Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday Essay - What was it all for? part 2

This post continues my review that I began in Train Reading - Don Aitkin's What was it all for? 1. Just a reminder that the book looks at social change in Australia over the last fifty years in part through the prism set by the Armidale High School Leaving Certificate class of 1953.
It is men, rather than women, who have been the notable casualties in the transformation of work. It is certainly the case that nearly 30 per cent of men aged 25 and more cannot find full time work, while part-time work has to some extent been colonised by women and the young (p121).
While Don's view of the changes that have taken place in Australia is generally positive, he also recognises the negatives. Here his chapter on the world of work provides a quite penetrating picture of the changes that have taken place.

No one would deny, I think, that the position of women has improved enormously. The women in the class of 53 had far fewer opportunities open to them than their equivalents today. I also suspect, although this one is less certain, that few would would want to go back to some of the hard physical labour that still existed in the 1950s before machines reduced the load.

All this said, the working world today is in some ways less pleasant, less secure, harder, than it was when the class of 53 began work.

Working hours have increased. The once stereotypical easy going casual Australian has been replaced by a far more competitive and driven person.

To my mind, and I have monitored this quite closely, actual working hours have not increased as much as people think. What has happened is that somewhat longer working hours have combined with longer travel time to get to work. Then, most recently, the new communications technologies have led to an invasion by work into previous domestic space. We all know the people unable to put their blackberries aside.

Increased working hours have been associated with another trend. Don puts it this way:
for one overwhelming change to the world of work in the second half of the twentieth century was the end of security of tenure (p101).   
I do not think that the importance of this can be overstated. During a period of rapid change, jobs vanished, new one appeared. Again to quote Don:
one sad rule is that the people displaced are hardly ever the people who gain the new jobs (p102).
The casualisation of work, the rise of contractors, the loss of jobs, have all combined to create a pervasive sense of uncertainty. Incomes have increased, driven in part by the rise of two income families, but this has come at a cost.

Another feature of the world of work has been the the parallel rise and fall of the professions.

Professions and sub-professions have proliferated. There are now more professions and professionals than at any previous time in human history. Yet the prestige of the professions has declined in parallel. The social cachet once associated with being a professional has largely gone.

In some ways the saddest group in the class of 53 were the school teachers. Saddest is my word, not theirs. They loved their work, yet most seem to have taken early retirement. The issue was not money, although teachers' salaries have declined in relative terms and are unlikely to recover. Rather, the fun went out of it as they coped with increasing rules and complexities.

The teachers were not alone. The same pattern occurred across other professional groups and for the same reasons. In a sense, the class of 53 were lucky in that they were on old style super schemes, making it easier for them to exit. The loss to the community from early retirement, from people opting out even while working, is one of the unseen costs of social change.

Throughout the book, Don traces the rise of new concepts.

In 1951, economy was something that households and individuals practiced. Fifty years later it was one of three great collectives. Again to quote Don:
'society' describes us as individuals, families and organisations; 'polity' refers to us as citizens, voters and democrats; and 'economy' includes us as workers, spenders and investors (p41).
One of the words that Don looks at is 'choice'. Today, the concept of choice has become a central justification for many measures: people must have choice.

This concept did not exist, or did not exist in the same form, in 1953. Then Governments were simply trying to provide a basic common standard of service. Then, too, the range of options open to people was less. Whether the emphasis on choice has in fact delivered better results is open to question.

Another word Don mentions is 'compliance', indeed a very popular word today. In the professions, for example, he suggests that compliance has in fact replaced the old concept of professional independence.

He also suggests, and I found this interesting, that there has been a direct link between withdrawal of Governments from activities (another feature of the last fifty years) and the rise of compliance. As Governments withdrew, they placed greater emphasis on compliance as a way of still enforcing their position.

The last chapter in the book is entitled what happened to the dream?

While Don is positive about many of the changes that have taken to place, he also points to the way that the old social compact that used to underpin Australian has gone without anything coming in its place. He suggests, and I agree, that we need a national conversation about the ideals that should underpin the way Australia works.                      

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