry and employment needs to be balanced by a regulatory approach that emphasises the rights and entitlements of employees. There is a willingness to embrace diversity and flexibility, but there is also a recognition that work contracts still need to offer the security of defined rights – thus the popularity of the word ‘flexicurity’. The further we move towards devolving responsibility to individual employers, the more important it is to have clearly established norms/rights backed by legislation.

In Australia, governments have generally not taken advantage of the time use policy options developed in Europe. Despite the fact that many of the changes noted above have been in train for at least three decades, social policy responses in Australia have been spare.

The policy examples that I have outlined reflect a European debate concerning the rights of people at work and their responsibilities at home. This debate recognises that individuals today have more need to maintain their skills and commitment to jobs and need to share more equally in duties at home. The European Community has been outlining principles in these areas and requiring member states to express these principles in domestic legislation. The most important thing is that it not be left to individual employers to adjust people’s hours and conditions of work. Society has an interest that needs to be reflected through institutions concerned with fairness and justice. Thus policy responses in Europe are often framed in language that emphasises rights and responsibilities – in the Netherlands, for instance, there is a right to part-time work. An emphasis on the right or entitlement is important because of the fluid nature of the modern labour market. The demand for flexibility in working conditions needs to be balanced by some security based on an entitlement. The term ‘flexicurity’ reflects this search for balance. If there is no entitlement, for example, to vary hours because of family responsibility, each crisis at home becomes a crisis at work.

These matters cannot to be settled within a narrow industrial relations framework. In Australia, discussion on maternity and parental leave policies has been conducted within the broader context of human rights. HREOC, in two of its reports – Valuing Parenthood: Options for Paid Maternity Leave (2002a) and A Time to Value: Proposal for a National Paid Maternity Leave Scheme (2002b) – sees paid maternity leave as an employment equity issue and an issue of health and well-being of children and their mothers. The reports are especially critical of what they describe as the limited and haphazard nature of paid leave arrangements in Australia; we do not have a national system. Evidence assembled by HREOC demonstrates that only a minority of women are entitled to paid maternity leave, and those eligible tend to be concentrated in the government sector and higher status occupations, such as managerial, professional or administrator positions. HREOC (2002a) recommended that the federal government introduce a national mandated system of 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave for most women who have been in paid work before the birth or adoption of a child. Instead, the federal government introduced in 2004 a maternity payment within the income security system, which meant they avoided addressing the existing inequity between those women in the workforce who were entitled to paid maternity leave and the majority who were not. If women are to have the same opportunities as men in the workforce, paid maternity leave and parental leave need to become universal entitlements.

Universal provision of affordable, quality caring services (especially for younger children, the disabled and older people) also needs to be addressed. Inadequacies in these services, together with a culture which still sees women as much more responsible for caring than men, plays an important role in making it difficult for women in Australia to blend paid work and care responsibilities.

The other group of issues and policy ideas – career breaks, sabbaticals, job rotation, educational leave, and time banking – are useful because they help people focus on ways to plan their working life, and because they recognise how hard it is for people to build sustainable working lives today. In Australia, long service leave was traditionally the principal measure that enabled workers to have a longer break from their regular employment. The more diverse character of modern employment places much greater pressure on the individual to maintain their skills and enthusiasm over their working life. The pace of technological change suggests a need to periodically update old skills and learn new ones. There will be times in one’s life when there will be greater pressures arising from caring or community responsibilities.

Long-term ‘working time accounts’ or ‘leave banks’ let individuals save up time during their working life. The entitlement might be sourced from various forms of recognised leave, for later use in periods of paid absence from employment. Alternatively, or in addition, workers might earn credits as a result of working overtime or at times that are unpopular with many employees. There may be periods in a worker’s life where it suits them – and their employer – to be intensively engaged in the workforce. A working time account or a leave bank allows employers and employees to redistribute time, hopefully in the interests of both parties. The leave bank could be derived from existing leave schemes, but new leave entitlements might need to be added to that list – extended parental leave, for instance, because basing leave banks on time accrued would unreasonably exclude young families.

Time banking might also be important for older workers wanting a phased retirement. Individuals might be willing to remain in the workforce beyond formal/official retirement age if they were allowed to take longer holidays. Time banking by itself does not produce a better transition from paid work to retirement, but it might be an important contribution to the mix of policies required.

Greater take-up of various leave options might create employment for others. The compression of the working life gained currency at a time of very high unemployment, when the youth labour market had collapsed and structural change, together with the demand for higher productivity, tended to work against the retention of older workers. Working time accounts help to distribute work more rationally across the life course, arguably making room to employ additional workers.

Those working in non-traditional forms of employment of a non-continuing nature often do not attract the leave entitlements that can be used to establish long-term working accounts. For these people, more innovative changes will be needed. People working non full-time hours in non-ongoing jobs face significant difficulties in accessing a broader range of time management options, difficulties that are further compounded if these workers also suffer the disadvantages of lack of training and of career paths, and a general situation of being confined to ‘bad jobs’. For part-time and (especially) temporary workers, the most important step may be to create, legislatively, an entitlement to move from casual to permanent work conditions after a defined period of time. The focus then for casual workers might be more on building an entitlement for improving skills, perhaps through a ‘skills bank’. Employers often pay higher rates for casual workers, to compensate them for lack of sick leave and holiday pay, which might allow for contributions from employers and government to finance additional education or training for those in fixed-term employment. This would recognise that many part-time and most casual workers suffer disadvantage in that they are not included in training schemes.

Time banking is one example of policy that takes account of modern circumstances; it represents one way of rethinking policies on leave and absences from the workforce. Time banking, together with lifelong learning accounts, is the foundation for a substantial and well-integrated reform that would, over time, make a major contribution to reducing Australia’s obvious skill deficit.

Good policy means helping workers gain access to paid work – making use of such things as training, labour market programs, and opportunities for good quality part-time work. Good policy also means trying to weaken the pressures that thrust people towards complete withdrawal from the labour market. The goal of good policy is to humanise work and give workers more flexibility and choice.

This kind of challenge would not appear so difficult to meet if we were clear about our values and had appropriate policies, backed up by legislation, in place. I have shown that such policies do exist, though they are not being tried in Australia.

This is an edited extract from ‘Weighing up Australian Values‘, UNSW Press 2007, $29.95