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We whinge about it, but we're hooked on work

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Wednesday, 19 January 2005

The first question many of us will be asked as we return to work this week is, "How was the break?" And, a majority of us will look out the window at the summer that is starting to heat up and reply, "Not long enough".

As we walk from the office at lunchtime thinking of the beach and lamenting our lack of annual leave, we should reflect on the fact that despite the work flexibility supposedly on offer these days, we seem unwilling to put our own time before the company's. Research into working hours continually shows we are pushing ourselves above and beyond the 40-hour week.

Last year's policy research paper from the Department of Families and Community Services, "Men's uptake of family-friendly employment provisions", was a response to what it identified as poor take-up rates by men of family-friendly workplace provisions.


Overall, the report concluded, "Most men agreed that they did not find enough time for their families". A common response from men was, "You try to be there as much as you can, but you can't be". We are a society that is hooked on work. Our job too often defines who we are and gives us a place in the world, but to the sacrifice of what? Men identify that they struggle to find enough time for their families, but what about themselves, their partner and their friends.

The research paper found the barriers to men accessing family-friendly work provisions were strongly linked to the organisation of the workplace. It cited negative attitudes from management and the perceived impact of such provisions on men's careers, as reasons men are unlikely to take up more family-friendly work practices.

So, as much as the idea of carer's leave might appeal, men just keep on working. It is not only theirs, but their children's loss. The cliché is well worn, but on our deathbeds will we really be reflecting on a life well worked? If you list the three most important things in your life, does work even rate a position?

A few years back, a friend's father told me of the promises his company made during the late 1970s of a future with more free time. Technology would free him to have more recreation time. It would make his work quicker and easier and leave him with an extra day or two up his sleeve. He now sees it as a cruel joke. Technology eats away at the time we want to spend with loved ones or time we could spend being part of our community.

A world with more time away from paid work is a world still worth pursing.

Next month Melbourne University's Centre for Public Policy is hosting an international social policy conference focused specifically on transitional labour markets. Transitions and Risks: New Directions in Social Policy will have many speakers exploring how we deal with changes in our working life, shifts from full-time to part-time, employed to unemployed and from employment to retirement.


Let us hope there will also be discussion about a larger transition: a transition away from the traditional paid labour markets and into others areas that matter just as much, if not more. We need further exploration of what is good for people in our society and how we can make our lives vibrant, eclectic and positive.

Paid work will always have a role but it need not be the No. 1 priority. More part-time employment would be a boost to volunteer organisations. It would also be a boost to local communities: time for a walk down the street, for a discussion with your butcher about things that matter besides meat or to read the kids a bedtime story because you are home at 4pm each day.

If we want more time for our family and ourselves we are not acting as if that is what we want. While our society continues to put paid employment first, we will continue to complain that there is not enough time.

Policy and academic conferences are only half the answer. We need to change our attitudes and challenge our organisations' systems if we are to really be a society that enjoys the summer sun with family and friends.

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First published in The Age on January 17, 2005.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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