Work and family life: what we’ve forgotten

Suzanne Franzway, University of South Australia

Charles Birch and David Paul Life and Work: Challenging Economic Man, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2003 (216 pp). ISBN 0-86840-670-8 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Barbara Pocock The Work/Life Collision: What Work Is Doing To Australians and What To Do About It, Annandale, Federation Press, 2003 (304 pp). ISBN 1-86287-475-1 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

Helen Trinca and Catherine Fox 2004, Better Than Sex: How a Whole Generation Got Hooked on Work, Australia, Random House (226 pp). ISBN 1-74051-196-4 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Ms Wood said many women had to make the ‘heartbreaking choice’ either to leave their careers never to return, taking their skills, education and experience with them for a family, or to have a life without a family, which most believed was a right and part of life. (Gough 1994)

Sometime in the recent past things were much better. This must be the case because things are much worse now. Workloads are increasing; there’s more stress, more fatigue, less family support, fewer community networks. But what do these comparisons mean? Worse than what? Less than when? Many contemporary social and economic commentators seem to assume that sometime before the 1980s and the emergence of economic rationalism, neo-liberalism and finance-driven capitalism, was a golden age during which most people had permanent full time jobs, manageable workloads, viable communities and family life.

Well, not exactly all of us. In that golden time (30, 40, 50 years ago?), most women did not have full time paid jobs; women, especially married women, had only just begun to move into the labour market. What began to change for women as they moved into the labour market in greater numbers were their hopes and possibilities. They hoped that their lot would be a great improvement on the lot of their mothers, who had been limited to ‘women’s work’. They looked forward to the possibilities offered by the expanding education system, and the opening up of a wider range of jobs than the feminised occupations of secretaries, hairdressers, nurses, and teachers. The conditions necessary for women’s labour force participation also seemed to be improving or could be created. Equal opportunity could be legislated, self-esteem programs established and child care policies put in place.

One such condition that tends to be overshadowed by the stress on public changes is change to the control of reproduction. Women’s hopes and possibilities depended in part on gaining the capacity to determine if and when they would have children. With improved birth control in their own hands (by no means universal or risk free), individual women gained a valuable level of independence. Most women in western countries now take this for granted, so much so that we forget our history of anxiety about pregnancy and the risks of labour and the stress, fatigue, and costs of high birth rates. Women are now exhausted by the unrelenting demands of work and family; before the advent of the Pill, they were exhausted by the demands and stresses of frequent pregnancies, childbirth, and child rearing.

The place of work and its meaning in everyday life has changed.

Clearly, the place of work and its meaning in everyday life has changed, more dramatically for women perhaps, but with consequences that are difficult to identify and analyse. The popular account sees women breaking out of the apparently persistent, universal category, ‘women’s work’, but the term itself oversimplifies the work that women do. For example, social class creates differences among women. Before the ‘golden’ age, working class women struggled with labour intensive work in households, factories or farms, while middle class women coped with ‘the servant problem’ and the excruciating boredom intrinsic to their roles as ladies. As these conditions changed, women as wives and mothers, and the cleaners and nannies who replaced the servants, worked in households until recently. Now much of that work is outsourced to outworkers, service workers, or workers in non-Western countries and free trade zones. It is still performed mainly by women; it is ‘women’s work’ under different conditions. In Western households, consumption has replaced productive work. But the capacity to consume, to buy the things now made outside the home, depends on the capacity to gain income.

The consequences of these constant changes for work, family and everyday life in Australia in the early 21st century are addressed by the three books discussed here. Their publication and their popular reception also indicate something about what is particular to our time, what has not changed, and what our contemporary illusions are about the meanings of these changes.

Helen Trinca and Catherine Fox (2004) do not claim that their book, Better Than Sex is anything more than an extended attempt to nail the spirit of our times. They find this spirit in the experiences of workers in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ of law, advertising, finance, communications technologies, management, and ‘creative industries’. They focus on how knowledge workers (including review writers) feel about their work, how they have become hooked on work—if it happens to be interesting, thrilling, demanding, and competitive. With work like this, they create, mould, and market their individual identities while grappling with the impossible conundrums of how to have it all. But in the process they are losing a key dimension of identity—human relationships or, as Trinca and Fox put it, ‘Our lust for the job erodes our lust for each other’ (p.163). The illusion is that relationships at work—relationships between workers and their bosses or the ‘free market’—have changed, allowing people to look for pleasure, autonomy, perhaps even the meaning of life in their jobs. As Trinca and Fox describe it, increasing workloads and performance surveillance invade workers’ whole lives. The buzz from working with laptops and mobile phones in coffee shops only serves to disguise the paradox that the freedom to work anywhere, anytime now means working everywhere, all the time.

Freedom to work anywhere, anytime now means working everywhere, all the time.

Workers who seem to be free of gender difference and division at work are also particular to our time, but beneath the surface, women’s work is still different from men’s work. The new twist in the operations of the ‘double shift’ is that mothers in paid work should make their own arrangements, while fathers in paid work should aim for work/life balance.

Taking up this theme of work and life, Charles Birch and David Paul (2003) are equally interested in change, work, and what it all means. They take a more comprehensive, research-based view of workers and their conditions, and argue that positive change for workers and society is still possible. Birch and Paul identify a similar version of the Trinca and Fox work/freedom paradox in what they call the ‘Options Generation’. Highly committed individualists despite their conformity in dress, this generation appears to face a wide array of options, of which work is merely one. (The authors do recognise that the reality of unemployment is stark for the Options Generation (p. 75), but it is not clear, then, just where the options are in unemployment.)

Birch and Paul aim to show that work is becoming associated with ‘risk, mean spiritedness, uncertainty and anxiety’ for this new generation, implying that previous generations did not experience work in these terms. Yet this does not represent a significant change. There may be new forms of harshness in work, but work has always had these characteristics for most people. As an acerbic Susan George notes: ‘The purpose of a capitalist economy is to make profits and increase shareholder value, full stop. If they happen to satisfy human needs, including the need for work, that is merely a by-product’ (2004, p. 70).

Birch and Paul seek to overturn these characteristics of work by showing that capitalism can benefit workers and capitalists. If work is designed to create happiness, then happy workers produce increased profits. They propose that if corporate managers led with emotional intelligence, then workers would respond generously and a rewarding quality of life could be achieved for all. They acknowledge that such sentiments have a long tradition, but like their forebear, Robert Owen, who tried to create socialist enterprises 150 years ago, their argument relies on individual leaders and businesses to replace profit with communitarian goals.

The liberal illusion is that reason and good will are all that is required for a better future.

Their ‘core principles’ for increasing quality of life in the workplace follow the kind of liberal humanist agenda that has become central to our fantasies of a better future. The liberal illusion is that reason and good will are all that is required to get there. However, despite its naivety, viable alternatives to the liberal humanist agenda are hard to find while possible commitments to notions of struggle, liberation, oppression, revolution are undermined by failure. Workers’ conditions have improved since the time of Robert Owen, and women workers have made particular gains in recent decades. But the how gains are won is as hard to see as the overarching problem of oppressive social and economic power. Popular exhortations for us to value the individual help to obscure both.

One potential alternative arises from the inherent instability of institutions and social arrangements that Barbara Pocock believes may be vulnerable to political action and policy reforms. In The Work/Life Collision, she locates contemporary conditions in the context of a history of the economy, labour relations, and family. Pocock demonstrates the consequences of change on people’s lives by identifying the invisible care economy that holds everything together. She is well aware of how people’s lives change across the life cycle, and through time, but her main focus is families with dependent children. She finds that Australian women are swamped by guilt at not being able to do it all—‘to be there for their kids, and meet their families needs, the expectations of motherhood and their own ambitions or experience’ (p. 90).

Pocock’s naming of women’s maternal guilt—she claims there is an ‘epidemic of guilt’—clearly resonate, if the strong and positive responses to her book in mainstream media, public policy debates and forums and conferences on work and family, women and ‘balance’ are any indication. The problem for Pocock’s women is that they appear to be unwitting victims of powerful forces of ideologies of motherhood, inhospitable work conditions, weak communities, and absent fathers—and the remarkable tenacity of male resistance to domestic work. Their hopes are blighted.

Why this should be so is rather puzzling given the changes to women’s lot from earlier times, and the positions of white Australians in comparison with women in developing societies or Indigenous communities. Australian women have the few children they decide to have under good conditions; they will live to see their grandchildren; they engage in many levels of public life, and have considerable mobility and autonomy.

If women had no commitment to family, there would be little cause for guilt about one’s obligations.

Maternal guilt is a contemporary response to the longstanding debate about women’s roles in modern society. For example, in the 1930s when women began to make some inroads into public life, the prevailing question was: Do modern women make good mothers? This question was not about women in paid work, but rather it was about women gaining control of their bodies with improved methods of birth control, and about women gaining some freedom of movement and association away from the constraints of home. Regulating childbirth was wrong, and children would suffer if mothers were not at home. More broadly, it was argued that women’s natural maternal wisdom was being put at risk by modernity, science, and even their physical autonomy. Feminists saw such views as based on ‘a nonsense’ about motherhood in whose name, wrote Winifred Holtby, ‘divorce reform is delayed beyond all reason, women are underpaid, the education of girls is crippled, women are denied the right of entry to posts which they could occupy with profit, or are forced to resign from work which they can do or needs doing’ (1978 [1935] p. 143).

This historical comparison suggests that we might tell the story of women’s experiences of family and work another way: rather than seeing women as victims of oppressive social and economic forces, we could take a more constructive view, which recognises the strength of their commitments. If women had no commitment to family, there would be little cause for guilt about one’s obligations. I have called the family a ‘greedy institution’ because it evokes commitment as much as it demands it and commitment is a positive value that we may actively choose to endorse (Franzway 2001). However, such commitment is not always freely chosen by women. Strong ideologies endorsing women’s caring and maternal roles within the family place it at the centre of women’s lives, whatever actual forms the family may take for individual women. As ever, we need to be equally critical of the oppressiveness of ideologies as we are of oppressive conditions.

Taken together, these three books fill in the details of how we experience contemporary working life in Australia. More importantly, they highlight our current concerns, the central themes of working life that are particular to our time. Underlying these themes, some things have not changed—capitalism continues to structure work and the broader society, gender still generates inequalities, if in different ways, and the means to create positive change remain hard to pin down. What these authors do show is that one of our more serious current illusions is that our situation is historically unique and deteriorating from a better time in the past. Although Birch and Paul and Pocock set out programs for change, one consequence of these illusions is the risk of nostalgic pessimism about possibilities for success.


Franzway, S. 2001, Sexual Politics and Greedy Institutions: Union Women, Commitments and Conflicts in Public and in Private, Pluto Press, Sydney.

George, S. 2004, Another World is Possible If…, Verso, London.

Gough, D. 2004, ‘Want children? Then become a pharmacist’, The Age, 16 October.

Holtby, W. 1978 (1935), Women and a Changing Civilization, Academy Press, Chicago.

Suzanne Franzway is Associate Professor in Sociology and Gender Studies, and is Dean of Research in the Division of Education, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of South Australia. Her research interests include transnational labour movements, sexual politics, workplace cultures and activism.