Modern Australian Work and Family Life

Many Australian institutions have undergone significant changes, work and family, in particular, have been forced to alter dramatically to cope with the demands of modernity. The aim of this essay is twofold; how are the roles of men and women adapting to changes in work and family life in Australia? And are we moving towards more gender equality in the balance between work and family, or something else? The major changes examined here are attitudes to work and family, the creation of new occupational categories and how this facilitated greater female participation in the workforce. Increased female participation and how this has changed the very nature of the family. Labor market reform and changes to legal statutes are also explored to indicate how males and females have adapted to these changes. The conclusion is a brief summary, which reflects that gender roles have changed in work and family life as both sexes adjust to the demands of modernity. Although this change is noticeable and indicates that Australia is edging towards greater gender equality in work and family, this balance is not in proportion in either sphere and appears to result in women taking on more responsibility in both domains, this ‘double shift’ is quickly becoming the norm.

There have been major changes in working life since industrialism penetrated Australia. One of the initial main changes has been a shift in attitudes towards work. In pre industrial societies the attitudes of workers towards their task was significantly different to that of modern day. Early societies displayed attitudes that reflected the Protestant ethic. Workers had a holistic view of their role, they believed that work was necessary to achieve harmony between mind/body and the external world, thus, they needed work to feel complete (Carroll, 1998:13-15). Workers were able to derive immense pleasure and satisfaction from their working life. Industrialism however, changed that work ethic and it was replaced by the modern work ethic where workers cannot always immediately see the fruits of their labor and therefore are alienated from it (Sennett, 1998:99). Work in contemporary times is valued mainly for its economic benefits and the fact that it enables leisure activity and family life. Family life has also experienced a change in attitudes towards assumptions about love and what it means to be part of a family.

The marriage was once seen as necessary for procreation and to regulate sexual behavior, but ideals about modern marriages and intimate relationships have transformed and this is reflected in the make up of those relationships and family composition. Notions of the ‘pure relationship’ and ‘confluent love’ are now the norm. In the pure relationship intimacy is the only premise, as soon as intimacy subsides the relationship is abandoned and the parties move on to form new relationships. Confluent love recognizes that preconceived notion of ‘forever’, ‘happily ever after’ and ‘falling in love’ do not always lead to life long partnerships (Giddens, 1992: 58-63). Increasing divorce rates, around 20% of all sole parent households are the result of marriage failure (Birrell, 2000:41), mean that the traditional nuclear family is eroding as parents adjust to changes in attitudes, legal framework and the growth of individualism. Legal recognition of de facto relationships and partial social (but not political or legal) acceptance of alternative lifestyle choices are all reasons why family life has changed and like work, continually reinvents itself. These changes in attitudes appear to have facilitated some gender equality in the balance between work and family life on an ideological level. Yet, on a practical level gender inequality in work and family life continues to be a prominent feature of Australian society.

This is reflected in the occupational and family structure and composition. Australia recorded a significant shift from traditional industries, such as agriculture. In 1911 farming comprised 13.5% of the Australian workforce, by 1947 this had increased slightly to 13.7% but in 1991 had dropped significantly to just 3.2% (Graetz and McAllister, 1994: 210). An endeavor that took pride of place under the Protestant ethic has now given away to the creation of new occupational categories and new attitudes towards female participation in paid labor. Clerical sales and service positions have undergone significant growth; an estimated 53.1% of these positions are now occupied by women (van Krieken et al, 2000: 41). To a certain extent this indicates that Australian working life is adapting to the demands of the labor market by creating new sectors that facilitate the integration of women into the workplace in order to satisfy supply and demand needs.

Industrial relations reform has also facilitated major change in the working life of average Australians. The overall labor force participation rate in 2000 was up by 3.1% on 1985 figures, the female participation rate had increased to 9.2% over the same period, and the male participation rate had decreased by 3.2% (Pusey, 2003:51). Whilst it is true that women now comprise a large contingent of the Australian work force it would be misleading to suggest that this is in equal proportion to males in either the economic or private sphere. For, Women along with indigenous, ethnic, aging and young Australians consistently occupy lower status and lower paid positions than their male anglo counterparts and as a result are over represented in the working class (Jones, 1993:420-458). This pattern of inequality continues into domesticity.

Attitude changes, legislative changes and increased female participation in the work force have resulted in only a minimal breakdown of household sexual division of labor. Around 20% of men are now responsible for house hold duties but even when a women is in full or part time work she is still responsible for the majority of domestic duties (Lupton, 2000:172-186). Thus, women in Australia are required to do a double shift, one at work and another when they go home. This implies that rather than there being any dramatic increase in gender equality in the balance between work and family, women have to undertake greater responsibilities or sacrifice one of those roles.

More women are working but this often comes at a cost with many having to choose between the possibility of raising a family or working. The demand for economic survival and stability, greater social acceptance of alternative lifestyles, heightened female participation in the workforce, higher life expectancy, personal preference, an increase in abortions and readily available contraception have all contributed to a decline in the birth rate. The Australian population is currently below the level required to sustain population growth (Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 1997:15). The demands placed on women to choose between work or family is threatening the survival of the family, if gender inequalities had subsided then women would be better able to perform both roles effectively and maintain some personal quality of life.

Many feminist perspectives would argue that the only reason women have attained the appearance of gender equality between work and family life is because both had to adapt in order to navigate the changes brought about by the demands of the market and egalitarian ideologies. For example, Marxist feminists would say that women are used as a reserve army, allowed into the workforce and extracted from it when the market dictates (Wearing, 1996:11-14). This would certainly explain why women in Australia are concentrated in the service sectors and lower status, lower waged positions, as these are new industries created to better serve market imperatives. Radical feminists would argue that women are subordinate in the both work and family life because both are structured according to patriarchal ordering, where women remain subservient to males (Wearing, 1996:14-18). This would also explain many aspects of the position of women in contemporary Australia.

In summary, men and women have adapted to the changes in work and family life by transforming to accommodate those changes. They have experienced many changes in attitudes that have enhanced the choices that they make on one hand, but eroded job satisfaction and constrained choices on the other hand. Irrespective of these changes being forced or voluntary, Australians have adapted to the requirements by doing what is necessary to survive in a risk environment. They have transformed both their thought processes and behavior. Work is seen more as an enabling factor rather than as a major indicator of ones personal identity. Gender stereotypes regarding a woman’s (and in some cases the male role) role in society have partially subsided, replaced by notions of egalitarianism and some men are open to the possibility of greater domestic responsibility. However, gender equality appears to be more noticeable in work life (though only marginal) than in family life. Women need to juggle work and family commitments in order to obtain even a fraction of the privilege experienced by men, there is rarely opportunity for balance between work and family making gender equality a distant dream and further changes necessary.

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