Who Moved My Weekend?
By Mike SeccombeMay 24, 2012
Weekends, work, it’s all a blur. Are the work patterns of the 21st century punishing or a perk? Well, that depends on how you work it.
This story is coming to you from the black of night.
The youngest kid has been home sick from school for the past four days, the wife is doing long hours at a new job; this time, after bedtime, was the only time to get the story written.
Not that I'm complaining; I'm with the majority. None of my colleagues do the old, standard, nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday work routine either. Nor do most of my fellow Australian workers. They haven't done so for years.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics numbers on working-time arrangements show well over a third of workers have hours which vary weekly, or which require them to be on-call or standby. An additional 16 per cent work shifts. All up, 53 per cent of working Australians do not work standard nine-to-five Monday-to-Friday hours.
But that's not the half of it. These days nearly four in 10 of us usually work extra hours or overtime — about half of it unpaid. Three in 10 people who hold just one job work both weekdays and weekend days. Of the half-million Australians who work multiple jobs, more than half work weekdays and weekends.
They used to call Australia "the land of the long weekend". Now, says Professor Mark Wooden, from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, it's fair to ask, "What is a weekend anymore?"
We'll come back to Wooden, who directs the institute's long-running Household, Incomes and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, and who thinks the changes in Australian work patterns over recent decades — of which the shrinking weekend is only a part — are positive, overall.
But first, let's look at a few more of the realities of how we live now.
The standard working week is supposed to be 38 hours. Yet according to other reliable [non-ABS] surveys, something like 40 per cent of men work more than 45 hours a week and 30 per cent work more than 50 hours. The figures are lower for women — only 15 per cent put in more than 45 hours in the paid workforce each week. But bear in mind they do the lion's share of the unpaid work of child-rearing, caring and household work.
So to those hours we spend in paid work, you can add unpaid work in the home of almost 34 hours on average for women and just over 18 hours for men. This increases when there are children in the home.
Let's not forget commuting time. Plus, often, time caring for the elderly or infirm. Plus, perhaps, some kind of community work. School fund-raising springs to mind.
That's a big week. Every week.
The 2010 Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) survey of 2,800 employed (not self-employed) Australians, found that among men with pre-school age children, 40 per cent worked 45 hours plus. Among managers, 64 per cent worked such long hours.
Surveys of average full-time working hours, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), consistently show Australians are among the greatest toilers in the world. The 2009 survey had us placed sixth among 28 developed countries, working an average of more than 43 hours. About a quarter of employees are casuals, which is roughly three times the percentage of private sector workers who are in unions.
And yet, even as I write, Jac Nasser, chairman of BHP Billiton, is all over the media complaining the Australian workplace is not sufficiently flexible — and is being dutifully echoed by other business leaders and by Opposition leader Tony Abbott, of course. Here's Jac, blaming the Australian industrial relations and tax systems, rather than his own over-estimation of the strength of the mining boom, for BHP's recent sad performance on the share markets. I mean, who are these people to tell us we're lazy!
Sorry, that's the tiredness talking.
But in truth, the statistics do not bear them out. Sure, the mining industry one of the few remaining outposts of union strength, and pay rates are high. True, BHP is having a hard time getting on with its workers at the moment. It's also true, though, that those ABS data show the sector with the highest rates of shift work is — you guessed it — mining. More than half those employed in it work shifts. Not easy shifts, either. The mining companies fly them in, work them and fly them out and bugger the effect on their family lives.
Sorry, that's the tiredness again. We're often tired, those of us who are not squillionaire company executives.
This is a point amply made in a recent book Time Bomb, by Barbara Pocock, Natalie Skinner and Phillippa Williams, which draws on data collected in annual Australian Work and Life Index surveys done by the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia.
Overall, the surveys found, 50 per cent or more of workers, be they full- or part-time, felt "almost always rushed or pressed for time".
And however it is divided up — by age or according to those with or without children — it is harder for women. Among those working more than 45 hours per week, 73 per cent of women are stressed, compared with 51 per cent of men. Among those with children under age four, stress is again high in 73 per cent of women, and 57 per cent of men.
Between them, Time Bomb and the recently released report commissioned by the ACTU, Lives on Hold, paint a dark picture of the work-life balance of Australians. For example, around a quarter of Australian workers get no paid sick leave or annual-leave entitlements. When you add the numbers of people in casual, contract, labour hire or other similar form of "insecure" work, it totals 40 per cent of the workforce.
Yet Nasser, in his much-covered speech, said the workforce needed to be more flexible. He made it clear he would like to see the Government's Fair Work Act — currently under review — watered down.
But who's inflexible? Not only do Australians work long hours, not only do we work casual in large numbers, but almost 60 per cent of us have no say in the hours we work. Like the casualisation of the workforce, this is more likely to affect women, who do most of the caring and general life maintenance in households.
The authors note in Time Bomb: "As any carer knows, unpredictable caring events make being able to come to work late, leave early, or take time off, very important. Unfortunately, a majority of Australian workers lack these basic flexibilities."
And those who do have greater flexibility in their working lives often find it is flexibility to work harder.
Late last year, the Australia Institute did a survey that found: of 845 respondents, 60 per cent reported doing some kind of "work task" outside normal hours. One in four people said working from home, outside normal hours, was expected of them. One in four also said their employer had provided them with technology, such as a mobile phone or laptop, with which to do it.
In 2009, the Institute conducted another survey, which found 45 per cent of all workers, and more than half of full-time employees, worked unpaid overtime. This was most common among white-collar workers and those who worked "standard business days". Which suggests even the most "standard" of us are not really so standard at all.
Flexibility can be a positive thing — people who can work from home a couple of days a week are happier. But it can also mean there are no boundaries to work time. "In this context 'flexibility' means the chance to overload, and work longer and more intensively to get everything done," says Time Bomb.
What's more, add Time Bomb's authors, "Greedy jobs are more likely to trump greedy home life, as children and care are a weak counter to powerful and expansive job cultures and demands."
It's not just adults who complain work pressures are impinging on home life, either. Just this month, the Australian Institute of Family Studies released work showing kids were often concerned by the spillover of parents' work into family time
Among 10- and 11-year-olds, it noted, 35 per cent thought their father worked too much, and 27 per cent thought their mother worked too much.
Skinner identifies a tendency which she calls "work intensification": "We need to recognise there has been, particularly in white-collar jobs, a move towards results-focused or outcomes-focused ways of managing performance. It's not the time you spend sitting a your desk that counts; it's whether you deliver the outcome you're supposed to deliver," she says. In this wired world, we can be free-range slaves to our jobs, working whenever and wherever we are, just to get it done.
Some people, of course, are happy with that, she acknowledges, particularly those of us who find work intellectually stimulating, and feel in control of our working lives. "It's about whether your hours fit with your needs," she says.
"But when we ask people who are working 45 or more hours a week, clearly the majority — 70-plus per cent — want to work at least half a day less."
So why, if so many people feel that way, do they not do something about it?
Well, says Skinner, in some cases people really need to work that hard to make ends meet. But often the conditions influencing our working hours are more complex than that.
"What's missing [in that question] is an acknowledgment that we all work within a particular culture. Workplace cultures tell us what's normal, expected, what we need to do. So if it's the norm to work 50-plus hours, people just take that as what they need to do," says Skinner.
And that, of course, is the nub of the issue. As much as we might blame the bosses for our difficult work-life balance, we are to a large extent our own oppressors.
In fact, "oppressors" might be the wrong word; "co-conspirators" may be a more accurate term for how we feel and behave.
It is worth reminding ourselves of what we've moved away from over the past few decades. Last October, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) celebrated 50 years of publication of its longest running household survey — the Labour Force figures — with the release of a document called Now and Then.
Back then, the workforce was typically male, working nine to five in blue-collar work. The most common occupations in August 1966 were as tradesmen, production-process workers or labourers (44 per cent); and as farmers, fishermen and timber getters (12 per cent).
Says the ABS: "…part-time work was uncommon and childcare was rare, leaving women the option of either starting a family, or working full-time (but not in the public service — it wasn't until 1966 that married women were allowed to work for the Commonwealth Public Service for instance)! In 1961 it was common for women to marry young. The median age for first brides was 21 years, and it was common for women to have their first baby in their early 20s."
Having left the workforce to breed, most women never went back.
Today, almost 80 per cent of us work in white-collar jobs. The most common job descriptions are professionals (22 per cent), clerical and administrative workers (15 per cent), and technicians and trades workers (14 per cent). The male participation rate has fallen a bit — from 82 to 72 per cent — but that of women has almost doubled to 59 per cent.
Which brings us back to Mark Wooden, the chief architect of the HILDA survey, who acknowledges the difficulties of modern work life, but still thinks it represents a big improvement on what used to be.
"It's undeniably true that the nine-to-five Monday-to-Friday, 40-hour week with maybe a few hours of paid overtime, is no longer the archetype," he says.
But, he adds, "I look at the same data [as the critics]. I guess the difference is they are glass-half-empty people and I'm a glass-half-full person. My argument would be, 'In what sense is one standard work regimen likely to suit all workers?' One of the reasons we now have this diversity of work patterns is to cater for the increased diversity of workers."
"The big driver is the change in consumer preferences. And we all live in a 24/7 economy. The people who are driving, in a sense, the need for work to be at weekends and at nights, et cetera, is us."
Because women wanted to be able to have meaningful working lives, we needed supermarkets to be open Sunday afternoons. Because we wanted to be able to eat out, we needed restaurant staff available at nights and weekends. Because we spent more years in education and because women needed more flexibility in work hours, we embraced casual work.
Wooden is particularly wary of the argument that casual work is oppressive. He says many, if not most, of those who are not suited by part-time employment will find full-time work within a year of looking for a full-time position.
Most of the rest, says Wooden, are either "married mums" who are not the primary bread-winners of their households, or young people filling in time until they get something better and who, in the interim, are getting a 25 per cent pay loading to compensate for their lack of annual leave and sick leave.
And among the permanent casuals are plenty of people, such as married mums, who are doing the same stuff year after year, who aren't getting annual leave, aren't getting sick leave. But again, they are getting a 25 per cent pay loading.
"When you ask, 'Who are the people for whom this is a bad thing?', you really start to focus on quite a small group," he says. "It's not the kids, the uni students, who don't want sick leave because they never get sick.
"Casualisation is a funny thing in Australia. Average casual-job tenure is about three years. The average casual works the same hours, week in and week out. The ACTU says, therefore, 'These are not casuals, why don't we make them permanent?'
"And that's a very good argument.
"But casuals are protected by the exact same unfair dismissal laws [as full-time workers]. It seems what employers are buying is latent flexibility, 'If things turn down…', that they very rarely use."
And if business goes really bad full-time employees are at equal risk. The real determinant of job security, he says, is job skills.
Furthermore, recent numbers show the growth in casual employment occurred in the 1980s and 90s, and has since reached a plateau.
"So the union movement now says that there is a crisis of insecure work and we've got to do something about it. What I'm trying to figure out is why they weren't saying this when Mr Hawke and Mr Keating were at the helm and overseeing this huge expansion. If we've had a crisis, we've had it for 15 years and apparently no one noticed," says Wooden.
Similarly, statistics show that working hours are not getting ever longer. In fact they reached a peak in the late 20th century and have declined slightly since then.
Wooden suggests this is because over the past 10 or 15 years Australians experienced growth in real wages and relatively full employment, and therefore "employers weren't able to extract more from the workers."
It's true that "about half of all people working long hours [50-plus] would like to work less," he says. "And it's certainly the case that technology has allowed work to enter our home lives much more than in the past. But it's also true that it's allowed our home lives to intrude more into the working space than in the past."
Although Wooden concedes many of us work more hours than we're paid for, he says, "In my view there's really very little unpaid overtime. What there is, is work for which you are not immediately compensated, but which you are ultimately compensated for in increased promotion prospects, improved likelihood of getting a bonus, [and] improved likelihood of keeping your job when the recession hits."
He points out one spanner in the works: Work is not evenly distributed.
Most of us working more than 50 hours a week would rather work less; those of us working fewer than 20 hours a week would rather work more (45 per cent of men in this category, and 37 per cent of women).
"It is true that the people who are working the standard hours — 35 to 40 — are more likely to be working [to] their preference; it's around two-thirds who are well-matched," he says.
But, in general, the level of dissatisfaction is not great.
"I mean, it's not like having poor health, or having family problems, or not having a job at all. Unfortunately, we cannot all get our preferences completely lined up with our working life," says Wooden.
So, although we may find the weekends are disappearing, or work hours are becoming less consistent, or the distinction between home time and work time is becoming blurred…who would go back to the days when everything shut down at noon on Saturday, when the big meal of the week was the Sunday roast at home, when life was simpler but less stimulating?
"I much prefer living with the sort of diversity we have today, where things are happening all the time," he says.
To which I can only say: "Hear, hear. Snore."