Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings continued - the unforeseen effects of Women's Liberation - 3 and final

At the end of my last post in this small series, Saturday Morning Musings continued - the unforeseen effects of Women's Liberation - 2, I suggested that

Issues of love and companionship are just as important to today's young as they were to past generations. The courtship dance continues, but in different and more complicated ways that I must admit that I do not fully understand.

Part of the complexity lies in the fact that I mentioned, that I now live in a women's world and so have limited contact with young men. I do not necessarily know what they think about these issues. Part, too, lies in the complicated patterns of today's tribal young.

Beyond all this lies the fact that relationships today must be individually negotiated. At one level, this has always been the case. However, the need to accommodate dual careers has made the process more complicated.

I first became aware of the sometimes unseen impact of two income families almost thirty years ago.

Australia was going through one of its periodic mining booms leading, as is normally the case, to skills shortages. I was preparing advice for my minister on the problem. In doing so, I was struck by the decline in Australian labour mobility over just two decades. Movement to a new location now involved judgments about two incomes.

By then, the social changes associated with movement of women into the work place and into careers were well underway. However, we were still dealing with first round effects. The key feminist focus remained equality of opportunity for women.

The position today is very different.

The emergence of mass university education in Australia during the 1970s led to a rapid increase in the number of university educated women. This process has continued to the point where women make up more than half the enrolments, sometimes well over half, in many courses.

The average age of marriage rose, while an increasing number of women chose to defer children, thus allowing them to focus on careers. Now many are having their first children.

These changes are reflected in the focus of discussion. Issues such as glass ceilings are still discussed, but now the dominant focus lies in the management of life, relations, children and career.

From 2000, the concept of work-life balance emerged as a major issue. This was due partially to increasing working hours and work pressures. However, it also reflected the increasing pressures upon women. Having won the war, women were now dealing with the consequences.

I watched this change from my perspective as a management consultant. From 2000, many of us were writing and talking about the implications of the rise of work-life balance. By 2004, the first effects were clearly flowing through in the professions.

Around 2000 one of my wife's friends resigned as a senior manager in a top accounting firm because of what she saw as a continuing male dominance. This is the old glass ceiling effect. Eight years later firms like this were worrying about retention of their female workforce, about the social changes that had taken place among men as well as women that meant that fewer people aspired to partnerships.

Like all social changes, this new one has been moving in fits and starts. You can see this in our own immediate blogging world from the sometime posts of Legal Eagle on the issue.

The current global economic down turn will certainly affect the new trend. Increasing work flexibility and staff retention are not major priorities at a time when firms are cutting staff, when people are worried about just retaining jobs. Despite this, the trend will continue because it is based on, and is a response too, new social structures.

Earlier, I spoke about the impact of two income and, later, two profession families in reducing labour mobility.

Australia's Bureau of Statistics still suggests that the Australian population is a mobile one. The reality is a little different. Yes, the population does move, but it does so in quite circumscribed ways. Real labour mobility has dropped over the last fifty years.

Regional Australia has been badly hurt as a consequence because it has been hit by two interacting trends.

The first is the one I have mentioned, the need for two incomes, two careers. This is easier to achieve in big centres. The second has been the ever increasing length of training that has added up to ten years to some programs in medicine. In combination, they have drained people from some regional areas, prevented people from moving to those areas.

Take, as a simple example, the case of someone who goes to one of the metropolitan cities for their medical training.

Increasingly, they do another degree first. Then they have to do their specialist training. They may be 32 or 33 by the time they finish. By then they have partners and sometimes children. Movement back to regional Australia is now a very major move, one that few make.

In Australia we tend at policy level to deal with symptoms, not underlying causes. In the case of doctors, it took a very long while to recognise that the only solution to the problem was actually to train people outside the metro centres.

A Charles Sturt University Vice Chancellor put this issue simply and bluntly. If someone studies at Charles Sturt and marries someone they meet while studying, they are likely to stay in the country. If they go to Sydney, they are lost for good.

I will finish this series here with a final comment on the young.

As a father, I want my daughters to achieve their potential. As I watch the swirl of people and relationships across their respective sets of friends, I do wonder sometimes just how they will negotiate their way through the minefield around them.

To my mind, we have removed one paradigm, but have yet to properly define its successor. However, that's a matter for another post.

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