Our parents did it without childcare subsidies or paid parental leave so why can’t we? As arguments go it’s about as constructive and tenuous as saying, “I don’t hate men” as an explanation for not being fussed with gender equality. It misses the point, entirely.
In the 50s, 60s and 70s it was very much “the norm” for one parent to work and one parent to stay at home, an arrangement which rendered things like structured childcare and paid parental leave completely inconsequential. To say a lot has changed since then is an understatement. Given the social, financial and economic changes that have occurred over the past 50 years it defies logic to argue that what worked then, should still work now. And it’s perplexing to comprehend anyone – least of all a financially independent woman – arguing that it should. Despite that, in recent weeks, I have seen the argument mounted more than once.
Here are four reasons why the 50s no longer fit.
A man is not a financial plan.
Dad working and mum caring for kids might work out easily from a logistical perspective but the arrangement presents unfavourable financial and social consequences. The emancipation of women was spurred on, in no small part, by the inequality these types of gender roles created and entrenched. A person’s freedom is inextricably linked with their financial independence. Forgoing the ability to earn an income limits an individual’s choices; at its most extreme financial dependence can be used as a form of domestic violence.
Even if abuse isn’t involved accidents, illness, divorce and redundancy are among the more practical reasons that giving up financial independence – whether you’re a man or a woman — is precarious. Poverty in Australia remains gendered and part of the reason is because women haven’t worked at all, or as much, as men.
It is in no one’s best interests for a group of people, let alone a group that comprises half the population, to be financially disenfranchised.
Australian women are educated to work.
Back when standard practice was for women to only work up until they got married, after perhaps spending a year or two in paid employment, the nation wasn’t losing a substantial investment when they exited the workplace. Today, a woman may have completed high school, attended university, spent eight years working and possibly even completed a master’s degree, by the time she exits the workforce to have a baby, for example. If she doesn’t return because she can’t find childcare or because her employer can’t accommodate her new family responsibilities, we lose out. Significantly.
Our tax, at least partly, funds the cost of every Australian’s education. The return on that investment is ideally reaped when those educated widgets participate in the economy; they fulfil different vocational functions, provide necessary goods and services in the community, earn income, pay tax and along the way boost productivity. When an educated person’s career is cut short, we miss out on that return.
Given that Australia is ranked number one in the world for educating women and our female workforce participation rate comes in at just 52, it’s easy to see that our national return on the investment in female education is poor.
It doesn’t make financial sense to spend money educating and training women to work, if we don’t provide adequate infrastructure to support them working. We either continue educating women the way we do and we provide services including paid parental leave and childcare so they can participate in paid work, or, we stop educating them. That’s not a question that rang true in the 50s.
We shouldn’t save our best for best.
We have a ‘budget emergency’, according to the Abbott government. We need to cut back. We need to be smarter about where we spend money and we need to rid ourselves of a culture of entitlement. Ideally we also need to grow the economy, increase the tax base and reduce our dependency on resources. This is the challenge we are all well aware this government, and us as a society, must tackle.
Imagine, then, the relief, the unadulterated pleasure, the Treasurer and the Prime Minister might enjoy should they discover an existing cabinet filled with precious commodities capable of increasing Australia’s GDP by $25 billion? And not commodities that need processing or years to develop but commodities that are willing, able and raring to go right now? It’s got the makings of an economist’s fantasy.
Except it’s not a fantasy, it’s Australia’s reality. Those precious commodities are real and they’re everywhere – educated women. But without the right systems to facilitate their participation in the workplace, these women may as well be locked away in some display cabinet with the fine china and ornate porcelain figurines.
One part of the solution to the economic dilemma we face is staring back at us.
We’re getting old.
If the importance of women being financially independent or the country being as prosperous as possible doesn’t sway you, this might. Our demography has changed significantly and we are headed towards a unique situation.
The number of Australians aged over 65 will double in the years ahead and that has consequences for all of us. It means we’ll have a mass exodus of people from the workforce and a corresponding increase in the population to support. Or, mathematically, we’ll lose a chunk of people paying income tax while inheriting a substantial boost in costs. The crudest solution is to ensure absolutely everybody who is capable of working, is working.
Whilst back in the 50s introducing funding for childcare positions or parental leave would have seemed absurd (though at the same time, enlightened), for the four reasons above it’s not the case now. Funding childcare and paid parental leave is not welfare. It is a necessary and astute economic investment that will generate an increased return from an investment we’ve already made.
The fact that previous generations survived without either isn’t persuasive. It merely reinforces what we all know: the world has changed. It’s not the fifties and it’s time to update the house.